This week I added my story about the Savannah zombie to my website (www.rngnovels.co.uk). Savannah of course already has spooky associations from the book and film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”. My tale is a little different. The story is called “My Night with Scarlett”, the reasons for which will be obvious when reading the story. I hope to have it accepted by one of the online fiction sites and may produce a book of such stories. Having said that, there`s not much fiction in it, most of it being quite true. However, writing it, perhaps because Hallowe-en is near, did make me think a little about zombies. There is of course now a large literature of zombie stories with which I am not at all familiar. However, the notion prompts some interesting reflections.
The word `zombie` is almost certainly a development in Haitian Creole of an African word `nzumba`and we assume the phenomenon is largely confined to the Caribbean and neighbouring states as well as the African origins. However, if we think of these beings as `undead` of course this is how we refer to Dracula and friends of his who bite you a lot. I once had a conversation with a highly educated Nigerian man who told me that vampires were common in Africa. This may have been one of his mischievous attempts to see how much nonsense about Africa a young European (as I then was) would believe or he may have been telling me what he believed to be true.
Even in Europe however, the idea of the `undead` did not begin with Dracula. There is a wonderful Icelandic story called Grettir`s Saga, the story of Grettir the Strong. It was probably written in the 12th century and was based on the life of a genuine Icelander. Grettir is known as the strongest man in Iceland. However, he puts his strength to particular use. He is considered the most effective ghost killer in Iceland. It says something about the abundance of ghosts in sparsely populated mediaeval Iceland that anyone could make a living killing them. It would appear you could hardly move in the place for these undead beings wandering around. It also says something about these ghosts that they had to be killed all over again. After all, they are only ghosts because they are dead – but strangely `undead`. I once met a man in Scotland who spent his time getting rid of ghosts. He had trained as a surgeon but was happier spending his nights in dark old houses where things went bump in the night. He did not need to be particularly strong since Scottish ghosts appear to be much more anaemic than their Icelandic counterparts. Apparently wandering around with some burning sagebrush and sprinkling the place with some appropriate water is all it takes.
Grettir`s task was more difficult. We find him summoned by a farmer, Thorhallr, who has been finding dead cows on his pastures. He sends his huge slave, Tron, out one night to investigate and he gets killed too. This was not one of your `walking through walls and tapping tables` type of ghost. This one could `kick ass`. Thorhallr was understandably frightened. He would sit in the long,dark Icelandic night hearing this giant ghost wandering about on his roof. By now he knew he was being visited by the fearsome Glamr, a former shepherd who had been killed by an evil spirit. Grettir assumes at first that all he had heard was cattle walking on the roof. That actually did happen a lot since the thatched roofs of Icelandic houses would begin near ground level and slope gently upward. Cattle could walk on the roof,grazing. However, it was not difficult to tell the difference in footfall between Buttercup the cow looking for grass and the kind of Terminator on steroids who was Glamr.
Grettir tells Thorhallr to go off for a night or two and Grettir remains alone in the house. The night when he awaits Glamr is a magnificent piece of dramatic storytelling. I can`t imagine how Hollywood has missed it. Grettir eventually overcomes the giant but suffers a version of the evil eye from him as he dies all over again. Thereafter Grettir is afraid of the dark and has dreadful luck.
The German linguist Klaeber, in his introduction to his edition of the great Old English poem Beowulf cites this as one of many such stories. He also mentions the Icelandic Ormr who slew the undead giant Brusi and also Bothvar who saves King Hrothgar from a very peculiar beast that did not like staying dead. Beowulf himself has to save the Danish court of Heorot from Grendel who likes to come slurping out of the North Sea at night to devour a few soldiers. The story is slightly altered from the other Scandinavian ones in that once Beowulf has killed Grendel he doesn`t have to kill him all over again. However, he does have the equally irksome task of dealing with Grendel`s mother who was so unforgiving and vengeful that she reminded me of one of the mothers in my kids` playgroup many years ago.
Medical science has of course got to work on this and suggested that Vlad the Impaler, the alleged prototype of Dracula, suffered from a form of anaemia that would cause the gums to recede, making his teeth seem unnaturally large. It would also make him find daylight painful to the eyes and garlic especially unpalatable. In the absence of a local branch of Holland and Barratt where he could buy iron pills a pint of warm human blood would appeal. Such beings would also not have reacted well to having a stake plunged into the heart at midnight, but there we could perhaps have some sympathy for them. I have never much enjoyed that myself.
The Haitian and Caribbean zombies were investigated by a Harvard biologist, Wade Davis, who established that the symptoms of `zombieism` could be produced by an extract of the Puffer fish. This produced a poison of the tetradoxin variety that could cause a catatonic state. I find party political broadcasts do that for me quite effectively. Anyone who follows the programmes of Derren Brown on television will have seen examples of Brown identifying particularly susceptible hypnotic subjects. These subjects then, evidently, become entirely controllable by Brown until he releases them. A little disturbing.
Those who read my zombie story will soon realise I did not have to slay a Terminator in downtown Savannah. However, my visit to America`s most haunted city was memorable. Happy Hallowe`en