31 Days of the Undead: Orange World | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

31 Days of the Undead: Orange World

In honor of Romero Lives!, the city's month-long George A. Romero tribute, Pittsburgh City Paper presents 31 Days of the Undead, a series of reviews and essays about zombie media. Look for new posts going up every day through Oct. 31.

Orange World (2019)

Fiction writer Karen Russell doesn't always write about zombies in her novels and short stories, but she does fixate on the strange, visceral, and fantastical, which can include the undead. In her 2019 short story collection Orange World, among the stories about breastfeeding the devil and swapping souls with a Joshua Tree, there are two tales that could be classified as zombie stories, but like all of Russell's stories, they don't start or end where you'd expect.

Set somewhere in northern Europe, "Bog Girl: A Romance" revolves around 15-year old Cillian, a thin, timid boy working a job harvesting peat from a bog near his house. When he stumbles upon the 2,000-year-old body of a girl preserved in the peat, he falls in love almost instantly.

The authorities come to investigate, and Cillian is shocked to find they see her differently. "The men kept calling her 'the body,' which baffled Cillian — the word seemed to blind them to the deep and flowing dream life behind her smile," Russell writes.

The authorities let Cillian take Bog Girl home. They hang out all the time, watching TV, sitting down for dinner, hanging out alone in his room. He takes Bog Girl to school, where other students start a clothing drive for her; he takes Bog Girl to homecoming. All this time, Cillian's mother, Gillian, worries about her son falling so fast and hard, for a much older woman nonetheless. "She was insecure about her cooking, and he knew she was going to take it very personally when the Bog Girl did not touch it."

For the entirety of Cillian's relationship with Bog Girl, she is silent. He intones her feelings from her expressions, letting the silence do the talking. But when she finally speaks, Cillian is taken aback, so much so that he no longer understands Bog Girl. Their whole relationship was built on a fantasy he constructed out of her silence, and when she spoke, it evaporated.

Russell tackles another genre of undead in "Black Corfu," set in the 17th century on the island of Korčula (present-day Croatia). A man simply known as "the doctor" performs work that few others have the stamina to do, as a posthumous surgeon. His job is to exhume buried bodies and precisely sever their hamstrings so they don't become vukodlak, "a body that continues to walk after its death."

His work is necessary, so vukodlak don't invade the island, but it is still not a respected profession. When the doctor is accused by an apprentice of incorrectly performing the surgery, and letting a soulless body roam free, the town completely turns on him. Though he maintains his innocence and professes his skill, even the doctor's own wife and children doubt him. He's seen as such a monster, that it's inevitable that he becomes one.

The story plays on the collective fear that ran through towns before they had modern medicine and science and were prone to mass panic over misunderstandings. The doctor is cast out like a witch despite his expertise, but confidence in skill is also his downfall.

Zombie movies and shows and books often rely on the obviousness of the genre, building off of established tropes and taking them to familiar places. But in Orange World, Russell takes the familiarity and twists it into something stranger.

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