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St. Petersburg becomes an undead zone for zombie fiction fans

Close the coffin lid on those pouty teenage vampires. Send the hunky werewolves back to the kennel.

The zombie is the monster of the moment.

Expect an invasion of them Saturday night at the Pier in St. Petersburg, when the short story anthology Zombie St. Pete launches amid throngs of drooling, partying undead, some of them signing copies of the book.

Its 14 stories are all set in St. Petersburg: A couple barricade themselves in a Pier restaurant to fend off hungry zombies with mops and cans of baked beans; a dog run over by a heedless driver near Maximo Park comes back hungry for revenge; a beauty pageant for tots at Mahaffey Theater goes horribly wrong; a rich man who summons a prostitute to his Bayfront Tower condo for his son's birthday gets an ugly surprise.

"It's a zombie American Idol," says Aaron Alper, one of the book's editors and contributors, "a bunch of ingenues getting a chance to be heard."

Zombie St. Pete came to life as the result of a class in cultural studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in 2009. Zombies 'R' Us: Culture and Politics of the Undead was taught by Frances Auld, now an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County and another editor of the anthology, along with Alper and David Reynolds.

"Everybody wanted to get in" to the class, says Alper, 28, a graduate student in English education. "It was like getting a ticket to a sold-out concert."

While discussing zombie classics like the films of the master, George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead), and other movies such as 28 Days Later and Dead Alive, and reading books like The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless, Auld and some of her students decided to put together a book of "regional zombie fiction," Alper says.

Wanting to make the book "as communal as possible," they posted solicitations for stories around campus and ended up with a variety of authors, whose stories range from straight horror to social satire. They are self-publishing the book but hoping it will be picked up by a publisher for wider distribution.

Zombies are "a myth as old as humanity itself," Alper says, but they've enjoyed a revival in the 21st century, thanks to books like Max Brooks' The Zombie Survival Guide, "zomedy" movies like Shaun of the Dead and video games. The current revenants have mutated from the foot-dragging, mindless brain-eaters of Romero's early films to more aggressive "fast zombies," sentient zombies and even domesticated zombies, like the "pet" in the film Fido.

Other once-human monsters, especially vampires, have been "kidnapped" and glamorized by popular culture, Alper says. "The Twilight vampires aren't threatening at all. If there's no horror in horror, it's useless" as an imaginative way of helping us face our own fears.

Decomposing zombies, however, resist being glamorized. "Their gruesome nature keeps them grounded as second-class citizens, people who are used and rejected," which, Alper says, makes zombies versatile metaphors for all kinds of social injustice.

Sometimes that metaphor is explicit, as in Joe Dante's television movie Homecoming, in which dead soldiers return to vote in an election in which one candidate is the president who sent them to war. Other times, Alper says, it's more general, a way of making us see that, like other spurned and mistreated minorities, "the zombies really are us."

Zombie St. Pete boasts an introduction written by another zombie fiction writer, S.G. Browne. His 2009 debut novel, Breathers: A Zombie's Lament, was published by Broadway Books, an imprint of Random House, to positive reviews and is now in development as a film, with Diablo Cody (Juno) as producer.

Talking by phone from his San Francisco home, Browne says he was "honored" to be asked to write the introduction, and he's pleased to be a guest of honor at the launch party on Saturday. (He will also be signing Breathers at Haslam's Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, at 2 p.m. Saturday.)

Browne, 44, says he grew up on a "steady diet" of books by Stephen King, Peter Straub and other classic horror writers. He wrote three unpublished novels of straight horror before scoring with Breathers, a novel he describes as "Fight Club meets Shaun of the Dead, except the zombies are the good guys."

Browne made his successful change of course, he says, when he read Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk, who also wrote Fight Club, and discovered Palahniuk's patented combination of grotesque story, accomplished literary style and ink-dark humor. "Not that we're doing the same thing, but they're cousins."

Breathers often reads more like a social comedy than a horror story. Its first-person narrator, Andy, is a recently reanimated car crash victim, but he's no mindless flesh eater.

"I thought, what would it be like if you reanimated as a zombie and found out you had no rights, and you needed a lot of therapy as you slowly decompose," Browne says. "Nobody's ever been inside a zombie's head."

Andy attends Undead Anonymous meetings and tries to keep up his formaldehyde levels (finding plenty in soda and cosmetics) and hold out against his "Hollywood urges" to consume human beings. He even falls in love.

In Breathers, zombies are an embarrassment to their families, targets of ridicule and beatings, often employed as crash-test dummies or unwilling organ donors, and sometimes end up confined in animal shelters. It's no easy life after death.

Browne says he's been a fan of zombies since he saw Night of the Living Dead when he was 12. "Vampires are the aristocracy. Zombies are your blue-collar workers, your everyman. It's easier to relate to them.

"Also, they're just tragically comical — shuffling along, body parts falling off, moaning."

Browne's next novel, Fated, to be published in the fall, has supernatural elements but isn't a zombie book.

Alper, though, thinks zombie lit is a growth industry. "With flu scares and rumors that spread on the Internet and pandemics that can go anywhere because of airplanes," he says, creatures that embody our fears of mortal infection won't be staggering offstage anytime soon.

He and some other Zombie St. Pete contributors envision a series of anthologies like it: Zombie New York, Zombie Los Angeles, Zombie Indianapolis.

"Everybody likes to read about their town," he says — even when it's being invaded by the undead.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

IF YOU GO

Zombie St. Pete premiere party

With readings and signings by the anthology's authors, appearances by Breathers: A Zombie's Lament author S.G. Browne and Dead Tide author Stephen North, and performances by alt-rock band Have Gun Will Travel and Thrill St. Pete, performing the Thriller dance. Free, 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday at the Pier, 800 Second St. NE,

St. Petersburg; zombiestpete.com

Zombie St. Pete

Edited by Aaron Alper, Frances Auld and David Reynolds, $14.95

Breathers: A Zombie's Lament

By S.G. Browne

Broadway, 310 pages, $14; sgbrowne.com

St. Petersburg becomes an undead zone for zombie fiction fans 02/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 20, 2010 3:31am]

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