Short Fiction Review: Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields

Well, it’s October finally, which means Halloween is fast approaching. It also means that for the next month, we (pop culture) will be celebrating all things that bump in the night. I enjoy a good ghost story, or a good werewolf flick. I can always be regaled by the tale of a lonely vampire or a Frankenstein’s Monster. However, one particular type of ghoulish creature (‘dead’ giveaway right there) has fascinated me as of late. He (or she) shambles. He’s dirty. Pretty dumb really. Hangs out with a bunch of buddies and roams around hoping to chance upon a rabbit or a deer, or better yet, a person if there are any of those still left. Yes, I’m not afraid to admit it.

I’ve fallen in love with Zombies!

Just can’t help it really. And while there will be all sorts of creepy crawlies and ghastly . . . other things that start with the letter G, I’ll be keeping my eye on the zombies. So, for my fiction review this week, I decided to go back to the source. Go back to where it all started: William Buehler Seabrook’s Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields. This piece (I believe) was originally part of a larger work by the same author called The Magic Island, and from what I can gather, is an account of Seabrook’s visit to Haiti, way back in 1929. I’m sure it was embellished some, and I’m sure that its contents were probably expanded upon and used by others who had a taste for the occult.

Great image from: http://survivingthedead.wordpress.com/

Great image from Mike Kloran via survivingthedead.wordpress.com

*Fun Fact: Apparently Seabrook had the taste for humans. Reportedly, he stayed with a cannibalistic tribe in West Africa, and eventually tried a ‘roast’ of actual human flesh back in America. Compared it to veal. Thought the tastes were so similar that all but the most discerning pallet would likely not be able to distinguish the difference. At least that is the myth.

 However, Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields is the first story to ever use the Z-word (zombie). The story isn’t long. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with an extra half-hour to kill. Was really quite interesting to see the similarities, and differences, between this seemingly archaic conception of a zombie, and what we now perceive them to be.

A Master of Puppets is Pulling the Strings . . .

Seabrook’s zombies are the vacant, dumb, shambling creatures we are familiar with but with one very important difference: They are not their own vacant, dumb, and shambling creatures. What I mean is they must be told what to do. In Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields, the narrator (and through narration, the reader also) is told of corpses that are ‘dragged from their graves’ to go work in the fields. In Seabrook’s account, our precious zombies aren’t killers or cannibals themselves but simply work the fields and follow orders. Slaves really. They are kept away from the other workers because the master doesn’t want them to know that his workers are corpses. He’s afraid that someone will recognize a brother, sister, or other family member and demand (perhaps violently) that they be returned the afterlife.

Interestingly enough, the zombies are cooked separate food that has neither salt, nor meat in it. The superstition here is that should the zombies eat salt or meat, the food reminds them they are dead and they wail until they are back in their graves. Personally this seems like a rather silly picture in my mind but I’m sure it would be quite frightening to actually witness. I’m also wondering if the more modern, flesh eating zombies we are familiar with today are some kind of misappropriation of Seabrook’s own cannibalism and the horrific creatures he wrote about. No way to know for sure.

Zombie Keebler elves!

No, this is a Keibler elf, not a Keebler elf.

No, this is a Keibler elf, not a Keebler elf.

One similarity between Seabrook’s tale and more modern zombie sagas, is the presence of large corporations at work either creating the zombies, or using them in some way. In Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields, the narrator hears that Hasco or Haitian-American Sugar Company, is using the zombies to work their fields. The narrator then compares Hasco to Nabisco (ok not Keebler sorry) and some other large American corporations and announces his utter surprise  at hearing such strange business. I think about movies like Resident Evil and perhaps some others, which all use big corporations as the ‘bad guy’ who is responsible for the zombie outbreak. I marvel at the fact that this is the thing that stays the same when so many other zombie tropes have changed and mutated with time. I suppose if you wanted to get down to it, perhaps the essence of zombie fiction lies somewhere in the betrayal of big corporations. Not sure just yet but certainly something to think about as I read more zombie stories.

Anyway . . .

I suppose I’ve written all of this to say something much simpler and that is: “Get excited because it’s October and let’s talk about zombies.”

Give Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields a read if you have the chance. There isn’t a lot to it, but it is at least interesting to know what got this whole zombie thing started. I guess that is all for now. New story next week. Bye!

These guys still crack me up!

These guys still crack me up!

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