The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten
National Public Radio found itself at the center of ferocious public debate recently after the firing of one of its news analysts prompted some political conservatives to call for an investigation into the media outlet’s funding. In related news, flesh-eating zombies have attacked Lake Woebegotten.
All things considered, the zombification of popular literature and popular culture is, well, gosh-darn popular these days. From a take on a Jane Austen classic — Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — to titles from Canadian publisher Coscom Entertainment that include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and
Zombie Jim, Anna Karnivora, and Alice in Zombieland, the undead are alive and selling in retail shops and e-reader download sites worldwide.
I’m not sure if this trend indicates a growing cynicism about, or dismissal of, classic literature and philosophy in the age of too much information and recycled entertainment, or if it signals an unfortunate evolutionary step toward humanity’s intellectual implosion. They may be related, but who has the time to connect the dots when there are so many awesome vampire and zombie shows on TV? Besides, ’tis the season for fanciful, flesh-eating fiction. Let the good tomes rot!
If anyone’s work has ever worn a giant strobing neon sign on its back that read “Zombify Me!” it’s Garrison Keillor’s series of books and NPR radio spots about Lake Wobegon, a fictional agrarian town in Minnesota where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” In The Zombies of Lake
Woebegotten — a quick-read paperback written by someone known as Harrison Geillor — the townspeople are not only conflicted Catholics, lapsed Lutherans, reluctant Jews, and humble makers of delicious noodle-hot-pot dishes and questionably edible lutefisk casseroles. They, themselves, are also incredibly delicious.
When a strange, lighted object streaks across Lake Woebegotten’s gray winter sky, avid ice fisherman and bourbon enthusiast Gunther Montcrief chalks it up to a meteor. But when the dead fish in his cooler start flopping around and he’s forced to chop off their heads to quiet them, he begins to think something else is happening — pollution, maybe?
It soon becomes clear that reanimation isn’t relegated to makeshift shacks on the ice. People in town who have been dead for a while start paying visits to their regular haunts, and it takes some time for the living population to catch on. That’s not to say people from Minnesota are slow, mind you. It’s just best to stay out of other folks’ business — especially if that business is feasting on humans. The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten excels at spinning gross satire from parody — taking Keillor’s quaint and quirky characterizations of rural Minnesota life and giving them a magnificent guts-spattered, meat-flecked makeover. Fans of Keillor’s work who have weak stomachs and strong Judeo-Christian belief systems: welcome to literary shock and awe. There will be blood. And vomit. And exploding heads.
Some may be taken aback by the description of a youth Christmas pageant that devolves into a priest’s inner struggle over whether or not it’s OK to dispatch a limbless, baby-zombie Jesus with a knife to the eyeball during the Nativity scene. To even the spiritual playing field, perhaps, a Nordic-god-worshiping man named BigHorn Jim gets his comeuppance at the hands (well, claws, really, but when you’re on the bad end of ’ em, who’s got the wherewithal to mince words?) of a bear, which goes on to disembowel a murderous, power-tripping harlot. And just because a task force called the Interfaith Anti-Zombie Initiative is formed doesn’t mean everyone’s going to get along.
In a sort of Greater Tuna-meets-Grand-Guignolin-Fargo fashion, The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten strikes a balance between humor, horror-fiction gratuitousness, and tense psychological drama. You’ll meet a dominatrix/waitress with martial-arts skills and a heart of gold. You’ll admire, to some degree, a serial killer who, given the circumstances, becomes an asset to the town’s security needs because he’s so darn good at what he does. (He may be too good.) You’ll also meet a woman in an unhappy marriage who goes to great lengths to pursue personal freedom and self-validation. You might do that, too, if your husband, the mayor, was having sexual relations outside your marriage — with his car.
The spooky stuff isn’t the flesh eaters. It’s the townspeople, whose lives are turned upside down before the zombie uprising, despite the suggestion that the biggest worry they face is whether or not Café Lo — “The sign out front read Cafe Loquacious, but if you went ahead and said all that you were just putting on airs, and might as well go around wearing Italian leather shoes and driving a red convertible car and thinking you were better than everybody else.” — might run out of rhubarb pie before suppertime.