Genres are useful constructs for discussing certain works of art, but it is important to remember that they are constructs, artificial categories that are not always helpful. You see this in confused reviews of books that don’t seem to conform to any specific genre expectations. (These books are sometimes lumped into “literary fiction,” which is often misconstrued as a catchall, “none of the above” category.)
The fluidity of genre is also demonstrated by hybrid works that mix genres. Consider these equations:
comedy + war = Catch 22
comedy + science fiction = Galaxy Quest
comedy + science fiction + high school romance = Back to the Future
high school romance + noir detective = Veronica Mars
science fiction + noir detective = Red Planet Blues
You could likely find examples of every genre mashup you could imagine. (I sense a parlour game in the making…)
Jen Frankel’s novel Undead Redhead combines humour with horror. It is the story of Sharon, a meek young woman who, in her life, didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the people around her. The novel starts with Sharon waking up in a coffin in a hearse, a strange pattern of stitches on her chest, her flesh slightly gamy. Could she be…a zombie? And, if she is, could it actually be an important milestone in her self-actualization?
Frankel has attempted an especially difficult combination to pull off, since the two genres affect the reader in conflicting ways. Well written horror will get the reader’s heart pumping and increase the amount of adrenaline, which prompts the “fight or flight” response in animals, in her body. It is meant to excite the reader. Successful humour, on the other hand, releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, into the reader’s brain. This tends to calm the reader down.
How can a writer combine these genres so that they don’t cancel each other out, leaving the reader with a bland, unworkable mess?
Undead Redhead works as a comedy by deemphasizing aspects of its horror. Key to this is Frankel’s decision to make her zombie a Vegan. In addition to leading to some funny scenes in which she tries to find food that she can stomach, it means many of the most horrific tropes of zombie stories are missing from the novel: there is no eating of brains, turning of ordinarily people into zombies or zombie hordes attacking the last few humans in a cabin in the woods.
Contributing to the fun is the engaging voice of the main character, Sharon. Zombie stories are rarely told from the zombie point of view, since, in most cases, they have no personality or subjectivity. However, as we find out later in the novel, Sharon was created by Haitian Vodun (rather than a virus, or nuclear testing, or sunspots), which reanimates her with her personality intact.
The main character is augmented by several engaging, wildly entertaining secondary characters. These include: Undead Redhead, an Internet poseur who claims to be the zombie in order to usurp her fifteen minutes of fame; V. X. Morgoni, an intense cryptoparapsychocriminologist (which I believe means she hunts down unusual phenomena) who is slow to realize that the zombie she is tracking may have become her new roommmate, and; a sympathetic bag lady.
Frankel is good at creating credibly absurd scenes. Early in the novel, for instance, we learn that Sharon’s death has something to do with the subject of her final, hazy memory from her life: a wedding rehearsal. When she meets her former boyfriend and his current girlfriend, they turn out to be so self-absorbed that, rather than express sympathy for her death, they blame her for ruining the wedding. The climactic scene in the novel, which brings many of the main characters in the story together in a television studio, wraps up storylines in a satisfying humourous way.
To her credit, Frankel is trying to do something fresh with a currently overexposed sub-genre. Those who are expecting a zombie apocalypse will be disappointed by Undead Redhead. However, those who are looking for a fun, original take on the zombie sub-genre will find a very rewarding book