Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates (Harper Collins, 1995)


In the study of deviant behavior, there has been a continual debate over what causes people to be evil. Is it their upbringings by parents who abuse them? Or, are sociopaths just born bad? There are all kinds of arguments on both sides of the debate, and many works of literature probe the question. Was Charles Manson born bad, or did his pathetic childhood, born of a prostitute mother, in a reform school by the age of thirteen, and accustomed to life behind bars, feed the streak of evil that was already in him? What about Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolf Hitler, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Speck? What went wrong in their brains?

Joyce Carol Oates in the novelette, Zombie, presents us with the fascinating diary of a young man named Quentin P.____, who intends to create a zombie. Quentin wants to make a zombie to be his loyal and adoring slave, someone who offers companionship.  But the motive behind his desire to create a zombie slave may be in that Quentin feels more emotions than he wants to, and in creating a zombie, he might succeed in numbing the feelings of his specimen, perhaps as a means of numbing himself.

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Quentin contemplates whom would be the perfect specimen to turn, and he comes to the conclusion that “A safer specimen for a ZOMBIE would be somebody from out of town, A hitch-hiker or a drifter or a junkie (if in good condition not skinny and strung out or sick with AIDS. Or from the black projects downtown. Somebody nobody gives a shit for. Somebody should never have been born.” 

And how does Quentin intend to make a zombie? He studies the effects of lobotomizing a victim and concludes that performing a lobotomy is the way to do it. The desired results of lobotomizing someone are “flattening of affect to reduce emotion, agitation, compulsive mental cognition and physical behavior.” A medical book gives, what seem to Quentin to be, simple instructions on how to perform a lobotomy. It could be very easy. Quentin arrives at the conclusion that “i could perorm a transorbital lobotomy even if it was in secret. All I would need is an ice pick and a specimen.” 

Quentin makes three botched attempts to lobotomize with an ice pick, but with each attempt, Quentin grades himself with an F. Therefore, by analyzing what he did wrong in the first two “surgeries” Quentin surmizes, “I believe I had learned to use the ice pick skillfully, it’s a skill you learn with practice, using a hammer like Dr. Fereeman said instead of, what I’d been doing before, just pounding with the flat of my left hand to drive the ice pick up into the ‘frontal lobe.’” Alas for Quentin, though his third specimen survived a lobotomy and sodomy, he died after fifteen hours.

But wait! What caused Quentin, the son of an esteemed professor of philosophy/physics, to aspire to dark acts, such as molesting a twelve year old boy, which landed him in a detention center and appointments with a therapist, a group therapist as well as a probation officer.  Quentin has a loving grandmother, for whom he does many acts of kindness, a sister, and two parents who seem to be raising him right. In Oates’ novellete, the answer to deviancy appears to be that it is something that is inborn.

While Quentin goes about a usual day, he appears to be doing well. He manages to behave correctly, using eye contact when he deems necessary and mimicking emotions that he does not have. To his family, he appears to be trying to overcome his sexual deviancy. He attends university for a while. He aspires to a profession. Inside of him, however, is anger, disgust for others, and isolation due to his “otherness.” If only he could be successful in creating a zombie, he would have a  loyal companion.

I read Zombie in a two hour session, and while I was devouring it, I could not help but think of other reknowned works about social deviants: The Collector by John Fowles, The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, and Psycho by Robert Bloch were three that I flashed on while reading Zombie. I also related many of the interrogations that John Douglas conducted in The Stranger Across the Table. This is one of the reasons why I enjoyed Zombie as much as I did; I love making connections between other authors and their views of mankind.

Joyce Carol Oates, only deceased within the last year, is one of the few contemporary writers who penned literature, rather than formulized best sellers. Her work is often dark, but her stories are varied and beautifully written. Zombie is a portrait of a monster wearing a human mask, a work that provokes thinking and analyzing by its readers.