Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Neuropathology of Zombies

One thing that fascinates me the most when I pick up a book is what inspired it. When you talk to authors you often hear that it was one particular image, or a "what if" question that they couldn't shake off, or one sentence they overheard at dinner.

Or, something that came across their autopsy table.
Well, it could happen that way too, couldn't it?

I've posed the question to my friend Peter Cummings, MD, a forensic pathologist based in New England, and the author of the textbook Atlas of Forensic Histopathology, as well as of the novel The Neuropathology of Zombies. The title of his novel intrigued me so much that I had to find out how he'd come up with the idea of dissecting... zombies.

I'm thrilled to have Dr. Cummings as a guest on my blog today!

EEG: Peter, from your blog I gather you come across some pretty dramatic cases. Is writing a way of "letting it all out" or, in your line of work, you come to a point where you reach a certain degree of detachment because "you've seen it all"? 

PMC: Excellent question. I think it’s important to have an outlet, regardless of what it is. In a way, you have to re-enter life. This is a very difficult job. It’s emotionally draining and physically it is very hard work. Having an outlet is the key to survival because there are days, sometimes weeks, where it really gets to you. You never know what case or series of cases it will be, or what will set it off, but it happens and you have to be aware or you’ll get eaten up. It’s also important to have understanding friends and families who are there to support you. Having said that, there is a degree of detachment and desensitization that go along with the work, and a hell of a lot of "gallows humor."

EEG: Is that how you deal with what you see on an every day basis? 

PMC: I don’t know. I mean, we're a pretty self-selecting group of people. You don’t go into forensic pathology unless you really want to do forensic pathology. So dealing with it is part of the genetic make-up of the forensic pathologist, I think. Like I said, some days it gets to you and you have to walk away and go work on your book, or go play soccer, or just go home and play with your kid. There are a lot of positive things about the work as well. I enjoy talking with families and helping them understand what has happened to a loved one. It’s very rewarding when you know you’ve helped them or made them feel better while they are going through one of the worst moments in their lives. I also get to help prevent death by getting families screened for inherited heart diseases or by understanding disease or injury patters. Helmet laws, safe sleeping practices for infants, seatbelt laws these are all things that have come from the morgue. We try to understand death so we can prevent it. That kind of positive drive is why most of us do this job. 

EEG: So, what inspired you to write a novel?

PMC: I was burnt out after completing the textbook and felt that I needed to do something creative. It was late October and someone mentioned to me that November was "write your novel month." It started as kind of a dare, and then I just ran with it. I hadn’t really noticed the zombie craze, and was never really into it, but one night there was a zombie movie on TV and I watched and really dug it. I watch horror movies continually through October and was getting a bit bored with the usual films and thought to myself, “Why not watch some zombie movies?” They were all new to me. Needless to say I loved them! So my idea was hatched. It wasn’t until I started doing some research for the book that I noticed the zombie craze sweeping the planet.

I started writing a novel about 2 years ago called The Magic City Murder. It was somewhat autobiographical in some ways and very vaguely paralleled a murder in my home town that happened when I was a kid. I was about half finished when I became bored with it. The plot revolved around our Dr. Benjamin Hawk, a well meaning forensic pathologist typical of the genre. I felt that the self-deprecating, self-loathing forensic pathologist character had been done before and was pretty well used up in the forensic thriller genre. So I put Hawk away for a while. I had always loved the X-Files character Scully and have always been a bit disappointed that no one ever developed a character in that direction: a forensic pathologist who investigates the paranormal. I think it’s a unique idea with some exciting potential. It was that thought that brought Hawk out of the desk drawer and back to life. So, in a way, my work contributed to that. I also think that my job allowed me to be very descriptive regarding the autopsies, I do it every day!

EEG: Cool, the X-files meet forensic pathology. I'm hooked! (I downloaded my copy last night.) And I confess to being morbidly addicted to very descriptive autopsies... in fiction! In real life? I faint as soon as I see a drop of blood. But that's exactly what fiction's for, right? To take us to places we would never go in real life.

PMC: The thing I love about zombies is the mashing together of monsters and science. There seems to be a particularly large numbers of neuroscientist infatuated with the waking dead, which is exciting because it's a great way to get kids excited about science, and in particular neuroscience.  I put a lot of science in my book and tried to tell a good story filled with interesting tid bits about how the brain works. Maybe I'll scare someone into learning something!

EEG: I sure hope you do! Thank you so much for answering my questions, and do keep the Dr. Hawk books coming!

I hope you all enjoyed meeting Dr. Cummings as much as I did. You can find out more about his work and his books on his website, where he blogs about forensic pathology, life, and, well, death.

Photo: dawn. Canon 40D, focal length 70mm, exposure time 1/13.


  1. The idea of a pathologist for the paranormal is pretty cool. I just got my e-copy. Thanks for the interview.

  2. What an interesting interview! I'll definately check out the book.


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