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Recommended Halloween Reading: Chuckberry J. Pascual’s ‘Mars, May Zombie!’

Recommended Halloween Reading: Chuckberry J. Pascual’s ‘Mars, May Zombie!’
Image from Chuckberry J. Pascual’s Facebook page

In Chuckberry J. Pascual’s dytopian novel in Filipino, “Mars, May Zombie!” (Adarna House; 382 pages; 2022), the world in 2028 is suffering from a pandemic of zombies of apocalyptic proportions that broke out in 2020. As a result, Philippine regions have been balkanized into several color coded “zones”: the “Blue Zones” are the enclaves of the rich and the powerful that are closely guarded by the military; the “Red Zones” are where most of the uninfected people live, carrying on with their daily lives, bartering whatever they’ve recovered from deserted homes and shops for various merchandise by the “Raiders,” who steal from abandoned banks and shops and trade their wares in the black market; and “Black Zones,” communities given up for lost now populated by the living dead.

One red zone is “Car City,” so named because of the many vans parked in its streets so that tense residents could easily board them to make a clean getaway in case of a zombie invasion. Marcelo “Mars” Manapat and his “Lola” Vicky have been in Car City for some time now and when the novel opens, he has just eased his bowels in the toilet of an abandoned house when he’s assaulted by a roving zombie. Armed with a kitchen knife, he strikes at the zombie and cuts his head. When he sees his handiwork sprawled on the floor, he screams; but someone suddenly covers his mouth. It’s his lola who warns him the noise may catch the attention of other zombies.

Mars is an adolescent who’s lost his parents to the virus. Since his lola is the only one he’s got, he has mixed feelings for her so that between them, they have a love-hate dynamics. She was the last one to see his parents alive and Mars resents her seeming stoicism to his loss and grief. She tells him she too is grieving: “Kung nawalan ka ng magulang, nawalan naman ako ng anak.” (If you’ve lost your parents, I’ve lost my children.) Rather on the heavy side, Mars is often fat-shamed by those around him. Warding of the bullies is his best friend, the older Billie, or “Bey”; he’s a fan of Beyoncé who resolves dilemmas by putting himself in the shoes – or high heels – of his idol.

The black market in red zones is a two-edged sword. While the provisions sustain the residents, they also attract rivalry and competition so that there will be attempts by the desperate or the greedy to ambush Raiders when they come with their supplies. Raiders ward of the attackers often killing them, adding to the number of potential zombies. Since relief distribution has become systematized and more frequent, Mars’ grandmom says they should get out of the red zone. She surmises that government is distributing relief goods to hasten their red zone becoming black – a total dead zone.

Rumors too are circulating that there will be an uprising soon. Apparently, government seeks to minimize its losses and rationalize its emergency responses by focusing its resources on protecting the blue zones. After all, the only taxpayers that sustain government come from there. The “Master Raider” has reportedly seen through the plan and is set to signal the revolution.

Before all hell breaks loose, Mars and his lola Vicky plan to make their way to the blue zone. Together with Mang Ignacio, who’s built a secret cache of firearms in preparation for any zombie invasion, and their odd neighbors Lucy and Ariel, Mars, Vicky, and Billie leave Car City in search of the nearest blue zone. Will they reach safe haven or will the living dead catch and drag them instead to the blackest zone?

Both a horror thriller and an adventure story, “Mars, May Zombie” is suspenseful and very entertaining. Pascual writes with ease and lucidity, with charm and wit. He relieves the horror by the funny repartee among the three main characters who could hardly hide their anxiety and fear, but who try just the same to surmount them when push comes to shove.

Kapag nasanay ka na sa mga zombie, masarap silang pagtawanan,” says Mars. “Kapag wala kaming magawa ng kaibigan kong si Billie at puwede kaming magtapang-tapangan (na madalas mangyari), ginagaya naming silang maglakad. Markado kasi ang katawan ng mga zombie na bumiktima sa kanila. ‘Yung iba basag ang bungo at tumutulo sa gilid ang utak, mayroon ding mga bali sa leeg, braso o binti, kundi man may mga kagat sa katawan, kaya nakatabingi at iika-ikang kumilos. Pero kahit pinagtatawanan naming silang kumilos, natatakot pa rin kami sa mga zombie, siyempre.” (When you get used to zombies, they become a laughing-stock. When Billie and I have nothing to do, we pretend to be fearless (which happens often), and we imitate how zombies walk. Their bodies are marked by the brutalities they suffered. Some have cracked skulls with brains oozing out; some have broken necks, arms, or legs; some have bites in their bodies so that they lean to one side and they walk crookedly. But even if we laugh at them, of course we’re still very much scared of them.”

When Mars asks Bey if the latter is going to kill him if he gets bitten by a zombie, Bey replies, “Ano ba ang gusto mong marinig? Hindi, Mars. Hindi kita sasaktan kapag zombie ka na. Magpapakagat ako sa iyo para maging zombie na rin ako. Zombie friends tayo forever! Ganyan ba?” (What do you want to hear? No, Mars, I won’t hurt you if you become a zombie. I will allow myself to be bitten by you so I too could become a zombie. We’re going to be zombie friends forever! Is that it?”)

Also relieving the horror is the social commentary. The zombie allegory obviously makes parallelisms with the total lockdown on whole communities that was imposed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The division of zombie-stricken Philippine society into various “zones” connotes the segregation and class divisions that are par for the course in ordinary society, but which get heightened during emergencies. Which should underscore that “Mars, May Zombie!” may yet be the dystopian novel for the “new normal.”

But ultimately “Mars, May Zombie!” is a coming-of-age fable. It is the story of an adolescent orphaned by a horrible plague and forced to grow up and face his worst fears. When Mars sees Billie crying at the specter of zombies, he’s angered and tells his friend to man up. His anger is also directed at himself: “Nagalit talaga ako nang makita kong nagkakaindayak si Billie. Parang tanga naman kasi. Sinabi na ngang may zombie! Bawal maging mahina.” (I really got angry when I saw Billie sobbing. What a fool! When there are zombies, it’s illegal to be afraid.)