World Crafting: Zombies and The Corporeal Undead

What’s with zombies?  I mean, really, I don’t get it.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good zombie story.  I especially like a good zombie survival game, like Left 4 Dead.

It seems that at some point, the story of undead moved from fantasy to science-fiction.  Instead of zombies being brought back by some voodoo ceremony or demonic rite (such as the Evil Dead, or even Michael Jackson’s Thriller), now they are a biological condition.  I don’t know what the first story was to introduce this twist, but the first time I noticed it was in the movie Resident Evil, with it’s “T-Virus”.

So.  Viruses.  The undead are now sci-fi?  When did that happen?

But even more disturbing… a penchant for necrophilia?

Ok, so vampire love has been around for ages.  People love to boff the sexy undead, whether it was in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (where vampirism is a metaphor for sex, specifically oral sex, shocking for the Victorian age in which it was written), Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, or even (gasp) Twilight.  Ok, let’s not mention Twilight (glitter elves).  Let’s mention instead True Blood, or Vampire Diaries, stories so sexually charged we must ask ourselves, “Are we really turned on by statutory rape with dead people?”  Hmm… when you put it that way…

But I digress.  Getting back to what disturbs me.  A friend of mine recently attended a writer’s conference.  One of the publishers there said they don’t need vampire or werewolf fiction, but if you had a zombie love story ready to go, then they would be ready to publish.


Zombie love?  There’s a demand out there for zombie love?

Apparently there is.  A romantic comedy about a zombie was released this valentine’s day: Warm Bodies.

Dude.  What the fuck?

As an aside, I wonder if it says something about a male dominated storyline that the woman is young, hot, and alive (i.e., not visibly decaying) and the man is a zombie.  Would this have the same appeal if it was her skin that was falling off and cold?  (Ladies, you can answer this for me.  Is a dead man hot?  On second thought, don’t answer.  I don’t want to know.)

Anyway.  This was a long musing that is only tangentially related about what I intended to talk about:  a particular world-building challenge I had when writing Lightfall and Covenant (to be released).

Being undead is somewhat complicated in my world in that there is (slight SPOILER), no confirmed afterlife.    At the start of Lightfall, vampires do not yet exist in the world.  I had two characters that were to be undead, but instead of being a typical evil monster, becoming undead didn’t change the nature of their psychology.  (Well, other than the trauma becoming undead would have… but I’m just saying they weren’t magically turned evil, or anything like that).  Basically, I needed a corpse frozen in decay, animated by the soul of what once had been its soul in life.

A zombie, right?  Well, no.

The problem is, most undead come with a set of expectations for fantasy readers, largely shaped by Dungeons and Dragons (and not by Tolkien).  None D&D players may not realize this, but D&D has influenced writers even as it was influenced by earlier writers.  Readers in the genre, playing D&D or not, will be affected by the tropes it put into the larger genre-stream.

So, which undead type to pick (and modify)?  Since we’re going corporeal, the ghasts, wraiths, spectres, ghosts, and similar disembodied spirits are right out.  Wights… never been too sure on whether wights have their physical bodies or not…


Commonly known corporeal undead:

  • Skeletons.  These are typically animated by necromantic magic.  For all practical purposes, the souls of the deceased have passed on, and the remaining frame is nothing more than an animated golem of sorts.  Of course, sometimes the skeletons do house their ghosts, such as Skeletal Knights, or even Death Knights.
  • Zombies.  These are one of two common cases:  First, they might be versions of Skeletons (animated frames) with decomposing flesh still on them.  Depending on the world, they might eventually become Skeletons.  Point is, they have no minds, other than the specific purpose to which the necromancer programmed them.  In this case, they don’t even eat brains.  Then there is the version that eats brains, maybe made by a curse.  When we get into zombies that are contagious (a relatively new development?), we go, “FUCK!  They’re CONTAGIOUS!  Grab the shotgun!”  Now we’re in a very scary sci-fi plague/contagion/epidemic story.  This story is appealing because epidemics are do damned scary.  At any rate, the zombie label didn’t work for me because it fundamentally comes with two ideas, neither of which I was necessarily going for:  hostile, and mindless.  (As a side note, modern zombies are dirty thieves.  They’ve stolen two ideas from other undead: contagious (vampires) and eating flesh (ghouls).  Stupid zombies.)
  • Ghouls.  Now, here was a possibility.  Ghouls are living corpses, much like vampires, except instead of drinking blood they eat human flesh.  And, they’re possibly contagious.  However, they are also malevolent (eating human flesh makes you a malevolent force–even though we might forgive drinking blood for vampires with a certain kink factor, ghouls don’t get this pass.  Sorry, ghouls.)  And, I wasn’t looking for an undead that was driven to eat people.
  • Mummies.  Well, we all have an idea what a mummy is, but in this case it didn’t work because the characters weren’t embalmed relics of a long dead civilization.  Otherwise, it might have worked.
  • Draughar.  This could have worked, but it’s non standard enough (even though it is folkloric) that everyone would think I’m just ripping off Skyrim.
  • Foresaken.  These are World of Warcraft undead… oh, and close to the concept I’m looking for (except the magical plague which made them).  Essentially, conscious zombies that don’t need the flesh of the living.  However, this name is peculiar to World of Warcraft, so I didn’t want to use it.  And, mine aren’t contagious (I have vampires for that).

I did find an answer to my search.

First, the undead that I’m speaking of comes with certain rules.  It’s not contagious.  It doesn’t make someone evil, although a person might turn evil due to the trauma or the lack of empathy.  The idea was that in certain situations, the magical life force of a person might collapse in upon itself.  The body dies, but the void left by the collapsing life force sucks the soul back into the body, even as the body rejects the soul as having should have moved on.  The body wants to die, but the soul won’t let it.  The soul wants to move on, but the body won’t let it.  Technically, the person is dead, suspended in a fresh state of decay.  Nevertheless, they had a hard time feeling, don’t need to eat or breathe, and will never die (specifically, their soul won’t be released by the body to continue its journey as long as the body is around).  I found another world from folklore that doesn’t seem to be in ubiquitous use, nor pre-programmed with a bunch of tropes:


Ok, that’s all for now.  I’ll save my vampire-design discussion for a future post.



Of Phylacteries and Horcruxes

I remember coming across the description of a lich in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual when I was a kid.

AD&D MM1 art for Lich

I didn’t get what a lich was supposed to be.  The picture wasn’t that descriptive, and it basically read like a guy who studied a lot.  As far as I could tell, he got so obsessed in magical study that he didn’t realize when he died, and became undead to continue pursuing magical knowledge.  Lame, I thought.  Especially with a monster name as silly as “lich”.

The Lich is much more than that.  The Pathfinder Reference Document (spiritual successor of Dungeons and Dragons) describes it better.  This is a person who pursues evil magic for the express purpose of power and becoming immortal.  He does this by using necromantic arts to cut off and hide parts of his soul in a thing called a phylactery.  From the PRD (as previously linked): “The process involves the extraction of the spellcaster’s life-force and its imprisonment in a specially prepared phylactery—the spellcaster gives up life, but in trapping life he also traps his death, and as long as his phylactery remains intact he can continue on in his research and work without fear of the passage of time.”

Sound familiar?

To kill a lich, one must first kill the phylactery.

The first time I encountered this idea was in a series of children’s books based off of Welsh mythology (the Mabinogion) called the Chronicles of Prydain.  Unfortunately, it’s been so long that I can’t remember the details, or even in which book of the series it occurred, but there was a sorceress that they couldn’t kill without finding her phylactery and destroying it (and with it, her soul).

While there are similarities with the character of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings (can’t kill him until you kill the One Ring), he’s not quite a lich.  The Ring acts as a phylactery, because as long as the Ring exists, Sauron’s spirit will always endure to return. However, one of the key ideas of being a lich is that the lich was once a mortal man or woman.  The lich forsake who they were to rise to power.  Sauron was always an immortal spirit.

In World of Warcarft (WoW), we see another use of the term lich:  The Lich King.  While WoW has some lich characters with phylacteries, Arthas the Lich King is a horrible example of a lich.  He’s a king who takes an evil sword, becomes corrupted, and undead. As far as I’ve read, he has nothing that acts as a phylactery, and he’s not a spell caster.  He has powers granted by his undead status (really, he’s more of a death-knight on steroids), but he’s no wizard.  That’s one of the other characteristics of a lich: being a wizard.  So, my working definition:

 A lich is an evil wizard who uses necromancy to cut out and hide fragments of his soul in objects called phylacteries in order to achieve immortality through undeath.

So, in recent literature, I realize that the Harry Potter series is the clearest depiction of a story centered around a lich.  Voldemort is not just an evil wizard.  He’s bent on immortality (as he tells Snape when he kills him).  He has not just 1 phylactery, but 7, which they call horcruxes.  With each horcrux made, he loses his humanity.  While not explicitly undead, he’s starting to look that way.  He was killed, but because of the horcruxes, his spirit endured and returned.  J.K. Rowling doesn’t use the word lich, or phylactery.  From what I can ascertain, I’m not sure she deliberately set out to make a lich story.  However, I can’t think of another tale that so clearly depicts the concept.