Because it is coming on Halloween and because there exists a novel touted as “The Great Canadian Gay Mennonite Zombie Novel,” I have spent the last few days immersed in the world of Mennonite zombiedom — or is that zombie Mennodom? Yeah. Thanks, a heap, Corey Redekop.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Mennonite culture and zombie fandom were as distinct as the Mennonite Brethren from the Amish. (But, then, you might also have thought that Mennonite culture and cocktail culture were pretty distinct). How wrong you would be.
It turns out that googling “Mennonite Zombie” brings up a whole page and a half of results, only one or two of them referring to Redekop’s book. In addition to the novel’s publicity, zombies have appeared in a couple of sermons preached in Mennonite churches, a blog post linking American gun culture and fears of a zombie apocalypse, an academic piece about a conference pulling together Mennonite apocalypticism and the zombie sort, and even a news item about a Church youth group zombie event. That’s not even counting the cameo appearances of stereotyped Mennonites in a zombie TV series or an ill-fated kickstarter for a Mennonite zombie graphic novel. There – consider that your brief but exhaustive survey of the Mennonite zombiedom.
Husk is not a particularly “Mennonite” Mennonite novel.The protagonist of the novel is Sheldon Funk, a newly-undead actor with ethnic Mennonite roots. We know his Mennonite heritage from his name — Funk being a not uncommon Mennonite name — and from two (!) sidelong references in the text. It is quite possible that zombie-novel aficionados outside of the Mennolands might not catch on.
I am not, however, prepared to leave it there. If I look deep enough and drink enough, I am convinced that I can unearth a couple of remotely Mennonite themes in the novel. Though I may have to stretch the definition to include all forms of Anabaptism and all cultural variants of the Mennodom.
There be spoilers if you read on.
Scroll quickly to get to the cocktail if you don’t want to know more of the plot.
That zombies are having a cultural moment right now is perhaps down to both our collective fear of death and our discomfort with the mindless hordes that seem to already populate our planet. Our lives are long in the Global North in the twenty-first century and real death distant from everyday life but we might sometimes fear the masses that seem barely alive, shuffling mindlessly after the latest trend, lockstep with all the others around them, impervious to violence and out to destroy what we hold most dear — the individual self.
Insofar as Husk pits individual against horde/community, it deals with a theme familiar to any with a passing Mennonite acquaintanceship. We’re pretty big into community — even the more liberal of us. Sheldon is an enigma in the particular zombie universe that’s painted in the novel because he is a zombie who has managed to maintain his selfhood. He is an individual who has fought off all of the instincts that pull him towards the horde. Potlucks and moments of shared worship are not even bittersweet memories.
It would, of course, be easier to see the zombie horde as a reference to Mennonite communal life if the Church played a larger role in the novel. Sheldon has long since left the fold by the time the novel begins and, in fact, we never learn whether he was ever really part of a Church community. His mother stands in as the representative of the Mennonite faith heritage but she isn’t much of a representative, her own faith appearing to be defined more by homophobia and American fundamentalism than by anything particularly Anabaptist (she’s also got dementia, which makes her not the most reliable source on all things Anabaptist). The mother doesn’t fare well in the novel, but then, it’s a zombie novel — lots of people don’t fare well. If she represents Mennonites, the novel has us doomed but only in the same way that the rest of humanity is doomed.
Like many individuals in a community, Sheldon spends much of his time trying to fit in. It is extreme in his case. Everything external about him — his voice, his physical appearance and his eating habits — revolt the people around him to the point of vomiting and/or passing out. His is, after all, a walking, talking, decaying human body. All of our bodies are, really, but we mostly don’t like to think about them as carcasses in the making.
Underneath all of the Conservative Churches’ rumblings about homosexuality and same sex marriage is, of course, a deep uneasiness with the body and its relationship to the soul. Biblical exegesis aside, there can be no denying that a rejection of sexual minorities in the Church has a visceral element to it as LGBTQ individuals have been made to stand as billboards for all things bodily. Revulsion is there in the eyes of the religious right even as it is in the eyes and stomachs of Sheldon’s acquaintances. Even liberal Churches who argue the unfairness of defining and excluding a group by its sexuality don’t deny an unease with the body as a messy, sexy, decaying husk of a container to carry about the soul. Mennonite Churches stand on both sides of this divide.
The novel begins with a birth sequence — Sheldon being “born again” as a zombie. This is written with rich detail and humour — by far the most enjoyable account of being born again that I have encountered. Conversion stories typically start with repentance: a recognition of the sinfulness of one’s life and a desire to change. Sheldon is born again for no discernible reason, repentance and change coming later in reaction not to his previous life as a human, but to his new zombie instincts. Sheldon had not been particularly successful in his career or in his relationships while he was alive and it was only after he was reborn as a zombie that things start to turn around for him (while turning the stomachs of those around him). Throughout the novel, Sheldon is driven by his duty to his mother, his love for his cat, his personal desire for greatness as an actor, and his fear of persecution. And every now and then, he comes to a place where he rises to the challenge to resist evil and, you know, save the world from a fate worse than a zombie apocalypse. I’m not sure how Mennonite any of that is.
Though religion sits in the shadows of Husk, the spectre of eternal life is at its heart. His brief moment of heroism near the end of the novel sees Sheldon conquer the evil mastermind who wishes to harness zombie power to rule the world and gain eternal life in his own terms. A spiritual leader to the zombie horde, Sheldon then frees his fellow zombies from captivity (thus probably unleashing a zombie apocalypse on the world), releases his cat, and severs all ties to his body expecting, but not receiving, an end to his consciousness. Instead, he gets eternal life. This eternal life was neither the hell of the conservative Churches nor the sort of Heaven that transcends time and place. Is that Mennonite? Who knows. Mennonites can’t really decide what we mean by the afterlife so the ending of the novel may or may not represent some Mennonite thoughts somewhere.
Let’s have a drink and think it over.
The Sheldon Funk
As there already exists a cocktail called the Zombie, it stands as the model for the Sheldon Funk. I have substituted apple cider and pear juice for the pineapple juice in a traditional zombie since Sheldon lives in Toronto and we grow apples and pears in these parts, but not pineapples.
- 1 oz white rum
- 1 oz golden rum
- 1 oz dark rum
- 1 oz pear brandy
- 1 oz pear nectar
- 1 oz sweet apple cider
- 1/2 tsp grenadine
- 1/2 oz 151 proof rum
- 1 small pear or ghoulish Halloween decoration
Place all ingredients except for the overproof rum and the garnish into a shaker half-ful of ice. Shake vigorously. Strain into a cocktail glass. Float the overproof rum on the top of the cocktail and garnish by impaling the pear with a skewer or creatively using some leftover Halloween decorations.