Zombies for Jesus
 by Johnny Townsend

BookLocker Inc
, Paperback

Johnny Townsend earned an MFA in fiction writing from Louisiana State University. He has published stories and essays in Newsday, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Humanist, The Progressive, Christopher Street, The Massachusetts Review, Harrington Gay Men's Literary Quarterly, Glimmer Train, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, and in the anthology In Our Lovely Desert: Mormon Fictions. He has also spoken at the Sunstone symposium in Salt Lake on the subject of gay Mormon literature.

Read an interview with Johnny Townsend

"He agreed on one level that showing promiscuity as normal and harmless was in fact very harmful, but at the same time, she wondered if Joseph Smith's legal promiscuity made him any less of a prophet. If what he had done was completely righteous, why were Mormons shielded from the information that some of Joseph's wives also had other husbands? It seemed so often that the saints were fed milk, the Church afraid that meat would be too overpowering for them. But they couldn't stay children forever could they?"

Reviewed by A.J. Kirby

"The problem with a lot of Mormon writing is that the writers are trying to prove some doctrinal point. The stories are vehicles for proselytizing in one form or another (…). Mormon literature can never be a mature art form till we focus on the humanity of our position, not on our 'chosen' status." Johnny Townsend.

Johnny Townsend writes about the Mormon experience both from inside and outside the community. Zombies for Jesus is a wooden horse of a collection, enabling the uninitiated (as well as those with well-rooted Mormon family trees) inside this often closed community and to meet some of the individuals within it, whilst at the same time raising important questions regarding the nature of the faith.

At face value, there is something willfully subversive about Townsend's short fiction; even a brief perusal of the table of contents provides the reader with brilliantly memorable story titles such as Noseless Lesbian Mothers, Hairdresser to the Gods, and, of course, Zombies for Jesus. And amongst his previous short story collections we've been treated to the daring and risky Dinosaur PerversionThe Circumcision of God and Sex Among the Saints (which sounds like a Madonna music video). But Townsend's fiction is not an all-out assault on Mormonism, nor is it satire. Sure, he engages the shock-tactics, but perhaps, he suggests, shock tactics are what are needed in order to rouse some of the zombies out there.

These are stories about trying to reconcile, on the one side, the Mormon tenets of Church duty, familial responsibility and conformity, and on the other, individual will, the thirst for knowledge and freedom. Such conflicts are not unique to Mormonism. They will be familiar to many communities and religions throughout the world today. And by tackling such weighty subject matter, Townsend's writing becomes more than just Mormon writing; it becomes simply good writing.

In Zombies for Jesus, many of the stories are interlinked, reflecting the community in which they take place. We meet recurring characters and, in some cases, characters who appear as minor roles in one story become the protagonists in the next. Often these characters are the square pegs who won't fit into the rigidly-defined round holes of the Mormon faith (women, gay men, lesbians, adolescents). Those who speak out against the doctrine, or who do not conform, are excommunicated, shunned. Even speaking one's mind is frowned upon.

The title story Zombies for Jesus, is an obvious example of this, and the zombie theme is actually a very good one. In this story, the Mormons we meet are zombies for Jesus because they are "brainwashed" into becoming "mindless sheep" in the name of their faith, and yet at the same time, they are Jesus' zombies because the Mormon faith promises them eternal life as gods:
"The Church squashed people's souls, pretending to save them. It wasn't unlike a voodoo priest 'rescuing' someone from the grave, only to force them into slavery for the rest of their lives."
This slavery is something which Cliff, the protagonist, is struggling with. Cliff is well-traveled and well-educated. He's been taught to strive for intelligence and knowledge. And yet, despite the Church's motto - "the glory of God is intelligence" - he finds that using his brains to ask questions (effectively speaking off-message) is not encouraged. According to the leaders, asking questions can turn people into "evil monsters". And even when he does find the courage to ask, he's told that the only answers he can expect are standard ones, "the same answer(s) the leaders gave. Anything else was apostasy and was unacceptable."

But despite everything he sacrifices in the name of the Church, he still gets sacked from his job, something which he can only believe (because of his incarnation as a "zombie") is incontrovertible evidence that Jesus has deserted him:
"God took you out in the desert and then abandoned you. He made you prophet and then let you be murdered in jail. He ordered you to have a family and then left you in misery with them for the rest of your life."
And, still as a zombie, he determines to go back home and kill the rest of his family, making them martyrs (turning them zombie like him) and thus guaranteeing them a place in the highest kingdom. But at the last, he realises his mistake. Instead, he decides on a new plan. He starts off by telling his kids they don't have to do all the things they sacrifice in the name of the Mormon faith; suddenly they can watch R-rated movies, they can swear. If they want, they don't have to attend Seminary. And in his throwing off of his shackles, Cliff feels as though he is "regaining consciousness after a coma." He is "coming back to life after many years in the grave, and he felt good. This time, though, there'd be no voodoo, no sorcerer to control his actions."

The stories here range from the gently chiding to the angry, coffee-fueled wake-up calls which Townsend believes the Mormon community deserve. And yet they never stray into full-on attacks. They can be funny – Rick in Murderers of Old Men being a case in point – horrific, and moving. But they never stray into bitterness or zombie-like anti-Mormon sentiment. Townsend is on his own mission. His mission to prove: "...we can write great literature, too, by using our Mormonism to give color to our stories, to give specificity to our stories. We need to tell the universal through the particular." Through the particular and the peculiar, he achieves his aim.

Read a story from this collection at BookLocker

A.J. Kirby is the author of three novels: Bully (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2009), The Magpie Trap, and When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, and a new volume of short stories, Mix Tape (New Generation Publishing, 2010). His short fiction was most recently featured in the Legend Press anthology Ten Journeys.

A J Kirby's other Short Reviews: Route "Book at Bedtime"

Al Riske "Precarious"

Lorraine M. Lopez "Homicide Survivors Picnic"

Guy Cranswick "Corporate"
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What other reviewers thought:

Sacramento News and Review