Swain’s aims in “How to Make a Zombie” are not the same as Nelson’s. In the introduction, he promises that zombies show “what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, and what it means to be the master of your own destiny.” But his loose language and the book’s looser organization prevent him from plumbing these philosophical questions. Rather, the book’s success lies in blurring the boundary between human and zombie. “You are an undead zombie, and you always have been,” he concludes. Zombies aren’t bad: They are us, our friends, family and lovers.
The path Swain follows to this conclusion is a lot like a zombie’s walk, indirect and digressive. Swain is the author of the blog Science Punk, and his writing shows that influence. It is breezy, disjointed, inconclusive — so much like a blog that at one point Swain suggests that the reader set up a Google alert to keep up with the latest research on near-death experiences.
The book misses hyperlinks. As it is, the citation style, notes and bibliography make it difficult to see the evidence for his arguments — and this is important because his history is not always to be trusted. He offers a simplistic view of the medieval Catholic Church as an impediment to science, a stereotype overturned by historians over the past two decades. His description of Mesmerism is similarly naive. Swain takes it as a given that when Franz Anton Mesmer hypnotized people in the 18th century, he was completely in control. Historian Alison Winter, however, shows that these performances were collaborative, with the subjects often forcing the action.
Swain is also betrayed by his language. Discussing 17th-century concerns about the difficulty of diagnosing death, for example, he writes, “Slowly but surely the space between living and dead was widened,” when exactly the opposite was happening — the distinction between life and death was becoming harder to define. Hanged people sometimes resuscitated. Experiments showed that electricity animated corpses. Fireplace bellows returned breath to the asphyxiated.
The term to suffer the most abuse is “zombie.” Swain begins by considering attempts to explain zombies in Haiti — were they the products of drugs, or were they fulfilling a social role? (He offers no answer.) He then moves to experiments reviving the dead and keeping organs alive outside the body — scientific attempts to create something resembling a zombie — before examining various forms of mind control. He dips into the history of efforts to manipulate behavior with drugs and lobotomies and then moves to parasites that usurp the will of their hosts, straining the definition of “zombie” almost beyond recognition.
With a culminating chapter on the global trade in human body parts, we leave zombies completely behind. The link among this panoply of stories is not the creation of the undead or mindless servants but the persistence of a vulgar materialism in scientific research. Sergei Bryukhonenko’s creation of the first heart-lung machine to keep alive severed dog heads and Jose Delgado’s hope to create a “psychocivilized” society by implanting electrodes in everyone’s brain share one thing: the belief that the human body is only a machine.
But there is something else that unifies the book, making it more than the sum of its parts and overcoming its limitations. That is Swain’s infectious enthusiasm. For those willing to get lost in “How to Make a Zombie,” not worrying overmuch about the terms of the argument or where it is going, this is a fun book. The stories are wonderful and well told. Readers get extensive coverage of Bryukhonenko’s grisly research and Walter Freeman’s lobotomy industry — more than 200 operations in one two-week period! — and the Turkish honey that drives people mad and the wasps that make caterpillars guard their cocooning young and a virus that makes its host violent.
Typical is the story of Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that needs cats to complete its life cycle. The protozoan, though, is often passed to rodents and humans, too. Disturbingly fascinating research suggests that the parasite returns to cats by changing the brain of its suboptimal hosts, making mice attracted to cats (the better to be eaten) and maybe also altering human behavior. People infected with T. gondii seem to be chronically reckless. Swain wonders if the point isn’t to make the human vectors more likely to die, so the parasite can then move into a feline that takes a bite out of the dead person.
And so, in Swain’s accounting, the infected are zombies. Indeed, we are all zombies. Everyone is controlled, at least somewhat, by unseen forces. The book is alive. The zombie tales Swain tells are love stories.
Joshua Blu Buhs
, the author of “Bigfoot: The Life and Times of an American Legend,” is at work on a history of the Forteans.