The Ethical Treatment of Meat (and authors)

Freedom to Read Week, Feb. 22-28, 2015

Entry #10: author/editor Claude Lalumière on zombies, wise students, and judgmental parents.

I occasionally get invited by teachers to meet their students. Even more interesting to me is that I’ve been asked to do so for various age groups, ranging from elementary school to university, in multiple countries, and in schools serving different socioeconomic groups. What makes it particularly enlightening to compare those different events is that almost every single such public appearance has been focused on the same text: my story “The Ethical Treatment of Meat.”

Lest you haven’t read or heard of the story, I should offer a bit of context, including a summary. “The Ethical Treatment of Meat” was first published in 2002 in a volume called The Book of More Flesh: All Flesh Must Be Eaten Zombie Anthology — so, yes, it’s a zombie story, albeit one that never uses the word zombie or any synonyms to imply the zombieness of the protagonists. The zombies are simply referred to as people (or by their individual names).

The story takes place centuries after the zombie apocalypse, by which time zombies have taken over the world and repopulated it into a socially static suburban mockery of our current times and the surviving humans (referred to as fleshies by the zombies because “their skin is kind of sickly smooth, without any rot, and you can’t see any of their bones or anything, but, still, they almost look like people […] It’s not their fault if they smell, well, alive or something.”) have been reduced — being the zombies’ only source of food — to the state of cattle raised in factory farms, their bodies (and especially their brains) harvested to fuel the zombie economy.

America’s favorite sitcom zombie family! (from Atomic Circus Tattoo)

As the story opens, a social malaise is sweeping across zombie society: collectively, zombies yearn for children. Because zombies can’t reproduce, a controversial new fad is growing in popularity: adopting fleshie (human) children as a kind of combination pet and child. The tale — structured to follow the plot arc of a typical 1950s/60s family sitcom — focuses on a zombie couple called Raymond and George and their life with their new fleshie son. Basically, here’s the story of two gay zombies adopting a human child, who also happens to be a potential source of food; the whole thing — a mere 3200 words long — addresses and melds together societal hot-button issues like marriage equality, gay adoption, children’s rights, cross-cultural miscommunication, animal ethics, and the commodification of both human and nonhuman living beings. Great fodder for lively exchanges with students.

I’ve discussed the story with the young children of international diplomats (they were exuberantly enthusiastic and amused), with socially conservative tween- and teenage first- and second-generation immigrants in suburbia (who were for the most part baffled and often offended), with downtown college students (who ranged from apathetic to shy), and with artsy drama students on the verge of graduating high school (who were inquisitive and insightful).

Only one time did I almost get in trouble — for a few days, it looked possible that I might be under police investigation. Not because of my appearance at an international embassy school. Not because of my interaction with socially conservative new immigrants. But because of my scheduled meeting with an artsy drama class. Well, to be fair, because of one parent whose child (I say “child” to maintain anonymity, but we’re talking about a seventeen-year-old) happened to be in the class assigned my story.

Claude Lalumière (as imagined by angry parent)

To say that “The Ethical Treatment of Meat” disturbed and angered that student’s father is putting it mildly. After reading the story, he sent copies, with outraged letters, to the police, to government agencies, and to the school principal, claiming that I was a clearly a psychopath and should not be allowed near children of any age (or, I presume, near people under any circumstance, ever). And he pulled his seventeen-year-old from class for the day I was scheduled to appear, of course. As all this was going on, I thought, at best, my appearance would be cancelled, and at worst I would face some kind of criminal charges. Authorities are not usually renowned for their understanding of satire.

The event was not cancelled, but it was nevertheless with considerable trepidation that I travelled to the school. Upon arriving, I was met by the principal (who, remember, was one of the recipients of the outraged correspondence). I felt the principal’s gaze sizing me up as we were introduced. With a chuckle, she quickly made me feel welcome. I got impression that I didn’t strike her as a potential psychopath (phew!), or at least that she didn’t feel that I was posing any imminent threat to the safety of her school. A few minutes later, I walked into class for what turned out to be the most stimulating and fun of all my school engagements yet. Those were damn smart students. They were so sophisticated that, to them, there were no controversial issues in the text. It was all stuff they’d already pondered previously and come to a reasoned and sensible position on. No, what they cared about what story structure, world-building, and how the story manages achieves whatever the hell it is that it achieves. No police. No altercations. Only stimulating conversation.

Still, the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, and for weeks, even months, after that event, I lived with the trepidation that I’d receive an unwelcome visit from the police.

It hasn’t happened yet.

Claude Lalumière is the author of Objects of Worship (which includes “The Ethical Treatment of Meat”), The Door to Lost Pages, and Nocturnes and Other Nocturnes. He has edited and co-edited more than a dozen anthologies in various genres, including Lust for Life: Tales of Sex and Love, Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories, and The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir. A former Montreal bookseller, Claude is now headquartered on the West Coast.