Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates has won a National Book award, been nominated for two Pulitzer's, and, according to Wikipedia, might have a shot at the Nobel Prize for Literature. When I heard that someone with those credentials had written a novel told from the viewpoint of a serial killer, I was curious and kept an eye out for a copy. Saturday I found one and Sunday I read it...just after finishing the latest Dexter book.

In an interview with Salon, Oates says that the N.Y. Times commissioned her to write an essay on the literature of serial killers and she read 35 books for her research. The Wikipedia article on Zombie says that it was based on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer.

The format of the book is like a cross between a first person narrative and a journal. It jumps around in chronology as a narrator might do but it includes drawings like a journal.

Quentin P. is in his thirties and on probation for attempting to molest a young black boy. He is creepy but his mother and father support and defend him, he's good to his grandmother, his therapists think he's making progress, he has a job, and his parole officer doesn't see any problems. He is also a serial killer obsessed with the desire to create what he calls MY ZOMBIE by performing a transorbital lobotomy using an ice pick. Dahmer also thought he could create a zombie, though by different means. Quentin reasons that
A true ZOMBIE would be mine forever. He would obey every command & whim. Saying "Yes, Master" & "No, Master." He would kneel before me lifting his eyes to me saying, "I love you, Master. There is no one but you, Master."

& so it would come to pass, & so it would be. For a true ZOMBIE could not say a thing that was not, only a thing that was. His eyes would be open & clear but there would be nothing inside them seeing. & nothing behind them thinking. Nothing passing judgment.
This passage is representative of the style of writing in book: use of ampersands, capitalization,fragmented sentences, stream of consciousness flow of words. The book puts the reader inside the head of a sexual psychopath giving an all too real feeling that you are seeing what he sees and hear his thoughts.

I found Zombie to more disturbing and horrifying than Brett Ellis' American Psycho, a book I didn't think could be topped. Where American Psycho has a strong element of satire, Zombie is pure horror. In fact, it won the Bram Stoker Award given for superior achievement in horror writing.

You will find a very detailed description and analysis of Zombie at

It was an interesting contrast to follow my reading of Dexter By Design with Zombie. Quentin is the kind of person you would like for Dexter to target. But where Dexter is played for dark comedy, Quentin is a glimpse at what a real serial killer might be like and it works on the fear that such a person could be anywhere.

Zombie is an extraordinary piece writing and there are not many writers who could pull it off. However, I would only recommend it to someone who has a serious interest in the serial killer sub-genre of thrillers/crime fiction.