"Zora and the Zombie" by Andy Duncan: An Appreciation by Andy Wolverton
Those are the perfect words to open Andy Duncan's "Zora and the Zombie." Truth is exactly what writer Zora Neale Hurston is looking for in 1936 Haiti, any type of truth she can use as potential story material. When she learns of a woman thirty years dead wandering a local road, Hurston knows she's found her material. (Along the way, of course, she'll find a whole lot more.)
The stunning thing about the story is that it could all be true. We know from her non-fiction book Tell My Horse that Hurston did visit Haiti, did meet "zombie" Felicia Felix-Mentor, and did become the first person to photograph one of the living dead. As for the rest of the story, if it didn't happen the way Andy Duncan writes it, it sure feels like it did.
It feels true because Andy knows his setting and characters so well. Sure, all good writers know how to make setting and character come alive, but Duncan's stories don't feel researched, they feel lived in. For all I know, Andy Duncan has observed a drum-frenzied truth ceremony, has ridden in a crowded tap-tap bumping along a dusty, pothole-ridden highway, and has probably met a coven of red-robed cannibals on an abandoned moonlit road.
Duncan latches onto historical details, savors them, and sprinkles them in exactly the right places. Even if you can't find Haiti on a map, as you read the story, you know exactly what it feels like to be there. If Andy had been around in the 1940's, I Walked with a Zombie producer Val Lewton would have no doubt hired him as a consultant.
Duncan also understands the essential relationship between setting and character. The arrogant doctor, the frightened housekeeper, the temptress Erzulie-–they're all perfect extensions of the Haitian setting. But it's Zora who's the stranger, and the story's most fascinating character. With masterful strokes, Duncan shows us Hurston's brazen confidence in the presence of the arrogant Dr. Legros, her boldness in standing toe-to-toe with a goddess, and her subtle use of sexuality to get what she wants. By the end of the story, you know this character.
Writing historical figures into fiction can be dangerous, but Duncan has previously done so in expert fashion with Abraham Lincoln ("Lincoln in Frogmore"), General George S. Patton "Fortitude"), and several others. With Zora Neale Hurston, the results are just as impressive. In the introduction to "Zora and the Zombie" in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror Eighteenth Annual Collection, Duncan states, "If this story inspires others to seek out her work, I'm happy."
Anytime a historical figure appears in a work of fiction and leaves the reader hungering to learn more, the writer has done his job. Duncan has done that and told a great story in the process. Thanks, Andy. And thanks, Ellen, for sharing it with us.
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