The Zombie Apocalypse of Daniel Defoe

Zompocalypse_490Andrew McConnell Stott in Lapham's Quarterly:

You can barely flee down a city block these days without running smack into the middle of the newest zombie apocalypse, a genre usually traced back to Richard Matheson’s 1954 survivor novel, I Am Legend, but which finds a much more venerable precursor in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.

Defoe’s novel, published in 1722, is a mutant factual-fiction that recounts the plague epidemic of 1665, which dispatched almost 100,000 Londoners. Purporting to be the “memorial” of a survivor known only as “H.F.”, it was based on genuine documentary sources, including the diary of Defoe’s uncle.

For something so grounded in fact, A Journal of the Plague Year conforms to the expectations of zombie narratives in almost every way. People look to the skies for the origin of the pestilence, as in George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead; its city of spacious abandonment and grassed-over streets anticipates the empty metropolis of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later; and as the King takes flight and the law implodes, the living are faced with the decision to team-up or go it alone in the style of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, where zombie-battling is merely a skull-cleaving interlude between the real battles for resources.

What A Journal of the Plague Year doesn’t have is zombies—at least not explicitly. Still, the numberless, suppurating victims are apt to behave like the undead at every turn, crowding the novel with “walking putrefied carcasses, whose breath was infectious and sweat poison.” These abject and degenerating bodies, disfigured by the “tokens” of disease that look like “small Knobs…of callous or Horn,” can turn on others, even running through the streets actively seeking to infect people impressed “with a kind of Rage, and a hatred against their own Kind,” as if the sickness itself were filled with an “evil Will” determined “to communicate it self.” Thus babies kill their mothers, and men tackle women in the street hoping to infect them with a deadly kiss. Others manage to dodge the disease, only to be disfigured by the weight of madness or grief.