The Unliving
Purchase Book
A Questionable Shape
author: Bennett Sims
publisher: Two Dollar Radio
pub date: 05.21.2013
pp: 242

Patrick Nathan on A Questionable Shape

The Unliving

July 28th, 2013 reset - +

Triptych image: Antonio Adriano Puleo, "Untitled (54c)" 2013

What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.

— Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller” 

WHEN MY BOYFRIEND and I fight, the phrase You sound exactly like your dad right now is off limits. Instead of calling him out, I put up my hands and leave the room — exactly, no one will be surprised to learn, what my own father does. His fear of conflict has never served him well, nor has it served me. We have to be reminded to call one another, to spend time together. I don’t want to be like that. I am like that. My boyfriend, too, doesn’t want to freak out when the car is overdue for an oil change. From his desk across the room, he doesn’t want to wave his hands at me when I start to bite my nails. He does.

 However, like my father, I’m always five minutes early to an appointment. Our noses, said my ex-girlfriend, couldn’t be more perfect. “You have his wit,” his coworker once told me. You can’t pick and choose. This unique anxiety of influence is just one of many anxieties that blossom in late adolescence and early adulthood. What else is there to feel as our parents suddenly begin to decline? We come up with questions they can’t answer; they’re no longer all-knowing. You catch them crying, now and again; they’re no longer all-powerful. By 30, everyone has looked ahead and seen the day he’ll need to help his father negotiate a staircase, or  her mother unlock her front door. Rarely are we released from this duty. Even after the apocalypse, proposes novelist Bennett Sims in his debut, A Questionable Shape, we will care for our parents when they no longer can. When tens of thousands of friends and family are stricken with a plague of undeath, reduced, for lack of a better word, to zombies — even then we’ll have to be patient as they stumble and moan in their new white-blinded frustration.

The world Sims illustrates is uncanny in the Freudian sense of the word. Freud’s term — Das Unheimliche — literally “the opposite of what is familiar,” outlines the necessity for differentiation: “Naturally not everything which is new and unfamiliar is frightening […] Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar to make it uncanny.” He then consults dictionaries both foreign and German, an ambitious etymology including everything from “belonging to the house or the family, or regarded as so belonging” to “concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know about it, withheld from others, cf. Geheim [secret].” For Freud, “the uncanny” snowballs into one of those terms too overripe with meaning for language to satisfy, which is part of its power: the word itself is uncanny. We can’t quite put our finger on it.

We go to Freud because Sims sends us there, quoting from “The Uncanny” in one of two epigraphs. What we find is Freud’s observation that most people “experience the feeling [of Das Unheimliche] in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts.” In A Questionable Shape, the dead have not exactly returned — nobody’s grandmother is climbing out of her grave — but the newly dead have developed a tendency to, in the novel’s preferred terminology, reanimate. Sims’s narrator, Michael Vermaelen — a post-grad philosophy student whose digressions and meditations make up the bulk of this extraordinary novel — doesn’t leave us any ambiguity. The undead really are corpses that have taken up motion and that express themselves in “unearthly” moans. At the time the novel takes place, the epidemic is in its fourth or fifth week in Baton Rouge, one city among the world’s many “plague cities.” The infected are routinely quarantined but not exterminated. Still thought of as family members, neighbors, and fellow human beings, they are held in old schools and outlying industrial centers — some, even, on barges floating on the Mississippi. “It’s considered murder to murder the undead,” Vermaelen explains in a footnote — his preferred method of discourse[1]. “They possess the same citizen status and legal rights as, say, coma patients or the mentally ill.” This is not to say the undead are unlike Romero’s prototype zombie, or the increasingly violent and invincible incarnations of the ’80s and early ’90s[2]; they don’t hesitate, when they spot the living, to give chase and feed. In the post-zombie-apocalypse of A Questionable Shape, there’s always a chance you’ll run into an undead, and the consequences are fatal: even a single drop of infected blood can, within a week “of fever and dread,” kill and reanimate an infected individual. Yet this is all incidental: it’s almost as though the citizens of Baton Rouge accept this natural violence. What’s most unsettling about the undead is their tendency, Vermaelen says, “to return to the familiar.”

An undead, when not distracted by the living, “will return to the neighborhood grocery store and shuffle down its aisles, as if shopping. They will climb into their cars and sit dumbly at the wheel.” Neither FEMA nor the Louisiana Center for Disease Control can explain this. FIGHT THE BITE, the “infection-awareness pamphlet” published and circulated amongst the living, notes the phenomenon but only as a way of preparing oneself for undead loved ones to show up at the door or stand motionless on the front lawn. This is how, should the need arise, “you can somewhat reliably find an undead.” All you have to do is visit his or her haunts: “its house, its office, the bike lanes circling the lake, the bar.” This is how Vermaelen intends to help his best friend, Matt Mazoch, locate his missing father.

The two have set a deadline for themselves — they’ll give up, they’ve promised, by the end of the week, or the start of hurricane season. As the novel goes on, however, it’s easy to see that Matt has no intention of giving up, though his intentions themselves grow as murky as the whitened eyes of the undead he hopes to rescue, whatever rescue, to him, might mean. Vermaelen isn’t sure of Matt’s aim, nor the moral implications of helping him. “For one thing,” he says, “I find it worrisome that he keeps defining undeath in opposition to his father […] He seems determined to disambiguate his father’s reanimated body from his father […] And why would Matt need to believe that, unless he was planning to kill it?” During the first days of the outbreak, he went through a similar ordeal with his girlfriend Rachel, who asked him to take her to the cemetery and listen, with his ear to her father’s grave, for “a faint and muffled moaning, or for clawing sounds at the coffin lid.” (Thankfully, in Sims’s apocalypse, reanimation among the long-dead has not been observed.) In this way, despite Rachel’s protests — “She was making it sound as if I were knowingly abetting Matt’s Ahabism, manning the oars while he sharpened the harpoons” — he tries to convince her of the humanity of Matt’s task, even if it does mean, as he fears, that he might “beat his father’s brains in with a baseball bat.” How do you explain, he wonders, “the sense of filial duty that might be motivating Mazoch to put down, not his father, but the shell of his father, the corpse of a man who had been ready to die and who in all probability did not wish to return from death?” Vermaelen’s arguments for and against patricide, his logical constructions of empathy and their explorations, his recounting of Rachel’s father’s four-year death of lung cancer (his only utterable phrases — “You’re beautiful” and “I love you” — through his tracheotomy tube weren’t much more impressive than the “inchoate moaning” they’re likely to hear from Mr. Mazoch, should they find him) — these pages are among the most gorgeously constructed in the book. If this novel has an identifiable heart, it’s here, a chapter in which Vermaelen offhandedly admits his own removal from the scenario:

I have trouble, truthfully, even imagining myself in their shoes. Because my own parents both died (car crash)[3] and were cremated years before the epidemic, they have always been ineligible for undeath. I scattered their ashes myself. I never had to worry about their reanimation, or ask myself what I would do. 

After this brief and intimate glimpse we return to Matt’s dilemma — “Perhaps that more than anything is the root of Matt’s anger: that he has become his father, or else is doomed to become him” — and to Rachel’s “primordial disgust” at the idea of killing one’s own parent, regardless of his heartbeat. But however brief, the glimpse reveals a less-questionable shape underlying Vermaelen’s own fascination with the undead: the drive behind his accounting, his copious footnotes, his research, and his attempt at something like detachment.

¤

Proust:

Thus I would often lie until morning, dreaming of the old days at Combray, of my melancholy and wakeful evenings there, of other days besides, the memory of which had been more recently restored to me by the taste — by what would have been called at Combray the “perfume” — of a cup of tea.

Of course what we learn from Proust is almost everything; À la recherche may well be the text most resembling a treatise on humanity, an understanding of our life on earth. Most famously, he tells us how memories lie in wait, encrusted on objects or hung in the air of certain places like cold meat. They hide there as long as it takes, waiting for us to walk by an old lake or wrap our fingers around a long-forgotten door handle. According to Proust, these memories are more real than those we’ve cherished all our lives. They’re less remembered, meaning less distorted. Unfortunately, to go in search of memories like these is to go in search of an ambush; by their very nature, they don’t want you to find them — they’d rather find you.

In Sims’s novel, Proust is a footnote. While Vermaelen waits outside Mr. Mazoch’s house — their first stop each day in their regular rotation of his lifetime “haunts” — he imagines Matt inside, “taking long, sommelieran drafts of his father’s shirt collars, which might still smell faintly of his father.” He goes on to describe a similar event with Rachel, long before the outbreak, when a burglar had broken into her car and left behind “the sharp odor of smoke from a cigarette […] the brand that her father had smoked and the brand that had killed him.” Rather than grow furious at having her belongings rifled through, her CDs stolen, or memories of death conjured against her will,

she felt so grateful, she told me, to be reminded like this […] that, almost involuntarily, she composed a mental prayer of thanksgiving to the burglar, for breaking into her car and smoking a cigarette the night before, like some St. Pavlov, St. Proust, some St. saving synapse from out of her past.

What Matt finds in his father’s clothes is nothing; what Rachel expected to find, that morning in her car, was nothing. Remember your mother, you can tell yourself after she’s gone, and how are you supposed to find something new? It’s this blindness to memory that makes it work. If you could see landmines beneath the soil, in other words, you’d avoid them.

What gives Vermaelen hope, however — if hope is the right word — is the undeads’ observed habit of returning to places that mattered to them in life. He proposes two theories, both of which he convinces himself to believe whenever it’s convenient to believe one over the other. First, the undead are simply following grooves they’d scratched into their lives. Ghosts, for example, are thought to haunt houses and rooms due to repetition — they’re nothing but dents their living doppelgängers had left in life. “That is one of the few aspects of undeath that I feel certain about,” he says[4].

It is clear to me that they have something like equipment memory, a residue of know-how in their hands […] Their faces are vacant, and it’s evident that they don’t quite know what they’re doing. But the hand knows: it is seeking a handle, gripping at instruments of its former life. The hand remembers what the head does not.

His second theory stems from his theories on sight, on the undeads’ unique form of “blindness”: “How could [Matt] look them in the eye as often as he does,” he asks himself, “zoomed in through the binocular lenses like that, and not wonder what might be going on inside them? How could he conclude that they are experiencing nothing?” This during, of all things, a chess game. Contemplating their moves, they discuss metaphors for the undead while they wait for Mr. Mazoch to make an appearance in Highland Road Park (a place he’d taken his son to play as a child). “Their eyeballs were glaucomatic and clouded and white,” Matt has insisted in the past. “How well could they possibly see?” Undeath, Matt says, is like a “kill screen”: the black screen in a video game that descends when a character dies. “It always has the same unnerving texture: completely flat and black, without depth.” Or perhaps, they say, it’s like the unexplored blackness on the maps of Command and Conquer, only inversed: instead of boring through the “fog of war” — instead of “clearing it away in narrow tunnels of revealed terrain” — you get the opposite: “inky clouds that stream backward from jeeps and tanks, obnubilating everything, as if they were cuttlefish propelling themselves across the screen.” Nevermind that, despite the relative safety of Sims’s version of the zombie apocalypse, their vulnerability, out there in the open, to the indiscriminate feasting of undeath — something that Matt and Vermaelen seem to ignore throughout their boy-hearted philosophical dialogue on video games — creates an uncomfortable dread; nevermind reality at all, in fact: they’d rather speculate on the unknowable inner workings of the undead themselves. As Vermaelen loses concentration and Matt gains the upper hand, he focuses on advancing his pawn to the far side of the board. It’s then that he finds his preferred metaphor, or mythology:

The advance of a pawn to the eighth rank! Now here is a model for transformation into undeath. Whenever a pawn reaches the end of the chessboard, it is finally able to metamorphose into a queen. A new system of moves opens up to it. What used to be impossible, even to conceive, has been unlocked inside it, and suddenly the entire board is in play. There has bloomed in its chest, where once a pulsion moved it only forward and only one square at a time, a compass rose, given to limitless extension in every direction.

What if it isn’t like being blinded, Vermaelen wonders, “but just the opposite: like being promoted into a new modality of seeing?” With this new version of the undeads’ “consciousness,” he goes back to their habit of “returning to the familiar.” Perhaps, he begins to believe, they can see the past.

The walking dead “don’t simply walk,” Vermaelen proposes. “Anytime an undead is walking, what it’s really doing is remembering.” The undead, he insists, seem to have mapped the labyrinth of their memories: “In interviews and newspaper articles, neurologists have even coined a word for this process: mnenocartography. As if the undead could simply read their memories like roadmaps.” As he sits with Rachel, each making their own list of potential haunts (in the event that one of them might become undead and the other need to go in search), he asks himself what places are most important to him, and why. He remembers a picnic with her on the campus lawn, long before the school itself shut down, “lying alone on our spot in the quad to drink and admire the sunset.” The more he pictures this scene, in his head, the more he aches to revisit it. In undeath, perhaps, he could see it unfold before his opaquely white eyes, over and over until his corpse decomposed on its feet, there on the lawn. Or perhaps he’d go somewhere else, somewhere even more important that he’s forgotten entirely, a place latent with so much hidden joy — so overladen with the perfume of Proust’s mémoire involontaire — that the enterprise of undeath itself carries the effluvium of nostalgia. “This search is making you morbid, Michael,” Rachel warns him during the LCDC-recommended “defamiliarization” exercises, in which they stare at one another and attempt to dissociate the face with the beloved, the lover’s form with the love affair. “You’d rather pretend you’re undead with me than actually live with me.” At this accusation he balks, swearing up and down it’s for their own safety. But he wonders: “Was Rachel right about that too? […] It is an entirely new form of dying: different from cancer, or car wrecks, or heart attacks.” What humanity now must face is not “the complete cessation of consciousness” but instead this new “strange and ineffable something.” Not even his cold philosopher’s spin can hide the longing. When he imagines their someday encounter with Mr. Mazoch — his corpse staring, from across the field, at his dilapidated, weather-reclaimed house — he tells himself that “the building is not what he came back here to see. This is not his home, anymore. Even though he has returned to it, he is looking through it — beyond it — to his true home […] He is transfixed by something else.” So too is Vermaelen transfixed, looking through the undead to imagined beings far more sated, more at peace with their pasts. He cannot tear himself away.

¤ 

Proust again:

No doubt very few people understand the purely subjective nature of the phenomenon that we call love, or how it creates, so to speak, a supplementary person, distinct from the person whom the world knows by the same name, a person most of whose constituent elements are derived from ourselves. 

Anne Carson, in her landmark work, Eros the Bittersweet, expands this to desire itself, whether for a young boy, the gift of knowledge, or a good life. Whatever it is that we want is not the object as it is but the object under the palimpsest of desire. On a beloved we project the beloved we wish him or her to be; on a great book, shelved among other great books, we project the great book we wish will change our lives; when we look into the future, we see the self we wish to be, regardless of the realities and depravities with which we will, inevitably, entangle ourselves. Desire without fiction does not exist.

While creating their lists of haunts, Vermaelen worries over all the sites Rachel might list that have nothing to do with him — not only places that “precede him,” but places tied to memories she’s never even shared. “The subtext of any memory that a lover shares is, ‘I want you, my lover, to know this about me, because this is a facet of myself I want you to love.’” Of Rachel’s past, he reasons, there must be “entire years of biographical material and life experience that have gone unmentioned […] I find this prospect slightly disquieting. This idea that the version of the person I’ll be looking for won’t be the version I’ve personally known.” A Questionable Shape is full of these doppelgängers, or doubles. When Rachel was a teenager and her father had at last died, mourning, for her, “meant mourning two men, or at least two sets of memories: those of the young, vigorous father who raised her, as well as those of the debilitated, dependent, infantilized man-child whom in sickness he became.” Some years prior to his son’s search, Mr. Mazoch suffered a near-fatal heart attack, after which Matt, taking this as a warning, began visiting him more often, arranging afternoons at Citiplace Cinemas. Sitting next to him during these movies, “[Matt] could not help seeing his father […] through the filter of the future tense, seeing him in the way that he would remember him once he was dead.” At one point, Matt and Vermaelen argue over the possibility that Mr. Mazoch, in addition to having his corpse reanimated, has also become a ghost, “unable to exit its house in Denham, where even now it might be trapped, pacing translucently from room to room.” In his (admittedly absurd) reflections, Vermaelen wonders, “What would happen if the undead corpse and the specter of Mr. Mazoch ever met each other?” While this is pure unwritten Kafka, it also distracts from the more unsettling notion of the double — that every single person risks being split in two, both living and dead.

Freud again: “The ‘double’ was originally an insurance against destruction to the ego, an ‘energetic denial of the power of death,’ as [Otto] Rank says; and probably the ‘immortal’ soul was the first ‘double’ of the body.” With the advancement of humanity, however—as we’ve confined the dead and dying to institutions and locked rooms, sanitizing our lives from the filth of fragility — Freud argues that the double has transformed from “an assurance of immortality” to “the ghastly harbinger of death.” Indeed, what Vermaelen seems to be doing is doubling himself into other lives, though none of them seem to contain immortality, or even hope:

The epidemic can promise only a few outcomes […] In a matter of months, I sometimes assume, I will be fed upon, or all my loved ones will be fed upon, or I will take my own life, or, unable to bring myself to do this even after state and social institutions have collapsed entirely, I will grub among garbage bins behind abandoned grocery stores, defending myself from nomadic, malnourished, and desperate humans as much as from the undead.

Contrast this with Rachel’s outlook on life:

When for breakfast she eats a grapefruit on the landing, holding closed her bathrobe and watching the sunrise over the apartment complex’s courtyard, and announces, “It’s a perfect morning,” she means all of it, nothing escapes her, not the sweet pink of the grapefruit, or the warm breeze […] and if there happened to be an infected in the courtyard that morning, not that either.

Her compassion stretches even to the cannibalistic undead, whose suffering she knows she cannot know. After a heated conversation at dinner, suspecting that Matt intends to hunt down and exterminate his undead father, she tells Vermaelen that “Mr. Mazoch is no more human to you than he is to Matt: just a weird new life form. You’d sooner strap him to an EEG than get him to a quarantine […] You’re too obsessed. Sometimes I think what you really want […] is to be infected yourself.” As they fall asleep that night, he tries to find her perspective: “I dread the things she must be thinking. How I’ve betrayed her. How she doesn’t know me. ‘Who is this person?’ she must be asking herself. ‘This stranger? What is he doing in my bed?’” Like so many lovers, he’s too afraid to speak. Once more, the Rachel next to him, silent and ignored — full of answers to questions he refuses to ask — has been shrouded in a palimpsest. He only sees the Rachel in his head.

¤

 I’ve always had nightmares about the apocalypse. Rarely in those scenarios are we finished by a virus that reanimates dead flesh. More often, the planets dislocate themselves and spiral into one another, or push the earth out of its gravitational balance toward the sun. Most frequently, however, I’m walking through a parking lot when everything goes nuclear white and my skin sears to the pavement. Sometimes I watch friends and family bleed to death from a plague no one can stop. Occasionally, the apocalypse is something more traditional, and God — whose existence, in dreams, doesn’t bother me as much as it should — gives us hell on earth.

Last year, after I saw von Trier’s Melancholia, a film in which a previously undiscovered planet is hurtling toward the earth, I developed the insufferable habit of asking friends and acquaintances to imagine the end of the world. Say you heard, tomorrow, that there was an asteroid headed our way. Impact is certain. There is no hope for survival. How would you feel? The most common answer is upsettingly gratifying: “Sad,” they’ll say, or some variant, “but kind of relieved.” Honestly, though, what’s not to understand? I imagine the end of the world like an amused parent coming into a kitchen, eggs broken on the counter, flour dusting the floor and the stove, and everything sticky with sugar as her children attempt to bake her a surprise birthday cake. The kids start to cry. They’ve been caught. Their plan failed. They were only trying to help. “Don’t worry about it,” she says. “You tried.” They leave the kitchen how it is and all go out for ice cream. It’s over, the apocalypse is supposed to say. You’ve done everything you can. No need to worry anymore.

Nothing’s more romantic than the end of the world. Each summer, the weekly box office confirms this. In 2013 we could’ve seen the end via the action/sci-fi films Oblivion, After Earth, and Elysium; the “apocalypse comedy” This is the End; and, for the family, I suppose, the CGI zombie/explosion slideshow World War Z. What if, we like to ask ourselves, we were the last generation on earth? What if this is it, the most important moment of our lives, not to mention our planet? It’s a self-aggrandizing phenomenon, the apocalypse — a made-up event that gives our civilization, if not our individual lives, a definitive endpoint. We only have to get here, we’re fond of dreaming, like it’s a point on a map or a level in one of Vermaelen’s video games. Looking toward the secular apocalypse is the atheist’s view of the afterlife: there’s something beyond a world-ending event. We just don’t know what.

In A Questionable Shape, Vermaelen’s reminders that the world is ending go ignored. After “the worst” is over and the LCDC encourages Baton Rouge that it’s okay to go outside again, he insists:

[N]othing would be simpler than for a single stray infected to spark another citywide outbreak. Or for a security breach in a quarantine to unleash hundreds of infected at once. Or for the so-called “virus” — which no scientist had actually identified beneath a microscope, even as they assured us it was not airborne — to simply mutate overnight.

Rachel eventually coaxes him outside, and at the time of the events in the novel he’s traveling around the city with Matt every day, but his certainty has not changed. He hasn’t read a book since the outbreak, he notices: “How am I supposed to follow a text when I know that, at any moment, my reading might be interrupted — my life imperiled — by the beating on the door of an undead fist?” He watches Rachel leave the apartment and, with a startlingly puritan slant, notes how she’s dressed: “In those khaki shorts and that sleeveless tank top, every inch of exposed skin practically begging to be bitten!” The only thing he can read, in fact, is FIGHT THE BITE, cover to cover, over and over. He insists on preparedness the way a hypochondriac parent might insist you never leave the house without sunscreen. However, like survivalists, stockpilers, and hoarders, Vermaelen’s precautions are nothing more than a game, a kind of imaginative play: “These fantasies are difficult to subdue,” he says, lying awake next to Rachel, “viscerally aware, in all my nerviness and coiled energy, that I might be called upon to leap up from the mattress and slide the dresser against the threshold.” More and more, it’s clear that he doesn’t fear death at all, or even undeath — his true fear is life itself. The real threat is life going on as it is, ever forward, stuck in the present. Meanwhile, Rachel goes shopping. She volunteers at a quarantine. She eats grapefruit in the landing as the sun comes up. She makes dinner. She talks about art. She speaks fondly of her father, but knows she cannot see him again. She’s content with the memories she has, not to mention those still waiting in untouched fabrics, in un-smelled flowers, cleaning compounds, or medicines.

As for the city itself, the stray infected are quickly apprehended. The barges floating on the Mississippi are ominous but, only ever viewed through binoculars, not an imminent threat. Life in Baton Rouge has found a way to manage. The future Vermaelen daydreams about, locked away in his apartment or sitting anxiously in the car while Matt ransacks Mr. Mazoch’s house for misleading clues, is clearly nothing more than what he, in his choice of words, admits: a fantasy. At one point, he considers that Matt’s search, though officially “over” at the start of hurricane season, will never really end, and it’s this thought that leads him to believe that Matt’s intention is not actually to find Mr. Mazoch, “but to never find Mr. Mazoch: to forever have this desideratum dangling just out of reach, leading him day after day deeper into the calendar.” Eros, the Greek concept of desire, gives motion. It pulls the lover along by a fictional thread — a fabricated, imagined satisfaction. To Vermaelen, the violent end of the world is the palimpsest he places upon the future, the chance to give up and return to the past. What will he see, he wonders, in the abandoned house where he grew up? What family will reveal itself on the other side of his bleached vision?

 It’s these fictions — buildings burning, bodies in the streets, his last imagined moments with his beloved before they’re ripped to pieces by the hungry undead — that promise a release from the mundane. It’s over — that’s all he wants to hear. Out of necessity, he makes the future romantic; he grants the undead a higher form of seeing, despite no way of knowing. There’s more to life than this, is what gets him out of bed every morning. His own life will end — this he doesn’t dare doubt — but so too, in his fantasies, will life on earth. In reality, the apocalypse is only another event, after which life, though changed, moves forward. What’s truly uncanny in Sims’s scenario is the dullness even of undeath, how within a week it’s absorbed into everyday life and simply accepted. Life — what else can you do but live it until it’s over, each as mundane as any other? Death, too, is equally mundane. It’s preferable, and sometimes necessary, to believe that life itself cannot bear to go on without you.

¤

Patrick Nathan is managing editor at the literary webzine Xenith.


[1] “I have often reflected that the footnote is the typographic mark most emblematic of undeath,” he tells us, in a footnote, not even 10 pages into the novel.

[2] I’d wager that Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Return of the Living Dead: Part II (1988) together have more shots of skulls bitten into and brains pulled out like mouthfuls of pasta than all other movies in the history of filmmaking combined. But I’ve also seen them at least a dozen times each.

[3] It’s hard not to think the parallel to Humbert Humbert is intentional: “My own photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of my memory.”

[4] For a budding philosopher, Vermaelen is certain about a great deal of merely observed phenomenon, especially as they pertain to the undead. “The undead do see,” he suspects, countering Matt’s own certainty that they are totally blind. “It’s just that the way in which they see is so different from human vision that it would be misleading to call it seeing.” On pain: “It seems clear, at any rate, that the undead don’t feel pain […] I have always assumed that being undead would feel the same way that a sleeping foot feels.” So too is he certain, more often than not, of Matt’s motive behind the search for his father, of Rachel’s specific emotions and revulsions, and, of course, of the moral supremacy of his own desire, when it comes to discussing undead loved ones, “to keep the argument abstract.”

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