The Mythogenic Principle, Or Why Reading Zombie Lit at the Beach is a Very Bad Idea

It’s one of the reasons watching horror films is so fun, isn’t it? Though the possibility that a serial killer who has spent too much time collecting comic books or reading 19th century engineering reports is hiding behind your couch and will leap out and, after limping after you with a mad grimace and improvised weapon while you are running in your underwear through your now gargantuan and unusually well-groomed backyard will catch you and cut you to pieces, is slim, it is a possibility.

True, the probability of a horror film coming true gets pretty slim if Joss Whedon sends you to the threshold of a global, inter-generational conspiracy to appease the anger of ancient deities, but the serial killer kind of film are real enough to make our skin crawl.

That “what if?” of the horror genre on screen or in print has the ability to keep us on the edge of our psychiatric beds. There really may be serial killers with unusual tastes and government lab projects that could destroy the world.

But what if the same was true of other genres? The “Mythogenic Principle” is the idea that the world within the story you are reading could become real, alive, where you are right now. For a story like Narnia, this is hardly a threat. Truth be told, I find myself peeking into most wardrobes I encounter. If I find an old boot in the middle of a field—especially a British looking boot—I’m going to touch it to find out if it’s a portkey. I know what to do if I find a giant peach. Abandoned treehouses are meant to be explored, and swinging ropes are there for swinging.

Outside of those wonderful fantasy worlds, what if the thing you are reading actually came true?

It may depend on the book. Part of the horror of The Handmaid’s Tale is that everything in it has been true at one time or another. The horror of someone using those lessons of abuse to shape a new world order is what keeps us alive to the world around us today. But if I’m reading Tom Clancy and that world came true, it’s not quite as concerning. As long as I stay away from Cold War Russia, the Middle East, or Washington, DC, I should be fine.

With Stephen King, it is trickier. His world creeping into ours could happen anywhere—though it is probably a good idea to never, ever go to Maine. Except Portland, which is a pretty cool town. King’s literary ancestors are people like H.P. Lovecraft and Charles Williams. There is honestly no place in the galaxy you want to be if Lovecraft’s bestiary becomes our zoology. And I don’t think there is any safe place to read Charles William’s supernatural fiction. If the archetypes of our cultural imagination were to explode into real life, there isn’t much we can do except get ourselves to a medieval library or hope for a transdimensional guide of some kind. I would say, though, if our world were to become more Williamsian and you find yourself walking downhill in a partially built housing development at night, run away if you see an ancient sex demon.

Just some good advice from one friend to another.

There are times you can run, but there are times under the Mythogenic Principle that you probably just need to grin and bear it. If one of Tolkien’s worlds is going to break into ours, we might as well pack a nice lunch, grab a notebook for writing, take the sword down from its place above the mantelpiece beside the spelling bee trophies, and wait by the fire for a knock at the door. If you are meant to be drawn into one of Tolkien’s stories, there isn’t much you can do about it.

Zombie literature, though, is a little different under the Mythogenic Principle. If Zombieland has taught us anything, and I believe that it has, certain survival principles are key. Watch the film; they aren’t subtle. Mostly, you need to outrun a zombie, learn how to use improvised weapons, and finish any job you start. But imagine reading I Am Legend or World War Z at the beach. Okay, true: most vampires can’t travel by day, like orcs, so we might be okay with I Am Legend. Unless it’s the book, in which case you’ll eventually be toast. But zombies that evolve scientifically could quite possibly appear next to your spot on the beach.

Stretched out on a towel or lounging in a beach chair, your favourite horrifying zombie book open on your lap, surrounded by nothing but white sand and clear water…. There’s really nothing you can use to save yourself from a zombie attack. Do an inventory: sandals, towels, sunscreen, plastic shovel and bucket, a collapsible cooler you got free from a grocery store giveaway filled with apple slices and peanut butter sandwiches…. You aren’t even wearing shoes to dig in for a good run. Things aren’t looking good.

Even if you are a professional beach-goer, things aren’t much better. A Corona bottle can work in a pinch, if you can find something hard enough to break the end off. Your umbrella pole might impale a fairly decomposed zombie, but I find it hard enough to impale the sand with the cheap Walmart umbrellas, let alone face an army of the undead.

It could be that I’m over-thinking beach time. Granted, I’m not a big fan of the beach, even though we have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world here in Prince Edward Island. While others frolic, I like to sit and read—and read something thick and exciting. My summer beach read this year will be IT—once I finish The Name of the Wind. And the beach might be the only safe place in the world to read IT under the Mythogenic Principle.

But the beach is not a safe place to read zombie lit. Because, in the end, if zombies grope their way out from beneath the sandcastles and tidal pools of the North Shore, I can only hope that I can run faster than that group of bikini-clad young people over there who have drifted off in the searing sun. Provided we aren’t in a World War Z world, I have half a chance.

Unless—and this could be a cool possibility—unless someone else on the beach is reading an American rah! rah! war novel at the same moment that the Mythogenic Principle comes into play. Having an elite defense squad top that dune just as the zombies lope over to the bronzed group of scantily clad young people would work out pretty well. As long as I’m not in the original line of fire, I’ll be okay. And it would be pretty cool to share a Corona with the Navy Seals when their job is done. I suspect those guys love Anne of Green Gables, and maybe I could get tickets to the musical.

Anyway, it’s clear that the sun and sand are getting to me. Time to finish up Name of the Wind.

Wait…. What if the magical principles of The Name of the Wind were available to me now. I wonder how long it would take for me to learn the name of the sand.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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5 Responses to The Mythogenic Principle, Or Why Reading Zombie Lit at the Beach is a Very Bad Idea

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Your image “surrounded by nothing but white sand and clear water…. There’s really nothing you can use to save yourself” brought to mind one of the scariest stories I ever read – so scary, I couldn’t finish it (at whatever young age that was) – and wondered for years what it was and who wrote it – until I ran into it again in some Alfred Hitchcock paperback short story anthology: Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Quest for “Blank Claveringi”‘. Vivid, desperate beach images recur… (Fortunately I love real-life beaches, unimpeded…)

    Like

  2. joviator says:

    Judging by the comments my parents made when they saw the condition of the car after a trip to the beach, the Name of the Sand is something unprintable.

    Like

  3. L.A. Smith says:

    Oh wow, the Mythogenic Principle does make the mind boggle, doesn’t it. Think of all the books being read at the beach! I grant that the American war novel and the zombie apocalypse
    novel would be a serendipitious pairing, but chances are there are SEVERAL steamy romances and contemporary chick-lit Brigit Jones-type books being read, too. What would Brigit Jones do with the zombies or the Navy Seals? She would probably be distracted by all the handsome muscled men wandering around, looking for females to rescue. The zombies might help THEM out in that case….

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      The gravity of all this had not fully dawned on me… What if a fast reader were reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses? Whew!

      Like

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Ah, beaches… A headline just caught my eye, occasioned by the recent paper, “Polar Bear Attacks on Humans: Implications of a Changing Climate.” What if, drowsily basking, one were reading that on the beach? Matter for a fifth sequel? – Pirates of the Caribbean: Attack of the Globally-Warmed Polar Bears… Suddenly an iceberg heaves in sight, its decks… uh, sides, manned… eh, beared (or just perhaps Beorned?) by a shaggy crew, gnashing for the coconut-buttered snacks ashore…

    Like

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