Paffenroth, Kim (Valley of the Dead)

Kim Paffenroth loves his zombies. So much so that the Stoker-award-winning author has dedicated a good portion of his writing to them. Beginning with his Gospel of the Living Dead, Paffenroth has examined every aspect of the undead mythos, from social commentary to just straight-out horror. With his newest creation, Valley of the Dead, Paffenroth takes a zombie-themed look at one of the most famous, and earliest works of horror: Dante’s Inferno.

From the synopsis: “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 travelled 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 of the three. 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 apart by dogs, eviscerated, impaled, crucified, etc. – become the basis of all the horrors he describes in Inferno. Afraid to be labelled a madman, Dante made the terrors he witnessed into a more “believable” account of an otherworldly adventure with demons and mythological monsters, but now the real story can finally be told.

Sounds interesting. I caught up with Paffenroth and asked him a few questions about his latest zombie masterpiece.

Dread Central: What inspired you to retell Dante’s story?

Kim Paffenroth: When I was working on my analysis of Romero’s zombie films, Gospel of the Living Dead (Baylor, 2006), I was struck by how similar his zombies are to the damned in Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s vision is not so much about the flames and the usual trappings of hell, as it is about how sin can rob people of their choices, weakening their wills until they’re reduced to mindless zombies, eternally repeating the bad habits. Later I thought of reversing the influence: what if Romero’s zombies were similar to the inhabitants of Dante’s hell, because Dante had actually seen a zombie infestation? Then the horrors he put into his poem would not be a matter of his imagination, but of his recollecting the violence he’d seen committed by the living dead. He’s not just a poet – he’s like a war correspondent! To create the effect, I then worked through Inferno, thinking of how the zombies behavior would parallel the images in each canto. And I’ve been so fascinated by Dante since I first read him, that that was one of the more fun writing processes I’ve had.

DC: Why zombies? It seems like it would be easier to work with demons.

Paffenroth: Part of my intent was to create a secularized version of Inferno – a version that didn’t use the characters or categories of Christianity, so that a contemporary audience unfamiliar or in disagreement with Christian ideas about the afterlife could still experience some of the beauty and terror of Dante’s vision. I remember my professor in college suggested that a non-Christian could still get something from Dante’s poem, if Dante had made a persuasive story of how these people and their behaviors were bad, irrespective of any specifically Christian framework. I think Dante’s done that, and I’m just trying to help him be a little more accessible to a modern audience who knows Romero’s zombies better than they know Aristotle’s categories, or Plato’s allegory of the cave, or the Bible’s story of the Exodus.

DC: How much research did you do into the life of Dante around the time he wrote Inferno?

Paffenroth: I’ve read Inferno eight or nine times, so Dante’s analysis of sin is pretty indelibly etched in my memory, and how he’d depict it or react to it is pretty second nature to me. But what might’ve been the last piece of the puzzle was when I read The Romance of the Rose for the first time this year. (It’s a medieval work that expresses a lot of the idealized romance that Dante sees in his feelings for Beatrice.) I felt like I had a better sense of how he’d look at things, especially women, so I felt more comfortable writing from his point of view. And to be honest, I’d always known he was in exile for a long time, but I didn’t know how sketchy our knowledge was of his whereabouts until I looked it up: a seventeen year gap when he could’ve been anywhere in Europe, doing anything? That’s a pretty tempting target for someone thinking of writing historical fiction.

DC: Do zombies tend to lend themselves to historical re-tellings?

Paffenroth: I think since zombification reduces people to slavering, mindless, speechless beasts, the monstrosity is kind of timeless, isn’t it? I can’t think of anything historically specific about them, like with mummies, or how vampires are usually associated with Victorian Europe (either as to dress and habits, or as to the sexual repression that makes Count Dracula more interesting). That being said, I think Romero films, and especially zombie video games, have acclimated us to thinking of zombies as a twentieth century monster (especially one that gets shot very messily in the head), so envisioning them in other historical periods is a fun thought experiment – how people would fight them, or how they’d even talk about them, if they didn’t have any modern categories of disease and viruses to explain what was happening.

DC: You seem to have built your career (fiction-wise) around the living dead. What other horror creatures do you think you’ll take a stab at?
Paffenroth: I’ve just finished a ghost story that I’m very happy about – both because it’s non-zombie, and because it was more of a “regular” story I wanted to tell, one about loss and grief and hurting the ones we love. I think zombies and ghosts are two nice extremes for me of what our fears of death revolve around – one has a body and no mind and tries to kill the living, the other has a mind and no body and can no longer interact with the living. They’re both more pathetic than heroic or tragic, and I think that’s ultimately our fear – that life will have amounted to nothing, and we’ll be reduced to muteness and irrelevance.

DC: Your background is in religious studies. In fact, you have a PhD in religious studies. How does your education in the field of religion show through and translate to your horror fiction work?

Paffenroth: That’s funny, cause you just reminded me of that movie, Doc Hollywood, where the Bridget Fonda character asks the Michael J. Fox character if doctors know more about sex than “regular” people. Well, same concept here. Professors of theology or religious studies don’t know any more about God or faith than anyone else, but we’re more comfortable asking questions about such things – or of framing other questions in religious terms. Or, as in this case, taking a very elaborate system that is built on Christian concepts, and reframing it in non-Christian terms. It’s an exciting process of translation I go through when I write: I try to take something that frightens or bothers me, think of how I’d explain that problem from my Christian perspective, then think how I’d present my explanation it to someone else without using any reference to Christian beliefs. So it’s a subtext or a process, but I’m learning to be more careful and not make it too obvious or blatant, or it comes out as clunky and heavy-handed.

DC: What do your colleagues at Iona (where you were the chair of the Department of Religious Studies) think about your fiction work?

Paffenroth: Bemused, so far. Maybe a little curious. It’s more common for my colleagues in the English department to publish fiction, so that makes it a little less odd for a professor to write fiction. I think people are getting more used to the idea that scholarship and also religious faith can express themselves in new idioms and languages. I think we have to accept the idea that if you want to explain Dante (or Aristotle or the Bible) to a contemporary audience, giving them a lecture or writing a scholarly essay on the topic is going to accomplish a lot less than if you wrote a novel or comic book or made a movie that was informed by your scholarship.

DC: Do you feel you might adapt any others of Dante’s work? (Purgatorio or Paradiso)

Paffenroth: I immediately had my eye on Purgatorio – a lot fewer people have read it, but the tortures are in many cases almost worse and more terrifying: the lustful in Inferno are buffeted by winds, while the lustful in Purgatorio have to march slowly through walls of flame that are described by Dante as like molten glass (ouch). It’s funny, though: the sheer intricacy of Inferno (lots more categories of sin) would seem to make it more cumbersome to adapt, but the images are so powerful, they sustain the elaborate edifice, even for a modern audience, many of whom don’t believe in the premise of the poem. Purgatorio, on the other hand, almost seems too simple, and the sinners don’t stand out in such fascinating ways.

DC: How do you feel that Dante has influenced modern horror? Not just Zombie horror, but other branches as well.

Paffenroth: Two ways – one big scale, one little. I think any time you have scenes of mass destruction, vast panoramas of corpses and broken buildings, that’s “Dantean” in the sense of “hellish” on a large scale. And we use that category whether it’s fictional or historic. I was watching a show on The Military Channel last night on the invasion of Tarawa, and the soldier mentioned Dante’s Inferno when describing how the island had been reduced to nothing but smoldering sand, bloated bodies, and shattered machinery. The smaller scale influence is, I think, whenever you have a depiction of evil where the evil person is not heroic, but is so mundane and ordinary, because that’s Dante’s point, too. And again, the label works for fiction and history – think of King’s Apt Pupil, or the interviews with Eichmann that led Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil.” Dante would know exactly what we’re talking about with those people and situations.

DC: What’s the next literary piece you’ll be Zombie-fying?

Paffenroth: I’m leaning toward Moby-Dick, because I love it as much as I love Dante, and my style is definitely more compatible with American Gothic than with medieval terza rima. So much of the novel is about confronting God and death, and about the “wolfish” or cannibal nature of the whole creation, that to set it in a world populated with walking corpses again seems more like homage and interpretation, than parody or misappropriation of it.

Scott A. Johnson

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Scott A. Johnson