October 28, 2016

Book Spotlight - The Penguin Book of the Undead

The Penguin Book of the Undead:

Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters

Edited by Scott G. Bruce

A few weeks ago I saw Penguin was hosting a book giveaway for an upcoming Halloween-related title. This was the book trailer:

Creepy, right? I don't believe I've ever seen a book trailer that only featured the cover and has done so in such a terrifying way. Not thinking too much about it, I entered the giveaway as I do with so many and just a couple of weeks later a copy unexpectedly arrived at my door. I then realized it was time to see what I'd gotten myself into.

Bruce's book is an edited collection of various accounts of reported experiences with supernatural entities--ghosts, zombies, and the undead. It helps to first preface the book with the ethos of its publisher and author: Penguin obviously has a long-standing top-tier rank in the publication world and Bruce isn't just a fan of TV shows like The Walking Dead, but rather a Princeton-educated, Ph.D. holding professor of medieval history. My understanding is that the book is not a recount of "Well, one time my grandpa heard this story about this lady from this guy who told him..."-type stories. Instead, it's an anthology tracking human fear and anxiety related to death--that, right there sounds much more credible, fascinating, and less terrifying. Bruce studied over fifteen centuries to examine the path of this ghostly imagination. The publishers phrase it best:

"Since ancient times, accounts of supernatural activity have mystified us. Ghost stories as we know them did not develop until the late nineteenth century, but the restless dead haunted the premodern imagination in many forms, as recorded in historical narratives, theological texts, and personal letters. The Penguin Book of the Undead teems with roving hordes of dead warriors, corpses trailed by packs of barking dogs, moaning phantoms haunting deserted ruins, evil spirits emerging from burning carcasses in the form of crows, and zombies with pestilential breath. Spanning from the Hebrew scriptures to the Roman Empire, the Scandinavian sagas to medieval Europe, the Protestant Reformation to the Renaissance, this beguiling array of accounts charts our relationship with spirits and apparitions, wraiths and demons over fifteen hundred years, showing the evolution in our thinking about the ability of dead souls to return to the realm of the living—and to warn us about what awaits us in the afterlife."

As a nineteenth-century British literature student and scholar, I love reading Gothic-era literature and learning about the cultural context in which it was written. Bruce's collection includes extensive historical accounts that predate this era (think ancient Greece and medieval times) and for someone like me would help provide greater understanding of the cultural mindsets that led to texts like The Monk, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, and eventually our modern-day fascination with all things mystery, detective, crime, horror, and otherworldly.

Besides my love for Victorian literature, I've also been spending some time lately revisiting texts about the Salem witch trials and the associated hysteria and madness within these communities. I can appreciate how Bruce's studies allow him to better examine inherited mythologies and fears through a scholarly lens. Of course, the way I'm addressing the book sounds very academic and detached, more of a collection to be perused for historical content rather than one to read because you're a fan of zombies (I'm not) and you want to be scared beyond belief (yikes, no).

I'll likely scan the table of contents and look for any items that I think might be helpful for providing context for the next time I teach a mystery or Gothic literature course, but it's definitely not kind I'd want to read around midnight. What do you think of this new collection? Do you read or watch zombie fiction?


  1. The first collection of this kind of narrative was Medieval Ghost Stories (2001), a very well book of short stories with zombies, vampires, elves and other supernatural creatures.

  2. An excelent book for understand why the ghosts of middle ages turned from vengeful zombies to astral entities is Return of the Dead by Claude Lecouteux.