Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates

by @Asenath

Monsters in horror should disturb us. And what monster is more disturbing than . . . a human? Yes, the serial killer. No fangs, no fur, no claws, just an incredibly charismatic and charming exterior hiding the desire to destroy, hurt, and humiliate. And we can’t get enough of them; there are thousands upon thousands of true crime podcasts, novels, and movies. People send love letters to serial killers, put money on their books, and hang on their every word. Joyce Carol Oates’s Zombie stands out in this thick crowd by taking away the celebrity and mystique. There’s nothing attractive or salacious about the ostensible protagonist. Instead, Oates hands us one of the most unlikable, awkward, and cruel characters ever to grace the page.


Joyce Carol Oates writes everything; her bibliography includes 58 novels, 30 story collections, 8 volumes of poetry, and several non-fiction works ranging from investigative journalism to literary criticism. This canon also includes a lot of horror. Though Oates has won several Bram Stoker Awards (including one for Zombie as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award), multiple accolades from the Horror Writers Association, and special recognitions from the Shirley Jackson Awards Board of Directors, most do not consider her a straight-up horror author—rather, Oates is known as a realist writer. With that in mind, even the most rabid of horror fans are often surprised to find that she’s not only dipped her toes in their favorite genre, she’s mastered it.


Zombie, which has nothing to do with the undead, brain-hungry creatures the title might imply, is a no-holds-barred ride into the mind of a Dahmer-esque serial killer named Quentin P. The novel takes the form of a diary where Quentin details his obsession with creating a “zombie”—a lobotomized young man to serve as a sex slave—interspersed with information about Quentin’s past nefarious deeds (and there are many). The supporting cast of characters includes his father, older sister, grandmother, and psychiatrist, all of whom refuse to recognize the monster in front of them.


By the end of the discussion, HOWLers mostly agreed that although they were glad to have read such a masterful work, they never wanted to read it again as long as they lived. Most of the conversation centered on how to engage with an expertly crafted but exceptionally disturbing novel. One user summed up the general feeling by saying, “In terms of literary value, I think there is a lot to take away, so I’m in this weird position where I feel like it’s 4-5 stars, but I feel odd to give it that considering the content.” Another echoed this sentiment with a comment that read, “A+ for prose, but the plot and character were just so unpleasant it’s hard to feel like I ‘enjoyed’ [the book].” Nevertheless, a few HOWLers could not get past the subject matter, intoning that “the book definitely isn’t boring, but I also don’t enjoy it, either. I don’t really find anything redeeming in it. Q’s perspective is ugly in every sense of the word, and I feel that in the 2020s we have enough voices that sound way too similar to this.” 

HOWLers mentioned Oates’s experimental style as a high point. Written in the form of a journal, the novel breaks with literary convention in a number of places. Quentin’s fragmented voice could best be described as a collection of parts—parts of sentences, parts of events, and parts of the truth—broken up by screaming capital letters and crude marker drawings. One user called it “a masterclass in voice, style, and the unreliable narrator,” and another noted that “reading this gave me some ideas for my own writing. Made me think of new ways to tease the boundaries.” 

An unromanticized serial killer is a hard character to swallow, especially as a narrator, but Oates seems aware of where she is taking us and why. As another HOWLer said, “this book really does read as a response to [works like] American Psycho . . . It shows how dirty and grimy this world is . . . it’s a lot less charming than Bateman (who maybe wasn’t charming to begin with).”

Best Scene: Quentin’s Dentist Trip


  • Spectacular prose, insanely unpleasant story. Could move up to a 9 or 10 for me when I get some distance, but the main character is just so vile it’s hard to say I enjoyed it that much.

  • An interesting and thought-provoking experimental text about the thought process of a serial killer, but thoroughly unenjoyable and not particularly entertaining.

  • Zombie is a masterclass in voice, style, and the unreliable narrator as much as it is an exemplar of effective social commentary through horror fiction. Call me generous, but I can’t think of any reason why this book doesn’t deserve the highest possible score.
    ~Lord Mordi

  • I absolutely loved this book and never want to read it again as long as I live.

  • A brilliantly written, though not exactly pleasant read. Zombie plunged me into the mind of a madman and offered insightful social commentary along the way.

  • Zombie has no voodoo, necromancy or corpse-waking disease. Its horror is grounded in reality, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching and entirely possible, which makes for a story that truly stays with you after it ends.

  • Zombie makes me weep for the justice system. Like American Psycho, it claims that if you have money or connections, it’s okay to do horrendous things to those society won’t miss. As far as horror goes, JCO succeeded in horrifying!
    ~Chris O’Halloran

  • Nobody ever said touring a serial killer’s mind would be a pleasant experience . . . but this book is your ticket for admission. Dare to enter?
    ~Mantis Shrimp


Zombie is not for everyone and is not an easy read. There are graphic descriptions of rape, abuse, torture, and a full gamut of offensive content from misogyny to orientalism. Quentin is not a good person, full stop. That said, though Quentin asks the reader to sympathize with him, Oates does not. She instead uses him to poke at the ethical boundaries of her readers, and in this it is a masterful work, if difficult to get through because of the subject matter. 


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