An Interview With Kim Paffenroth
**Conducted in May of 2009**
Kim Paffenroth has become, indubitably, one of the most influential new voices in the zombie genre. From his detailed nonfiction dissection of George Romero’s work in Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth to his profoundly intriguing post-apocalyptic series Dying to Live, he has infused an exhilarating new life force into the world of the living dead. Now, with the release of his latest novel The Valley of the Dead Paffenroth, a Professor of Religious Studies and cult icon, takes us on a journey through the dark medieval world of Italian poet Dante Alighieri and the inner rings of hell. I had the pleasure of interviewing Paffenroth recently and this is what he had to say…
Let’s start at the beginning, where all good stories originate. What initially snared your attention about the zombie genre?
It’s been an unfolding saga, and not one that progressed steadily, but irregularly over most of my life. I saw the original NotLD and Dot D in the late seventies, when I was a pre-teen, and the gore fascinated me. Later I’d see violence and splatter in slasher flicks, and it always left me bored, like it was all hokey and fakey and almost played for laughs. But in the Romero films, everything was filled with such dread, such unease at everything – at death, but also at life and the living and whom we can trust. As I got older, I lost track of zombies, but I think I was pursuing questions of the dark side of life and human nature in other ways, and was really primed for the resurgence of the genre with the remake of DotD in 2004.
When did you first begin writing zombie literature? What made you realize that this was your true calling in life?
Again, it was indirect. When I saw the DotD remake, I was reminded why I’d been fascinated with the genre as a youngster. But in the intervening years, I’d studied literature and theology and philosophy, so I had new ways to frame and articulate my fascination, beyond an adolescent “Zombies are cool!” kind of reaction. I started writing nonfiction essays about the themes in Romero’s work, but then I got this little urge that maybe I could write my own zombie fiction – that way I wouldn’t be analyzing Mr. Romero’s zombies (though we’re all indebted to him), but I could create my own and fill them with the symbolic meaning and aesthetic effect that I wanted them to have. It’s been a fun vocation since.
Tell us a little about your new novel, THE VALLEY OF THE DEAD…
For seventeen years of his life, the whereabouts of the medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri is unknown to modern scholars. All we know is that during this time, he traveled as an exile across Europe, while working on his epic poem, THE DIVINE COMEDY. In his masterpiece he describes a journey through the three realms of the afterlife. The volume describing hell, INFERNO, is the most famous section. VALLEY OF THE DEAD is the real story behind INFERNO. In his wanderings, Dante stumbles on a zombie infestation, and the things he sees there - people being devoured, burned alive, boiled in pitch, torn limb from limb, eviscerated, impaled, decapitated, crucified, etc. - become the basis of all the horrors he describes in INFERNO.
What differentiates this work from your previous zombie literature?
No guns! No end of the world, either – Dante returns to the “real” world at the end, which was never really threatened by the zombies. But he returns, as he did in the COMEDY, chastened and humbled by everything he’s seen, and everything he had to do in order to survive. And there are similarities to my previous zombie stories, or to zombie literature in general: a constant theme of zombie films and literature is how live people are worse than zombies – we’re the real monsters, not them – and I kept that in this story, too, because it fits nicely with Dante’s view of human nature as well.
What aspects of THE DIVINE COMEDY, and more specifically INFERNO, are played upon in your new novel? What are some of the themes the reader can expect to find running throughout the book?
That some sins – the least bad ones – are due to our animal nature. But the really bad sins, according to Dante, are those that utilize reason – especially deceit and betrayal. At the same time, however, Dante’s such an optimistic – he believes that both our animal nature and our reason are redeemable. So throughout the COMEDY and VALLEY, there are reminders that people can behave better, they have clues and hints all around them, even in the darkest, most violent situations.
What is it about the story of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri that inspired you to write THE VALLEY OF THE DEAD?
It started with my nonfiction analysis of Romero, when I saw how close his vision of damnation was to Dante’s – endless, mindless wandering, never mind any flames or tortures of hell. So I thought, why not reverse it: suppose Romero is so similar to Dante, because Dante had firsthand experience of zombies? Suppose he saw a zombie uprising, and that’s why his head was so full of all the grotesqueries with which he’d populate hell. So I put Dante through a zombie hell, all the while working through each canto of INFERNO, making the things he saw parallel to what he put in his poem.
INFERNO is Dante’s exploration of the concept of Hell. Zombies, however, are rarely portrayed as “evil” though, but often a sad result of a virus or mutation, a product of nature itself. How do you envision zombies fitting into the hierarchy of a religiously defined underworld?
I could use the zombies to symbolize the least bad sins, the ones due to our animal nature, especially gluttony and violence, since all they do is eat and kill. The living people Dante meets along the way participate in the worse sins. But what I saw as I went was how “zombified” everyone is in hell, in the sense that they’re all trapped in the ruts of their bad behavior, unable to change or improve – unable to ever desire anything other than food or sex or violence or money, ever again. The zombies are more obvious, of course, since they just stare blankly and drool when they’re not feeding or killing, but as I looked at the sinners throughout INFERNO, or as I created new ones for VALLEY, the utter tedium and repetition and addictiveness of sin became clearer to me.
With your background in religious studies, I could definitely see you expounding on other great works of religious fiction, especially of the medieval and renaissance time periods. Do you have plans of possible other concepts?
I never liked Jane Austen, so I wasn’t sorry to see that one taken, though I was encouraged that others have thought of the same kind of idea and it’s taken off. You’re right that Medieval and renaissance culture is so much more violent than ours, that zombie spectacles don’t seem like a stretch at all. I think Don Quixote could be great with zombies, and moving further ahead into the 20th century, I think Flannery O’Connor’s fictional South is populated with people more freakish and monstrous than my zombies, so I think it’d fit perfectly. I think zombies and great literature could be with us for a while now. Perhaps it’s time for a resurgence of both.
How did you come to work with illustrator Alex McVey?
I am told by the publisher that Alex asked to work on this project, which is just about the most thrilling thing I’ve heard in a long time. It’s great to have fans, but when a peer – whether an artist or writer – appreciates your work, that’s an extra level of compliment.