Kim Paffenroth is a professor of religious studies and author of several books on the Bible, theology and, most importantly, zombies.
His previous works have included an award winning study into how Romero uses his zombie movies to criticize American society in Gospel of the Living Dead and zombie fiction in his Dying to Live series.
His most recent work is Valley of the Dead, a (probably) fictional account of what happened to Dante in the 17 years he was missing and his encounter with a zombie outbreak which inspired the horrors written about in his Divine Comedy, specifically Inferno.
Zombie Command catches up with Paffenroth and finds out why a student of theology writes about zombies.
Zombie Command: Can you explain a little about Valley of the Dead and why you chose to put a zombie spin on Dante’s story?
Kim Paffenroth: The premise is that during his wandering across Europe, the medieval Italian poet stumbled on a zombie infestation in a remote valley. The horrors he saw while fighting the undead – people being burned alive, devoured, torn apart, decapitated, crucified, boiled in pitch, etc. – formed the basis of the terrors he’d later put in his poem Inferno, his depiction of the underworld.The “why” is that when I was looking at Romero’s zombie films a few years ago, it struck me how similar his zombies are to the damned in Dante’s hell – mindless slaves to appetite. That’s the real insight both men had into human nature, as well as the idea that worse behavior – especially deception and malice – are not just matters of unrestrained appetite, but of deliberate, rational choice. So the idea that Romero’s zombies are similar to Dante got me to thinking about reversing the image, and making Dante’s Inferno into a Romeroesque zombie ordeal.
ZC: Will readers get more from Valley of the Dead if they are familiar with Inferno or can people (and simpletons like ZC’s own Gary) read it with no fore-knowledge of Dante?
KP: Well, part of the beauty of Dante is how many levels he himself is working on. Look at the upcoming Inferno video game: I’m guessing not a lot of engagement with Dante’s philosophy or theology there, but lifting his horrifying, monstrous images to create eye-catching vistas for violence. And that’s part of his appeal – Inferno is a very visual, sensual experience, as poetry should be in general. If I’ve succeeded even a little, it’s to make something similar – a kind of “standard” zombie story of gut-munching mayhem that fans can interact with on that level, while a Dante scholar could read the same scene and say, “Oh, that was an interesting way to handle Circle Seven.” If anything, I’d like Dante scholars to read the story and come away thinking, “Who is this Romero fellow? I’d like to see one of his films,” and for zombie fans to say, “I don’t remember Dante being so interesting when they made me read him in school. Maybe I’ll go back and take another look.” That would be a really great accomplishment for me as an artist and a fan of both genres.
ZC: Your fiction work and latest books all focus on zombies. How did you get into writing zombies?
KP: In my work as a professor, I kept looking further from the Bible for literary expressions of theological ideas. I first looked at “great” literature (e.g. Shakespeare, Melville, Dostoevsky), but then I started looking at pop culture, and that led to my nonfiction examination of the Romero films, Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth (Baylor, 2006). While I was writing that, I had the hubris to think I might be able to create my own zombie fiction, populated with zombies of my own making, who would do and symbolize what I wanted them to. It’s been a lot of fun and a little success since then.
ZC: Inferno seems to lend itself well to a retelling and a game is currently in production with each game level representing one of the nine circles. How closely do the terrors that Dante witnesses in Valley of the Dead mirror the circles and order that they appear?
KP: Some of Dante’s scenes are so beautifully, touchingly done, that they could be followed quite closely, and everyone I think would know what you’re getting at (whether they knew Dante or not) and they’d be moved by the interaction. The circle of the lustful is like that, with the figure of Francesca; so I took a character like her, filled in her story so readers wouldn’t have to know it already (the way apparently readers or listeners to the original would’ve known her, as well as the story of Guinevere, in order to understand that episode), and I never needed to label her “lustful” – a reader can hear what she’s done, what were the extenuating circumstances, what are her rationalizations for her behavior, and make his or her own judgment. And, indeed, one of the fun things was since I gave Dante a slightly bigger entourage for this journey, I could show more people reacting to the sinner within the story itself: the man of action just wants just to condemn her; Dante and the Virgil character are more analytical, so they explain why they condemn her, but want to give her a chance to repent; and the Beatrice character simply loves her and refuses to judge her. (And I think all those reactions are fair to the analogs in Dante, they’re not just made up.)As for the actual, physical things going on around the people and zombies, that took some imagination, and a lot of the imagery is much more subdued than it was in the original. But I think anyone who knows Inferno will recognize each circle immediately, and anyone who doesn’t won’t notice the intrusions of Dante’s scenery. In other words, I tried to make sure each scene made sense on its own, as well as making an allusion (and often an interpretation) to the original.
ZC: Classic literature and zombies seem to be coming together recently with VotD and the recent release of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. What is it about zombies, or what zombies represent, that allows them to fit into the context of these texts?
KP: I think we’ve gotten used to the idea of staggering around mindlessly and soullessly. It’s easier to imagine than, say, imagining that I’m going to turn into a super-sexy, super-strong, indestructible, eternal being like a vampire. I don’t resemble such a being very much, and neither does anyone I know, so they seem more incredible, more unbelievable, and in their own way, more irrelevant. But a zombie (or, to take it back to Dante’s world, a sinner) is something I’m fairly familiar with being all the time.
ZC: Would you agree that any story could be made better by adding zombies?
KP: Hmmm. I don’t know about “better.” I suppose any great story is always hovering right at the edge of something supernatural intruding into it: whether the author makes that supernatural element explicit with a “monster” of some kind, or whether s/he leaves it just at the edge of the picture, determines a lot of how we experience the tale. So if you went around putting zombies in everywhere, I think you might ruin a balance that the author had constructed very carefully and deliberately. On the other hand, you might create something new that made people think about the issues raised by the work in a new light. To take a different example, I always imagine that if I put it on stage, I’d have them fighting a dragon during the storm scene in the middle of King Lear – but we never quite see it, it could all be part of his imagination. That would be a pretty neat addition, and wouldn’t really change anything, since he’s obviously wrestling with his inner demons anyway, and a fire breathing monster would just make that concrete.
ZC: The cover is illustrated by artist Alex McVey. Was he somebody you were keen to have do the cover from the beginning? What aspect of the book does the cover represent?
KP: Alex expressed interest in the project, and I’m thrilled to have someone of his stature working on it. I think his art captures some of the sense of rebirth and baptism implicit in Dante’s journey, but of course, also the sense of violence and gore, so it’s a nice balance of things in the original. Alex will also be doing other interior illustrations.
ZC: If you were to create a sequel, what allegory for the steps in Purgatorio would you create, that would continue the world you’ve created for Dante’s missing years? Or would that be giving too much away?
KP: Right now I’m leaning more toward trying another zombified version of a different great book. But if I were to work on Purgatorio, the geography would probably be easier to handle: climbing a big mountain seems more plausible than going deeper into an ever-narrowing funnel, where the weather changes radically each step of the way, from searing heat all the way to subzero tundra. Now that you remind me of the mount, I also like how the people at the bottom are just kind of wandering around, and are still menaced by the serpent and evil: that would also be an easier scenario to work into a different version.
ZC: What can we look forward to you working on next?
KP: I’m shopping a contemporary ghost story, so hopefully soon I’ll be known for something other than my zombies. But if zombies are what you’re craving, I’m also working on the next installment of the Dying to Live saga, and I’ve edited another anthology of zombie tales for Permuted Press.
The book is available to buy between now and August 31st from Horror Mall.
For more information about Kim Paffenroth you can visit his blog.
You can also win a signed copy by pre-ordering through Horror World’s competition.