Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Allure of the Undead

“Though it can seem sudden, death is more of a process than an event.” – Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead

For reasons I can’t quite articulate, I have been fascinated by the undead for a long as I can remember. Frankenstein’s Monster is the first horror character I can remember falling in love with, and my predilection for this sort of thing has only grown as the years have passed. (Stephen King and George Romero’s film Creepshow, in which the undead figure prominently, came out when I was eight years old, and despite my pleas, my father, probably wisely, would neither allow me to watch the movie nor read the tie-in comic book. Of course, I have both now and cherish them all the more because of it.)

The concept of the deceased returning from the grave in drastically-altered form is not a new idea. Folklore from all over the globe teems with it. I suppose it’s because the concept of death’s being the end is so hard to swallow. Our consciousness seems like something that should endure indefinitely, yet few of us can hold on for even a hundred years.


In a recent interview, Neil deGrasse Tyson asked Larry King whether he wanted to live forever, and, without missing a beat, King replied, “Yes.” Tyson was somewhat thrown by King’s response, as he seemed to prefer the idea of making the most of each day, knowing that we are only given a limited amount of time. If we were to live forever, he maintains, there would never be any sense of urgency to do anything worthwhile. While I can understand Tyson’s point, I tend to agree with King’s position.

It’s fair to say that most people expire with a lot of things left undone, so it makes sense that we would conceive the notion that the dead sometimes come back. It is also related to the fact that humans are a fearful species. As if there weren’t enough reasonable things to be afraid of, we like to invent things that give us the willies. We also, apparently, need a way to keep people from wandering around after dark, lest they get into trouble. Unfinished business is, of course, just one reason that the dead might return. Someone’s disturbing their grave, an insatiable hunger for the flesh and/or blood of the living, revenge, being forced to haunt a house or some other location as a form of punishment, and being reanimated by magic or arcane science are others.


Of course, this sort of thing is very popular in works of supernatural horror and fantasy; in fact, it could prove challenging to find a book or movie in these genres that doesn’t contain at least some element of it. Arguably, the most popular “species” of undead is the vampire. These days, we differentiate vampires from zombies, but in many old tales they are essentially the same thing: creatures from beyond the grave who seek out the living for sustenance. Although vampires had been a part of European folklore for centuries, John Polidori wrote the first piece of vampire fiction, “The Vampyre,” in 1819 (during the same session in which Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein, interestingly enough). Of course, Bram Stoker would attain far greater success for his novel Dracula some eighty years later. Stoker considered calling his novel The Un-Dead, and this was, for all intents and purposes, the origin of the term (“undead” was previously just another way of saying “alive”).

Stoker also penned The Jewel of Seven Stars, a horror novel about an ancient Egyptian mummy. During this time, Egyptology was very much en vogue, and it therefore stood to reason that stories about mummies returning from their tombs would follow. Of course, writers such as Charles Dickens, Sheridan Le Fanu, Henry James, and M. R. James popularized the ghost story around the same time. Thus, vampires, ghosts, and mummies were the first three kinds of undead to capture the popular imagination. Bloodsuckers, check. Incorporeal representations of formerly-living people, check. Artificially-preserved, bandaged corpses that can curse you, check. Zombies as we know them came along later, although the idea was, in a way, alluded to in the Epic of Gilgamesh. (It is interesting that this, the world’s earliest surviving work of literature, would contribute something so vital to our modern speculative genres, despite the fact that horror and fantasy are frequently repudiated by the “intellectually elite.” Also, while I am not a big fan of the “zombie apocalypse” genre, I consider 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead one of my favorite horror films.) 

In the realm of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien introduced us to “wights” in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Similar to “undead,” the term originally referred to living beings, but Tolkien uses it to describe demonic spirits who possessed the corpses of those who had fallen in battle. Frodo and the hobbits encounter some in the Barrow-downs, an ancient burial ground beyond the Old Forest, and only manage to escape with the help of the mysterious Tom Bombadil. (This was entirely omitted from the film version, incidentally.) Wight was later appropriated by fantasy authors and game designers as the name of a powerful type of undead.

When Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) came along, its creators were fond of the idea of variety, so they invented numerous species of undead for adventurers to encounter. In 1988, TSR published Lords of Darkness, which was designed to be used with the then-current version of the game, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This book is interesting because it focuses on ten undead types (skeletons, ghouls, shadows, spectres, vampires, et al.) and includes complete scenarios for each. In 2009, Wizards of the Coast, having acquired the game from TSR, released Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead, a supplementary book for 4th-edition D&D that, in addition to nine detailed scenarios for both low- and high-level characters, gives players everything they could ever want to know about the various kinds of undead, including ecology and physiology (the latter of which is, to quote Tori Amos, “kind of gross”).

While the basic creatures can be found in the Monster Manual, this book provides players with all the details concerning every type of undead they could ever want, plus a whole section of new monsters, including subsets of well-known creatures, and even includes templates for creating your own. Some of the more interesting creatures include:

Blaspheme: A monster crafted from pieces of corpses and given life through magic and then tasked with guarding wizards' libraries.

Bone Yard: A huge mass of animated bones, such as those from a desecrated cemetery.

Deathtritus: Dead flesh, dirt, and crushed bone animated by necrotic energy.

Deathtouched Golem: An animated amalgam of corpses, grave dirt, hangman's nooses, and tombstones.

Nighthaunt: Cursed soul of someone who has eaten food infused with necrotic energy.

Skin Kite: A gliding mass of, well, skin that attaches to a target and eats its flesh until it can split in two, not unlike a dividing cell.

Wrath of Nature: A mindless embodiment of death, created by pollution.

Another interesting type of undead, which appeared in earlier versions of D&D but is not included in the current one, is the Crypt Thing. This creature appears merely as a skeleton in a robe, but it’s tricky. Many dungeons are actually tombs, with the adventurers’ objective being to destroy its chief inhabitant. This is often a “lich,” an undead wizard. The Crypt Thing’s job is to trick explorers into thinking that it is the lich. When it touches them, they are teleported to another part of the tomb where deadly traps await. 


It is also worth mentioning that Richard Lee Byers’ Haunted Lands trilogy (Unclean, Undead, and Unholy), published under the Forgotten Realms banner, is a veritable feast for undead lovers. One of the main set pieces of the series is the “Manufactory,” where undead are created for the army of the lich Szass Tam. The operations of the place are supervised by the foul Xingax, the enormous, mephitic aborted fetus of a demigod (yes, really). He transforms Tammith, a young girl who sells herself into slavery to pay off her father’s gambling debts, into a vampire, and though initially a villain, she eventually becomes an ally of the heroes and one of the most sympathetic characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about.

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