The undead populate the Big Apple in Colson Whitehead’s haunting ‘Zone One’

July 9, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 9, 2013

Colson Whitehead’s 2011 zombie novel, Zone One, gave me nightmares.

There are a number of reasons why that might have been. One is that it’s a horror novel — a tale of the zombie apocalypse — and a damn scary one, to boot. Another is that I rarely read or watch horror stories. A third is that the ending is quite macabre.

Zone One takes place over one weekend, but the events it portrays are pulled from the entire span of the protagonist’s life. He is one Mark Spitz (as he is nicknamed), a native of New York City’s Long Island suburbs who is now based in lower Manhattan — or Zone One, as it’s been dubbed. Spitz and his two Omega squad teammates are sweepers, tasked with entering every single space that might contain a zombie.

Actually, that word is never (to my recollection) used in the book. The monsters are instead referred to by one of two labels: skels, which are the typical mindless zombies that feed on people, and stragglers, which are a novel sort of undead that are frozen in place. Both kinds are to be shot in the head, bagged and hauled (or thrown) down to the street. There, following their collection by Disposal workers, the corpses are carried by horse-drawn cart for incineration at “Fort Wonton.”

Although Zone One is a massive reclamation project, it’s part of an even larger endeavor: The cleansing of post-apocalyptic America. The effort is led by a provisional government in Buffalo that issues pamphlets on “Living with PASD” (that’s post-apocalyptic stress disorder, natch) and is preparing for a global summit.

Mark Spitz is a damaged man, yet he is also — strangely — a flourishing one. In his journey through the zombie-riddled East Coast, he finds safety repeatedly, only to see it compromised time and again.

In this early passage, the protagonist is surprised by some skels in a law office.

They had been there since the beginning, the four of them. Perhaps one had been attacked down on the pavement by “some nut,” that colorful metropolitan euphemism, and was sent home after getting a few stitches at the local underfunded ER — do you have your insurance card handy? — before they understood the nature of the disaster. Then she turned feral and one lucky coworker made it out in time, locked the door, and left her cubicle-mates to fend for themselves. Some variation on that story. No one came back to help because they were overcome by their own situations.

He was the first live human being the dead had seen since the start, and the former ladies of HR were starving. After all this time, they were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone. Their skirts were bunched on the floor, having slid off their shrunken hips long ago, and the dark jackets of their sensible dress suits were made darker still, and stiffened, by jagged arterial splashes and kernels of gore. Two of them had lost their high heels at some point during the long years of bumping around the room looking for an exit. One of them wore the same brand of panties his last two girlfriends had favored, with the distinctive frilled red edges. They were grimed and torn. He couldn’t help but notice the thong, current demands on his attention aside. He’s made a host of necessary recalibrations but the old self made noises from time to time. Then that new self stepped in. He had to put them down.

The youngest one wore its hair in a style popularized by a sitcom that took as its subject three roommates of seemingly immiscible temperaments and their attempts to make their fortune in this contusing city. A crotchety super and a flamboyant neighbor rounded out the ensemble, and it was still appointment television, a top-ten show, at the time of the disaster. The hairdo was called a Marge, after Margaret Halstead, the charmingly klutzy actress who’d trademarked it in the old days of red carpets and flirty tête-a-têtes on late-night chat shows. She hadn’t done anything for Mark Spitz — too skinny — but the legions of young ladies who fled their stunted towns and municipalities to reinvent themselves in the Big City recognized something in her flailings, and fetishized this piece of her. They had been reeled in by the old lie of making a name for oneself in the city; now they had to figure out how to survive. Hunt-and-gather rent money, forage ramen. In this week’s written-up clubs and small-plate eateries, loose flocks of Marges were invariably underfoot, sipping cinnamon-rimmed novelty cocktails and laughing too eagerly.

The Marge nabbed Mark Spitz first, snatching his left bicep and taking it in his teeth. It never looked at his face, ferocious on the mesh of his fatigues and aware exclusively of the meat it knew was underneath. He’d forgotten how much it hurt when a skel tried to get a good chomp going; it had been some time since one had gotten this close. The Marge couldn’t penetrate the intricate blend of plastic fibers — only an idiot cast aspersions on the new miracle fabric, born of plague-era necessity — but each rabid sally sent him howling. The rest of Omega would be here soon, tromping down the halls. He heard the sound of teeth splintering. The sweepers were supposed to stay together, the Lieutenant was firm about that, to prevent this very situation. But the last few grids had been so quiet, they hadn’t stuck to orders.

As you can tell, Whitehead, an American novelist, has more on his mind than just spinning a horror yarn. His post-apocalyptic landscape is one in which survivors have been branded pheenies, short for phoenixes, and resurrected corporations offer sponsorships that determine what may be legally taken and what is available for looting.

At least as viewed by through a post-apocalyptic lens, even the pre-apocalyptic life experienced by “Mark Spitz” was rather grim. Pictures from his childhood show “his parents’ hands dead on his shoulders”; he sees “wireless speakers haunting the corner like spindly wraiths” in his uncle’s lower Manhattan apartment, which also contains “a mausoleum of remotes.”

The city appears to the protagonist like an enormous engine.

He was a mote cycling in the wheels of a giant clock. Millions of people tended to this magnificent contraption, they lived and sweated and toiled in it, serving the mechanism of metropolis and making it bigger, better, story by glorious story and idea by unlikely idea. How small he was, tumbling between the teeth.


Blinds and curtains were open, half open, shut, voids in a punch card decipherable only by defunct mainframes lodged in the crust of unmarked landfills. Pieces of citizens were on display in the windows, arranged by a curator with a taste for non sequitur: the splayed pinstriped legs of an urban golfer putting into a colander; half a lady’s torso, wrapped in a turquoise blazer, as glimpsed through a trapezoid; a fist trembling on a titanium desk.


Yesterday’s old masters, stately named and midwifed by one-famous architects, were insulted by the soot of combustion engines and by technological advances in construction. Time chiseled at elegant stonework, which swirled or plummeted to the sidewalk in dust and chips and chunks. Behind the façades their insides were butchered, reconfigured, rewired according to the next era’s new theories of utility. Classic six into studio honeycomb, sweatshop killing floor into cordoned cubicle mill. In every neighborhood the imperfect in their fashion awaited the wrecking ball and their bones were melted down to help their replacements surpass them, steel into steel. The new buildings in wave upon wave drew themselves out of the rubble, shaking off the past like immigrants.

There’s a lot of subtext in Zone One for readers to chew on, but the superficial horror aspects of the novel are also straight-up pretty chilling. I read Zone One, and I enjoyed it. But it’s also fair to say that I survived this book, too. This is a good read for horror enthusiasts and for literary ones — those who dare venture into its hazardous boroughs, that is.

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