4.15.2011

Review: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim, by Mark Twain and W. Bill Czolgosz

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has always been the subject of controversy. Many conservative critics believe it should be banned from schools and libraries because of its content. For those who’ve never read it, the story takes place along the Mississippi river prior to the Civil War and as such contains speech in the vernacular, some regionalism and some terms of local color. That’s a literary term, not a pun.

In the eye of the critical storm is Twain’s use of the word “nigger”, though it should be noted that the book and its main characters are anti-racist and, given the period in which it takes place and the period in which it was written, it is actually apropos. This year, an edition of the book was published by “NewSouth” which replaced the offending word with the slightly less incendiary “slave,” though the two are not synonymous and carry entirely different connotations. For one thing, while the former is descriptor, the latter is, for all intents and purposes, an occupation.* For another, there are historical implications with both words that are completely disregarded in supplanting one for the other. I discussed this back in January.

Those same critics, however, will probably enjoy W. Bill Czolgosz’s zombified version which removes the familiar moniker and replaces it, not with slave, but with an invention of the zombie world. This is not to say that Czolgosz makes all black people zombies. His omission is a means to an end. The zombie illness (Huck calls it the fissythis, which Ms. Watson corrects as Phthisis) that leads to zombification can create either subdued living dead or manic living dead. In between the actual death and reanimation, the deceased’s family place the body in a bag (and hang it from a tree or something similar) and the next day the zombie is either patiently waiting to be let out, or behaving much like the proverbial cat trying to claw out of the literal bag. Subsequently, the reanimated persons are called “baggers.” They can be any race and any gender. Czolgosz pursues the concept that, once the fissythis was full-blown, the slaves (not a euphemism) were emancipated, and the baggers were enslaved in their place. The idea being that, since they’re already dead, what harm could slavery do?

In Ben H. Winter’s mash-up of Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, Colonel Brandon (whom Marianne does not love at first for his age and propriety) is affected by the sea monster affliction, or whatever Winters calls it… he’s got a Cthulu face. This complicates the conflict in Marianne’s affections and elicits a more sexualized interpretation of Brandon’s differences from other men.

Czolgosz does the same thing with Jim – being black, he’s already different from the other people at the forefront of the story. Top that with his being a zombie, and the consequences multiply. Huck must worry, not only for Jim’s safety as a runaway, but for his own well-being—after all, Jim is a brain-hungry zombie, all alone with Huck on the raft.

Tensions are heightened, to say the least, and Jim’s humanity, like Brandon’s, means something else. In the original, it served as a parry to the entrenched racism of the period. Here though, that humanity has a violent side. It doesn’t really serve the novel well. Obviously, Czolgosz was looking for an excuse, in a world where zombies are the slaves, to have Jim end up on that raft. The obvious solution was to make Jim both black and a bagger (in other words, he was a slave before and he's a slave now, too). The change yields nothing positive, and takes away from the historical poignancy. And more to the point, in the scene where Huck slaughters a pig in order to engineer his escape, this book replaces the pig with a young “bagger.” The humanity line here is blurred at best, and that alteration doesn’t serve any real purpose in the long run. Killing a pig is different from killing someone who shares a condition with the person you're closest to.

This isn’t racism… but in removing the racist attitudes against one group of people and replacing it with a kind of semi-racism against the zombies (encouraging inhumane treatment just because they’re already dead – this, by the by, backfires because hey, they’re zombies, and zombies gotta eat) the directness of the original satire is lost and the result is just a confusing amalgamation of Twain prose and zombie annoyance. Maybe I’m a snob, but I happen to think that satire that makes sense and hits the mark is a lot more interesting than throwing the satire out the window just to make a quick buck on another mash-up.

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*Contributor credit: Jessica Pruett-Barnett

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