Stant Litore’s ‘Zombie Bible’ novels are powerful works of horror and transcendence.
He uses the horror genre to crack open Biblical stories and bring us back to their power and imagination, their understanding of being human, and their awe of the transcendent.
In “Death has come up to our windows” he takes the story of the prophet Jeremiah being thrown in a well by irked royalty. In “Strangers in the Land” we meet Deborah in the book of Judges. “What our eyes have witnessed” is a tale set in the early church around the actions of Polycarp the Martyr.
The underlying mythos is that our fallen natures and fallen, irresponsible actions have produced a vast spiritual hunger that reanimates the dead at certain flashpoints in human history. These flashpoints are triggered by concentrations of wickedness and injustice. In “Death has come up..” Jeremiah discovers a national royalty and priesthood so corrupt it is prepared to sacrifice children to the undead in a bid to appease foreign Gods. In “Strangers..” the inability to welcome the stranger, the lost and vulnerable, in the nomadic communities of the Exodus causes the ‘hunger’ to arise and in “What our eyes…” a brutal social hierarchy leads to slums and ghettos where early Christian communities take root, but also the undead…
So to this latest foray into the world of the Biblical undead, and it’s the big one. Not in length but in ambition. For here we come to the arrival of a battered stranger (Yeshua, that’s right, Jesus) in the town on Kfar Nahun (Capernaum). Its Biblical focus is the stories in Luke 4-5 (with reference to the legend of the harrowing of Hell). Jesus calls the first disciple as they fish, and their nets are miraculously filled. But in Sunday school I bet you missed about the undead being called up with the fish? Yep, thought so.
This is a story about a collective trauma, and entire town suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, and who can blame them? Brutalised by Roman mercenaries, they are then attacked by zombies, who decimate the town. In their grief and fury some of the inhabitants cast their dead and infected into the sea, violating some of their most key Rabbinic traditions on honouring the dead and what is clean/unclean.
This story rings with humanity. Both the horror and zombie elements, and the divine and the miraculous, simply force what it is to be human, to suffer and love as a human person, to heal and die, into dazzling light. So you could supplant the undead with any disease or war where individuals’ and communities suffer the worst. But the metaphor for spiritual hunger that Stant Litore brings with his shuffling horde is not to be underestimated. It’s a very powerful one. At the most extreme end this hunger, borne of poor choices and a dislocation with what is ‘good’ or ‘God,’ produces the living death. But then before this it produces human oppression, violence and injustice, be it domestic, personal, tribal or national. Some of the most powerful and moving scenes in the novel have the undead or Jesus off stage. Particularly chilling is the arrival of Barrabas, a murderous giant of a man on horseback, his mind poisoned by hate and extremism, who considers it a duty to his kind to knife a disabled child in the back. Particularly moving is the scene where the arrival of Yeshua has caused emotional and spiritual dams to break in some of the characters, who find themselves confronted with agonising emotions on their failed responsibilities to the most vulnerable in their community.
This is not to downplay the power of the encounters with the book’s zombies. They are as pitiless and implacable as Romero’s creatures (to whom they most closely resemble, no superfast creatures these), overwhelming by their numbers and the sheer horror of their appearance. If you are outnumbered and surrounded, you’ve had it. And some of the gore is as visceral as anything else I have read in this genre.
The depiction of God and Yeshua is striking. God is here a primal, scary force, a light and heat that can burn minds and souls away, or heal and restore, utterly beyond human, yet its creator and restorer. Yeshua has had mind and soul scorched in the wilderness by this ultimate power and is in the story coming to terms with what he has been shown. He’s understandably disorientated and some readers have taken against this ‘crazy’ depiction, but it comes across to me as a good grasp of what may happen to someone whose mind truly touches God. He is fired by the same social justice whose flouting has caused the plagues of the undead. I loved the scene where he upbraids Shimon for denigrating his disabled brother, “He is your Kin!…”
The story never flags or sags and the writing has, as with the other books, a poetic intensity that is never florid or overwritten. The use of linguistic roots, Hebrew and Aramaic, for place and people names refreshes the stories, serving to distance them from our preconceptions whilst also giving them new life.
The book ends with the Gospel story of the near capsizing boat filled with terrified disciples and their ‘Navi,’ combining this with the legend of the harrowing of Hell. It’s an amazing conclusion that is satisfying and memorable.
The concept of the “Zombie Bible” will be too problematic for some and draw others out of sheer curiosity. I would urge all readers, whether sceptic or believer to get to grips with these genre redefining novels. They do not proselytise or evangelise but they do fire thought and imagination. We can forget, this is exactly what stories have always been for.