I feel like I have consumed enough zombie stories to move up to semi-professional status. From classic movies to comic books, plots scary to dreary to funny, fast zombies to shufflers, I’ll give anything in the zombie genre at least a try.
So when Jen Fulwiler sent out this tweet almost two months ago, I knew what my next helping of the undead was going to be.
A guy named Ryan is handing out copies of his Catholic zombie novel, written as series of letters; sealed in envelope. Get 1.
Ryan Charles Trusell, the author/brains (heh, get it?) behind Ora et Labora et Zombies, the “Catholic zombie novel” Jen tweeted about, is a 33 year old author/printer who first thought of the title sometime in 2010. However, he didn’t act upon this stroke of genius until 2011, when he met a woman in Houston who liked the title, and he began work on the novel as a sort of love-letter-in-disguise for her (his plan worked, by the way, as the two are now happily married). The zombie conceit is secondary, he says, to the deeper questions he’s interested in exploring: those of the nature of man, the soul, and the true, Catholic meaning of the Apocalypse. Trusell declares Ora to be a multi-faceted love story; in his words, a story “about the love of a man for his wife and son, the love of neighbor inherent to the life of a monastic community, and overarching it all, finally, the love of Christ for the Church. The zombie genre is simply a vehicle.”
The story is told through a series of letters–actual letters–that are delivered to your mailbox about once a week (maybe a little sooner, though it doesn’t feel like it). The envelope comes to you thick and fat, with your name and address hand written in neat block lettering. The flip side contains a small stamped “REV 19:9” (no, I’m not going to tell you what it is–you’re going to have to look it up yourself).
Inside is a bright red cover page, with a gorgeous print of a skull and a Bible, and a crossed rake and shovel between them. Fleur-de-lis frame the page, and folded inside are two handwritten letters, each between 4-6 pages long. The package is actually heavy in your hand, which, along with the hike to the mailbox and the waiting between installments, is part of the experience. You have to be present for all of this: the waiting, the anticipation of the mailman, the feel of the envelope opening under your hand, otherwise you’re missing out on a good portion of the $18 per section price tag. When it’s all said and done, you’ll be paying around $200 for this story, so you have to pay attention to the details that surround it. You have to allow yourself to be impatient, to wave the envelope around to your family when it comes, to experience the shoving and the press of bodies around you as people try to steal the letters before you can read them- a physical encounter not unlike ones endured by victims in zombie stories, if you stop and think about it.
The story opens on the first Sunday in Lent, where we learn that the narrator, Dr. Tom Schutten, is writing to his absent wife. He and their toddler son have fled to the local Benedictine abbey due to some mysterious, widespread calamity, and there they wait until she’s able to rejoin them from her trip to Houston or the crisis passes and they can go to her.
Phones, TVs, internet, radio–all means of communication with the outside world have failed, and so the doctor writes these letters, which he knows will only reach his wife once they’re reunited, as a way of both processing the events unfolding and whistling past the graveyard (why/how we’re now in possession of these letters is a question that isn’t addressed, though the answer would be interesting).
So far (I’m only on letter no. 6 of 72), I’m almost as interested in getting a fix on this Dr. Tom as I am about the unfolding of the zombie mythology. At times, the good doctor seems insufferably pompous, using words like “alas” and “intoxicated” with no trace of self-consciousness, or referring to his handgun as a “pistol” when anyone else would just call the darn thing a gun. But at other times, Tom is hilariously approachable, like during a drugstore break in or his admission to the abbey’s seminarian that he’s hanging out in the library to hide from his fellow refugees. Dr. Tom wanders around the abbey like an IKEA hipster, attending meetings with his young son strapped into his chest in a baby sling, and packing a bottle of scotch and an Ogden Nash book in his “Time to Get the Hell Out of Dodge” bags.
As potentially interesting as Dr. Tom is, the zombies are still able to compete, despite being slow to make an appearance. Trusell throws some surprising curve balls in the standard zombie meme, and you’re willing to forgive him his sluggish pacing of undead encounters just to see where he’s going to take the reader in future installments.
The thing about putting zombies in print, rather than in film, lies in the silence. When you’re reading something at home, you’ve either surrounded yourself in silence (lucky), or if you’re like me, you’re so used to the chaos around you that you tune it out to read. On film, however, silence is a big deal. It’s obvious and noticeable, and it’s used to scary effect. The main character (or, if a death is imminent, a minor one) crouches in the dark, trying to control his panting breath, sweat trickling down his face. Everything is dead quiet, and you try to steel yourself for the sudden burst of noise that’s going to accompany a horde of vacant-eyed zombies bursting into the frame and trying to consume the poor person. BOOM! The noise comes, you jump despite yourself, and you resolve to triple check your locks before going to bed.
You can’t do this in a zombie novel, however. So you have to rely on other methods to convey the sense of awful, unbearable tension. Max Brooks does it in World War Z through a rapid change of character and location. Other authors do it through a relentless cataloguing of survival techniques employed by the characters.
Ryan Trusell’s zombieverse establishes it in a way both common and unique. The doctor’s longing for his absent wife coupled with fear for her safety is an experience most of us can relate to. Maybe not in the context of a catastrophic event, but they’re familiar enough emotions that the reader can sympathize with and feel compassion for the character. We can feel the tension grow with each letter, wondering where she is and how far has this zombie invasion spread? All the way from New Orleans to Houston? Beyond?
The other tool Trusell uses to cultivate a feeling of uncertainty and dread is the Lenten setting. For the time being (though I foresee that this will change soon), I suspect the majority of readers are Catholic. We’re familiar with the penitential nature of Lent, with its call to die to oneself in order to be resurrected with Christ. A Catholic worldview understands that it’s no accident these events occur during this season, because Lent is a time of denial and shortage and death. Lent asks us to look at our own mortality in order to humble and purify us. That’s the dread. The uncertainty lies in our response. Are we going to allow grace to fill us and transform us into Easter people, resurrected in glory, or are we going to give into our fallen natures and end up shuffling, senseless piles of animated dust?
As Trusell notes, even he’s surprised that an easy intersection between zombies and Catholicism exists. He says that the “ongoing call for every Catholic to engage in a New Evangelization invites us to think outside the traditional box of what evangelization is and how it is to be accomplished,” and that he hopes people “come for the zombies and stay for the Catholicism”.
I don’t know how the people in Ora et Labora et Zombies are going to respond to the Lenten call or the zombie apocalypse, but I do know that Ryan Trusell’s novel is an original posing of those two questions.
You can find out for yourself here: http://www.laboraeditions.com/p/welcome.html
And visit the Facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ora-et-Labora-et-Zombies/515866355107240?fref=ts