Zombies in Fantasy

Zombies are the bacon of genre fiction.

Knights vs Zombies. Lazy Zombies…

While I was attending a short panel on Dark Fantasy at Gencon this year, the subject of Zombies came up.  The undead, including zombies, have long been a staple of Fantasy fiction; with the popularity of zombies showing little signs of abating I expect to see them in more works.

In my two Bloodlust books Zombies (called the stitched), are frequent fodder for the arena. They have several advantage in this regard: they are relatively cheap, especially since the rest of the industry is great at providing corpses (I just wrote that O.o); they are versatile, providing different levels of challenge with artifice/magic add-ons and different bits; and they are easy to control through necromantic magic. I also hint that zombies have their own fans, which is a bit of a shout out to the various zombie walks that I’ve seen. I even discuss the idea of Zombie labour, something I may explore further in future bookss.

Honestly I’m not sure why Zombies are so popular. I don’t really consider myself a huge zombie fan (I don’t have a zombie apocalypse plan, for example), and yet I will watch almost any Zombie movie that comes out without hesitation.  Zombies are an extremely versatile story ingredient, a term that I do not use lightly. If you think of a story like a good sandwich (don’t ask me why), the zombie can

  • Bread: The zombie apocalypse makes for a great background for almost any tale. Want to tell an epic war story? Have your kingdom invaded by huge hordes of zombies! Want to tell a claustrophobic tale of the breakdown of social norms in a crisis situation? how about people trapped in an inn surrounded by zombies? You can tell a story about the folly of delving too deep into dark lore with the tale of the necromancer who unleashes the zombie plague or you can write an ultra heroic tale of saving the world from the undead menace.
  • Meat: While zombies are often a key ingredient in world-building, they can also fill a more direct role in the story. The trauma of seeing loved one return to life as a zombie is perhaps the best example of zombies providing a lovely dramatic moment.
  • Garnish: Zombies are great for action scenes. They are messy, they are mindlessly violent, and no one really feels any sympathy for them. Zombie based action allows us to indulge our lower impulses in a guilt free fashion. 
  • Condiment: Zombies can be added to just about any already existing story. I’m not only thinking Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, here. You could use zombies to spice up your wilderness survival tale or add an interesting twist to your detective story.

In Fantasy worlds zombies can provide the same sort of spice that they do to horror and post-apocalyptic settings, however there are several additional factors to consider.

  • Lack of Guns: One of the major advantages that people have over zombies in more modern settings are guns. Few versions of zombies are able to use weapons, let alone guns. Guns gives survivors a definite advantage over the undead, at least until they run out of ammunition. In most fantasy settings guns are out of the question. Without modern weaponry things look even more grim in a standard zombie apocalypse situation.
  • Lack of People: On the other hand in a primarily rural world, a zombie plague can be less frightening. In most zombie fiction those bitten by a zombie become a zombie, this is frightening in an urban sprawl where one comes into contact with thousands of strangers daily and human contact is unavoidable and intrusive. It is an entirely different kind of story in a medieval rural setting where strangers are instantly noteworthy and your nearest neighbors live miles away.
  • Castles: Industrial warfare made castles obsolete, but they would actually be quite effective against most forms of zombies. Stone walls can withstand any attempt at damage and zombies would have difficulty scaling them, especially with a good moat. Castles that are designed to withstand long sieges would thus provide a formidable bulwark against the undead menace. Feudal societies were structured around such buildings, with hundreds in Europe alone. This would perhaps be the great equalizer for for the guns.
  • Formation Based Warfare: Strength based warfare is a staple of pre-modern times. A disciplined army could hold of many times their own number with a strong formation. Perhaps this could be translated into a method of fighting zombies in a fantasy world. Hey I’d watch The 300 with zombies…
  • Zombie monsters: Of course in a fantasy world there are a whole host of extra creatures that could be infected. Your castle wall might work well against human zombies, but what about zombie giants?
  • Magic of Mass Destruction: Spell-casters could be a potent force against a horde of zombies. A fireball could kill some undead, especially if it thrown from the safety of a castle wall where burning zombies can’t reach you. Holy magic would no doubt prove even more effective in some stories with mighty Paladins driving back the dead with strength of faith. Magic weapons enchanted against the dead would also be of tremendous value.
  • Necromancy: Naturally the number one question about a setting with magic and zombies in it, is the role of necromancy. A horde of Zombies is scary enough. A horde of Zombies under the control of an evil necromancer is capable of overcoming obstacles that require some cunning. An army that is absolutely obedient and does not need food is an excellent asset. Of course the necromancer becomes the personality behind the zombies, which humanizes them somewhat. Breaking the necromancer’s control would be an excellent story goal.

Zombies work as well for fantasy as they do in most other genres. The key difference is to understand how the differences in world-building and magic will change the nature of everyone’s favourite menace….

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