Florian Andrei Vlad holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Heidelberg and a Ph.D. from “Ovidius” University,
Constanta, in whose Faculty of Letters he has been teaching British and American literature for some time now. His first book-length volume on American fiction, based on his Heidelberg MA thesis, Fictional Americas at War, was published in 2006. After defending his PhD thesis, New Flesh, Old Demons, on representations of contamination in American literature, he went on to co-author a book on British literature - British Gothic and Its Travelling Companions - and one on American 19th century: Literary Selves and Identity Narratives in the First American Century. After Rewriting of the American Culturescape, his current book-length projects focus on 20th century British and American poetry, and a volume dedicated to the American poet John P. Quinn.
Contemporary background and relevance /7
Approaches and conceptual framework / 10
Thematic framework/ 17
Gothic: Roots and Shadows Framing American Pestilential Narratives/39
1.1 Prologue /39
1.2 The plague, the pharmakos, the pharmakon/ 44
1.3 Horror in relation to terror and the sublime/ 60
1.4 The uncanny: defamiliarizing the “homely” /71
1.5 Poe, Hawthorne, Melville and the rise of the house of terror/ 90
1.6 The uncanny, the vampire, the zombie /101
Irreconcilable Bodies: Flesh beyond Metaphor / 113
2.1 Prologue / 113
2.2 From flesh to metaphor, metonymy and the hyperreal / 119
2.3 Decoding contagious metaphorical complexes: the undead /135
2.4 Decoding contagious metaphorical complexes: Quarantine/ 149
Fear, Horror, Disgust in Recent Pestilential Narratives/ 167
3.2 Pestilential fantasies: transgressive aesthetics and counter-moralist narratives in True Blood and The Walking Dead/ 171
3.3 Ethical and aesthetic strategies of disgust in the culture of death: Sookie & Co. /176
3.4 Some relevant perspectives on cannibalism and the Other / 198
3.5 Disease and cannibalism in two post-apocalyptic films: Land of the Dead and The Road / 204
3.6 The cultural politics of fear and Children of Men /216
CONCLUSIONS / 227
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired.
And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all. (Poe b 10)
”I want your ugly, I want your disease” (Lady Gaga, ”Bad Romance”)
Contemporary background and relevance In August 2014, President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 131295, mandating the apprehension and quarantining of Americans ”showing signs of respiratory illness”. This extraordinary act, considering the special circumstances perceived as such by the general public, reminiscent of the quarantine policies of medieval European cities, was taken against the backdrop of media hysteria and paranoia about Ebola, the exotic, blood-borne disease that has caused thousands of victims in Africa and which has superficially similar symptoms to a zombie apocalypse. On September 18, 2014, another presidential executive order declares that combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a national security priority, contagion now, in an age of interconnectedness and interdependence, having a global reach, and defining the spirit of our times, in the opinion of Alison Bashford and Claire Hooker: Defying fantasies of control, corroding internal integrity, and ignoring the borders that define and defend identity, contagion is considered a threat to individual, national and global security. [...] the metaphors and corporeal experience of contagion, resistance and immunity greatly exercise the spheres of government, biomedicine and popular culture, as well as post-structuralist theory and history (Bashford and Hooker 1).
Rewind to October 16, 2011: the second season of the zombie series The Walking Dead premiered on AMC, at 7.3 million viewers becoming the most watched episode in the history of cable television drama (beating the record set by the first season premiere of the same series, and eclipsing immensely successful series such as Mad Men). A month earlier, Karl Lagerfeld caused a sensation with a post-apocalyptic themed collection for Chanel, drawing inspiration from the zombie apocalypse, vampire and dystopian genres. The month before that, just across the Atlantic, the streets of London erupted in mindless, gratuitous violence that left sociologists, journalists and political activists both left and right baffled and unable to give a coherent explanation.
The outbreak of contagious violence looks eerily reminiscent of the bloodthirsty frenzy scenes one would expect from a zombie movie. This was not the explosion of pent-up social rage as was the case with the Los Angeles riots in 1992, or the organized, politically-motivated violence manifested in the Genoa or Seattle riots. People of all ethnicities, skin colors and social classes (from street thugs to professional athletes to the children of millionaires) were beating the hell out of each other and smashing shop windows to steal sneakers or Ipods, in what looked more like the notorious shopping mall zombie rampage scene in Dawn of the Dead than a “traditional” riot. Back in the US, contagious, mindless violence has manifested itself in a series of school shootings, or, less lethally in viral acts of violence like “the knockout game”, where teenagers assault unsuspecting strangers, and put the footage online.
In 2012, in the Republican presidential debates in the US, candidates such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich listed apocalyptic-level biological threats as realistic dangers. Also in 2012, all-American icons got infected by the bug of apocalypticism: Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt unleashed upon the public (as both actor and producer) the film version of Max Brooks’ acclaimed zombie novel, World War Z, while the American historical icon Abraham Lincoln was fictionalized as the scourge of the undead in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. On our side of the Atlantic, the European Union has been facing an existential threat due, at least in part, to a snowballing “financial contagion” that seems to be the harbinger of the Euro-apocalypse. And had Scotland voted for independence, Europe would also have experienced a “plague” of separatism.
In short, the trope of apocalyptic, pestilential contagion is, pun intended, more virulent than ever. And if we were in any remaining doubt of its cultural immediacy, one need only remember the headlines caused by Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier’s claim to have created an airborne strain of the avian influenza virus that has the potential to exterminate half of the world’s population. Martin Enserink, in a 2011 online Science Insider article, described the news as a “media storm,” although the consequences of the new creation might lead to pandemics and apocalyptic destruction (Enserink). Slightly less impressively, the Japanese virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka engineered a version of the H5N1 virus that would only kill 400 million people. And in the summer of 2014 the media abounded in rumors that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known primarily for their viral videos of beheading infidels, have been working on creating an engineered version of the bubonic plague, which wiped out a third of Europe’s population in 1348-1349.