Want to create a zombie?
Develop a virus that attacks the amygdala, an area of the brain shown to produce primal drives, and the amygdala’s connection to the prefrontal cortex, which controls reasoning and adaptive choice-making, and you might spawn a legion of slow-shuffling, flesh-eating human monsters.
That’s what Peter Cummings says, and he’s not kidding.
The 39-year-old Boston-based forensic neuropathologist and Millinocket native ― whose first book, “Atlas of Forensic Histopathology” (Cambridge University Press), is a university text — theorizes that many medical conditions can create zombie-like symptoms. With Kluver-Bucy syndrome, victims eat or find sexual stimulation with inappropriate objects and become unable to recognize familiar people and places.
“There is a whole system of connections in the brain, called the mesolimbic system, that is responsible for our emotional memories and responses. Our behaviors come out of that,” Cummings said last Tuesday. “The urges that come with those drives are controlled by the cerebral cortex. If that connection is lost, people can do crazy things.”
His first published foray into fiction, the horror novel “ The Neuropathology of Zombies” (Sinister Press), is a science-based take on how a virus could attack the brain and create havoc right out of George A. Romero’s “The Night of the Living Dead.”
Published last month and available through amazon.com and sinisterpress.com, the book is influenced by almost every zombie horror film ever made and the Fox television series “The X-Files.” It also helps itself generously to the everyday life of Cummings, a coroner who helped doctors Michael Baden and Henry Lee re-autopsy the body of East Millinocket murder victim Joyce McLain in 2008 as a volunteer.
“I had just written a textbook, and I felt kind of burnt out. I needed to do something sort of creative. I go through a phase every October where I obsess with horror movies,” Cummings said. “I always wanted to write a scary book. I started to think about zombies.”
Cummings appreciates the darkly humorous typical zombie story, but felt more like probing the zombie phenomenon — as might a scientist like himself.
“I always liked the Scully character [in ‘X-Files’] and was always dismayed that nobody ever took a character like that and ran with it — a person who had to take things that were beyond belief and rationalize them,” Cummings said.
Cummings’ book starts with a man an awful lot like Cummings: Benjamin Hawk, M.D., a pathologist who, to quote the book’s dust jacket, “is an unassuming, regular guy who happens to cut up dead bodies for a living.”
Hawk’s involvement with zombies begins as a joke — a goofy lecture on the neuropathology of zombies delivered to stressed-out medical students — but becomes dreadfully serious when the government directs him to a resort island where a luxury hotel is overrun with zombies.
“The overall plot is of an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances who has to conquer his fears and insecurities to save the world. Do you have the confidence to get it done? That is kind of the underlying psychology behind the character,” Cummings said.
Cummings found working with zombies very stimulating and soon realized he could pull real-world elements into his tale.
“The zombie is an amazing sort of social mirror,” he said. “The real beginning of the [recent] zombie craze started with H1N1. People are fearing the pandemic. Everything is about being ready for the pandemic.”
Only the second book published by the Kansas City-based Sinister Press, Cummings’ “Neuropathology” features his impressive knowledge of brain matters and enough literary craft to perfectly balance hard science and humanity and maintain a brisk pace, publisher Michael Schuhler said.
“I get a lot of manuscripts and his stood out,” Schuhler said. “You never lose focus of what’s going on in his story and you start relating to the characters. You can see inside of them. You experience what it is like to get into a medical examiner’s life, and he goes into all these stresses of finding a cure or explanation of what’s going on on this remote island.”
Cummings, who will autograph copies of his book at the University of Maine at Orono bookstore from 10 a.m. to noon Oct. 14, looks forward to the book being widely distributed to bookstores next month.
“It was a lot of fun,” Cummings said of writing his novel. “I have two more books that I want to do with this character. I want to see where I can take him.”