When I was still teaching at Pepperdine University, one of my favorite courses was “Myth, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.” The class read contemporary novels and short fiction, many of them based on time-honored themes and motifs, and discussed ways in which modern writers re-worked and re-shaped the old to make it speak to the new.
One of the more intriguing assignments, I discovered, incorporated film with the written word. During two class periods one semester, we watched the classic 1956 science-fiction film, Forbidden Planet, then spent the next two periods talking about it: its genre-bending influence on films and stories of the 1960s and 1970s and beyond; its power as sheer storytelling; and its relevance to students of the 21st century…for whom Robby the Robot was arguably more familiar than any of the star-level actors involved. We finished on Friday with thoughts about differences we saw between two modes of narrative: writing and film. What could be established in a few seconds on a camera, for example, that might take sentences or even paragraphs to re-create on the page; and what had to be told through objective images in a film that might entail internalized thoughts in a story. On the whole, the students’ responses were intelligent and enjoyable.
Over the weekend, I assigned an additional reading, one that I had not included on the list of required books: William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
During the first period the next week, the students were confused and upset and even a bit angry. All right, they conceded, the Shakespeare thing was a fantasy; it had magical creatures and, in fact, a magician. But why did they have to read something that old—and that difficult—for what was supposed to be a general-studies course. Only a handful of the students were English majors, and none of them had encountered The Tempest before, so even they were more or less up in arms.
Instead of trying to mitigate their confusion directly, I asked if they had noted any similarities between Forbidden Planet and The Tempest.
Being a patient teacher and a strong believer in letting thoughts arise on their own timetable, I waited.
Then: “Well, isn’t Dr. Morbius sort of like Prospero, you know, alone, with only his daughter and a servant?”
“Yeah, and then people come, and the daughter falls in love, and….”
“And the Monster from the Id, that’s kind of like….”
That was all it took.
By the end of the period, they were deeply into the parallels, some pointing out how having read The Tempest had altered their perceptions of characters and events in Forbidden Planet, other commenting on how smoothly the film translated the play into a form at once recognizable (with a bit of a prod, perhaps) and entertaining.
I thought of that experience again when I read a short story by Joe McKinney, “Resurrecting Mindy,” first published in Undead Tales (2011), edited by Armand Rosamilla, and now being incorporated into a forthcoming volume, Dead World Resurrection: The Collected Zombie Short Stories of Joe McKinney.
As I read the McKinney tale, something kept knocking at the back of my mind. It wasn’t that the tale was familiar, exactly, but there was something about it….
A quick summary: A young man, believing himself the sole survivor of the zombie apocalypse, builds a life alone…until he sees a girl he had once dated, standing amid a horde of zombies. He realizes that she, too, is still alive, that she is a Faker. They meet in his apartment—third floor, safe from zombies—and gradually the story shifts from simply “boy meets girl” to something far deeper, far more insightful, and ultimately far more terrifying than mere zombie-horror. Stimulated by the appearance of another living person, they each begin to re-think and re-define their modes of survival, leading them to opposing but equally distressing crises of faith—in themselves, in the other, in their choice of surviving over accepting. And these lead to more complex and difficult thoughts about relationships, love, life, and death itself.
I won’t give away any more of the story; suffice it to say that McKinney provides twists and turns aplenty, and an ending as horrific in its own way as that of Stephen King’s 1983 Pet Sematary. I will, however, note that about three-quarters of the way through, I finally recognized the fluttering memory that kept trying to insist itself into my consciousness. It had nothing to do with the details of the story, except perhaps that the tale focused on a boy and a girl in an unforgiving world and their struggle to rise above it. No, what I felt more than thought was that the story seemed to be following a deeper, underlying pattern. Most likely, it was McKinney’s use of Christmas-time as a motif that finally did triggered it.
Remember the classic O. Henry short story, “The Gift of the Magi” (1905)?
While often considered sentimental and superficial, it has demonstrating a lasting endurance, through frequent adaptations, particularly around Christmas, and equally frequent reprints.
Just as Forbidden Planet took the narrative, thematic, mythic, even certain symbolic patterns of The Tempest and transformed them into one of the first truly science-fiction films, and thus provided form and texture for additional films; so McKenney’s “Resurrecting Mindy” builds on the foundation of “The Gift of the Magi.” And does so without losing its own claim to originality or individuality. What it echoes are the themes, the isolation of characters, the need for each to accommodate a way of living to the other…and the desperate irony of all of this happening in a world in which there is no life, no hope, no love.
If nothing else, reading “Resurrecting Mindy,” with its perhaps not-so-subtle evocation and reversal of Christic themes, of questions of life and death, of skillful manipulation of landscape and season, reinforces one’s sense of McKinney’s artistry in a sub-genre that names itself after the walking dead but, in its best and most effective manifestations, concerns itself almost exclusively about the living. Even knowing—sort of—what must come, the story captivates. It builds upon its predecessor and in doing so elevates both.