INTERVIEW: Steven Popkes, author of “The Crocodiles”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“The Crocodiles” is about zombies in Nazi Germany, how they were deployed and how they were used and how they got out of control.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

It was my son Ben’s idea. Zombies and Nazis are everywhere today. Ben is a big Hellboy fan (hence, the Nazis). One day Ben came up to me and said: Nazi Zombies! How cool is that? Using concentration camp victims as subjects was my original contribution.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

It was. I have this terrible urge to put things in the real world. In this case, it was how to thread the zombies through World War II, when they would have change the nature of the war, when they would have been deployed, etc. Fitting the zombies into Germany realistically was mechanically hard. But it was also metaphorically difficult. The connection of the “living dead” to what Nazi ideology did to its adherents is an obvious one. One problem was not to preach about it and just let the characters speak for themselves.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

It took a while to get a particular “take” on the story. I have worked in an military lab with engineers who designed weapons of violent and miserable destruction. My father worked in such labs much of his life. These were wholesome, interesting people who happened to be instrumental in designing or supporting weapons that would end life on the planet. They were cheerful, good people, nice to their kids, members of the PTA, tutoring poor children. I find this dichotomy very interesting. Most scientists and engineers are not Oppenheimers who agonize about what they do. They are people working towards a goal. Teller was such a person. Von Braun was such a person. My father was such a person. That their goal is building a device of unimaginable destruction is beside the point. That was the personality I was trying to capture.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

The biggest part of the research was getting the details of WWII right. Making sure the dates matched. I had a great deal of help from a friend, William Aldrich, who is much more knowledgeable than I. The physiology of the zombies I worked out on my own though I had a bit of heart burn for some of the scientific devices and when viruses were discovered.

What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

I don’t know about general appeal. I can only say about my own. I don’t care much for traditional zombie fiction since there are only so many changes one can ring on George Romero’s work–it seems a significant amount of zombie fiction (like vampire fiction) has been “commoditized.” There should be a contents placard on the side of the book: contains 80% of the daily requirement of zombie fiction.

For me, the interesting idea of zombies is their transformation, from living to dead to “living,” when someone you know is changed into someone or some thing you don’t.  The change of the zombies forces an analogous change on the person confronting the zombie. This had been a human being, now it is a thing that merely looks like a human being. This brought it into an area I was interested in. This is your nice German engineer. This is your nice German engineer under Nazism. The German engineer turning concentration camp victims into zombies isn’t so different from your nice German engineer using a dying slave labor force to build V1s and V2s. Calling him evil is just a convenient name to put on him so we don’t have to understand him.

Zombies aren’t interesting. People interacting with zombies are.

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

In my opinion, the best work on zombies has been in film. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, of course. Zombieland more recently.

But there has been some very interesting short fiction I’ve seen about people who are living dead but outside of the normal label of “zombie.” And, of course, there’s World War Z. As I said, zombies aren’t interesting; people interacting with them are.

I think a lot of the better zombie fiction is playing against type, satirizing or extending the concept. Let’s face it, pretty much everything you can say about the original zombie  concept was explored in Romero’s first zombie movie. Once you have that down, there’s not much more to be said.

The interesting material takes the original idea and responds to it or reconsiders it. Probably one of the better treatments of this was the reimagining of Shadowman, in Acclaim Comics. Shadowman brings zombies back to their voodoo roots and made it interesting.

INTERVIEW: Catherine MacLeod, Author of “Zombie Season”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

It’s about a small-town zombie hunter who understands his prey too well.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I found the guidelines for Bits of the Dead” by accident, and couldn’t pass up a chance to do some flash fiction. I’ll try my hand at any length, but I especially like writing flash. Also, my friend Kevin Cockle dared me.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Keeping it under 500 words was a challenge, but I enjoy editing.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I live in a village with a kind undertaker and well-tended cemeteries. We put perpetual care on our family graves and take good care of our dead. But I guess if they came back there’d be no point in saying, “How could you try to eat us after all we’ve done for you?”

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Not much, to be honest. I don’t know if embalming fluid actually burns.

What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

I’d never written it before “Zombie Season.” But Kevin is a huge fan–he’s written a lot of zombie fiction–and he got me hooked. Maybe film-goers like it so much because it’s the ultimate “Us against Them.”

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

My favorite zombie story is “Death and Suffrage” by Dale Bailey, because he just wrote the hell out of it. I also like Stephen King’s “Home Delivery,” and the novel Night of the Living Dead. I tried to watch the movie, but spent so much time with my hands over my face I can’t honestly say I’ve seen it.

INTERVIEW: Seth Lindberg, author of “Twenty-Three Snapshots of San Francisco”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“23 Snapshots of San Francisco” is a story told after civilization has been destroyed, 23 pictures from a roll of 24 that document one young and perfectly normal man’s experiences watching his world crash around him.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I’d read an article on memory–how we don’t actually remember many full memories, just “snapshots,” enough pertinent details and our mind and imagination logically puts them together.  A part of me wanted to find a way to show that. I took ideas liberally from Bruce Sterling’s “20 Evocations,” and I wanted use that style, but wasn’t sure how, and wanted to use it in a completely different way. A viewing of Hiroshige’s “100 views of Edo” did the rest–I was struck by how fantastic it all was to me, but how most of the people depicted looked like they were going about their normal lives.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

I have pretty bad writer’s block, but this one practically wrote itself. But my first draft had just the 23 snapshots and no frame of reference. I really struggled to find a way to frame it that didn’t seem corny. I still hope I succeeded.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I’ve never gotten much fan mail from anything I’ve written. But this one did. While it was out almost once a week some stranger would email me telling me how the story affected them, often sharing very personal details of their stories and tragedies.  I’m a bit humbled by that. The story means a lot to me for that reason. I may never write or do anything that affects people the way this story did at that time.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Embarrassingly little, besides what I mentioned above. I guess sometimes you don’t realize you’ve been researching a story until halfway through writing it.

What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

Aw, what doesn’t appeal about zombie fiction? At our most escapist it’s a romp, blasting away at mindless creatures after our brains, at our most fearful it’s about our entire modern life being turned against us or rendered useless to us. There is something terrifying and awful people we know or just see on the street turning into something that hungers for our death.

In many ways, I think, it’s a commentary on the faceless nature of cities and the people who inhabit them. All those people you see at the bus stop or the train station or walking on the street. You scan their faces to see if you recognize them or if they look like they might recognize you, and you see them watching you and then just looking away.

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

I have a soft spot for Max Brooks’ World War Z and the Brian Keene’s  The Rising as novels, both for the unusual formats they take and the empathy they have with their characters.  As short stories go, Steve Eller’s “Consumption” and Michael Swanwick’s “The Dead” are way, way up there.

INTERVIEW: Scott Edelman, author of “The Human Race”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

After a young woman’s relatives are killed in a terrorist bombing, she must travel London to deal with the aftermath.  The carnage leaves her so distraught she considers suicide, but once the dead start to coming back to life, her plans change drastically.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I can’t remember when I first heard that a question a writer must ask himself or herself about a story is, “Who hurts?,” but that’s always a question I’ve asked when pulling a tale together and figuring out my viewpoint character.  And so as I approached writing this zombie story, I tried to think, not just of those whose lives would be adversely impacted in general by a zombie uprising, but someone whose life choices would immediately and very specifically change.  So I arrived at–what if someone wanted to commit suicide, but could no longer do so, because she knew she’d immediately return?  She no longer has the option of opting out of life.   What does she do now?  How does she feel about this?  Why did she want to die in the first place?  Everything else grew out of these questions.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

The most challenging aspect of this story was the timing of its creation. Due to a deadline, the first and second drafts were written on my Sidekick II on the way to, at, and on the way back from a Worldcon.  There were times when I sat on a couch in the lounge surrounded by Hugos and fanzines tapping away with my thumbs, knowing I had only a week to pull this one off.  So the challenges of this one weren’t artistic–they were all about staying away from the parties so I had enough brain to complete it. And when completing a zombie story, brain is always important!

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

Even though I agree that all stories are personal, I can’t point at anything specific here, I’m afraid.  The way this story is personal in that Paula is me, as all of my characters are me.  The only way I can bring a character to life is by slipping into his or her skin, letting those parts of me that are the character come out. As the saying goes,  “I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I lived.

What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

The zombie is a universal conceit.  It is a trope capable of addressing every facet of human behavior.  There is no metaphor the zombie cannot inhabit, and believe me, I’m not done with them.

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

My favorite zombie story is Adam-Troy Castro’s “Dead Like Me,” which was published in The Living Dead. In it, a man must pass for one of the walking dead in order to keep living, which means he must sacrifice everything that makes life worth living. A heartbreaking, brilliantly executed story.

INTERVIEW: Sarah Langan, author of “Are You Trying to Tell Me This is Heaven?”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

It’s about a father who’s searching for his junkie daughter six months after the zombie apocalypse. They’re estranged, but she’s all he’s got left. Unfortunately, he gets bitten right before he finds her.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

There’s the great line in the original, 1978 Dawn of the Dead that has haunted me since I first rented the movie when I was nine years old. Ken Foree says, “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” The thing about zombies is, the flesh is incidental—they eat souls. I wanted to explore that from the perspective of a character who’s been bitten, but hasn’t yet turned.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

It didn’t come easily for me, probably because I got ambitious.  I started reading Stephen Crane’s poem “In the Desert,” and the story took a biblical, epic turn. The Catholic in me goes wild with this resurrection stuff. I can’t help it.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

My daughter was born eight months ago, and the kind of love I have for her is without condition. This story is in part–totally screwed-up part–about that kind of mindless, enduring love.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I was in Baton Rouge for a book event in October, and thought it made a perfect zombie setting. You’ve got to figure that summer heat and overgrown kudzu make moldy homes out of those walking dead. Gross but cool! I wanted zombies with living things growing inside them. It’s a nice metaphor for the world. From death, life.

What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

I think they’re a specifically American monster that plugs into our national guilt. We consume a disproportionate and unsupportable amount of natural resources, and we do it with mindless abandon. Meanwhile, citizens of poor nations labor in sweatshops across the world to supply our voracious demand, and the world is becoming toxic. It’s not our fault; we’re entrenched. We can’t help our birth or social convention. I think shampoo is pretty stupid, and frankly would rather walk most places than drive, but who’s got the time?  What’s scary about zombies is just what Romero says, “They’re us.” We’re cursed with the self knowledge that our consumption is destroying the world, and there’s not much we can do about it. So it gives us soul sickness.

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Dave Wellington’s Monster Island series is great. It creates a new mythology.

INTERVIEW: Rory Harper, author of “Therapeutic Intervention”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

It’s a pretty straight-forward transcription of a counseling session that takes place a few years after the next zombie infestation. The client is dealing with some of the after-effects.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, orwhat prompted you to write it?

Ideas unexpectedly cross-pollinate in your head sometimes. And I do blog at www.eatourbrains.com, which is a zombie-themed site that seven published SF writers work on sporadically, so zombies are on my mind pretty often.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

I usually have to struggle to excrete a story, but this one slid out easily in the space of an hour or so, from conception to final draft. Except that part where you wanted me to tweak the ending a bit. That caused me a couple of weeks of agony. Admittedly, the original version just kind of dribbled to a stop.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

Well, I was an addictions counselor for about 17 years. A lot of my sessions bore some similarity to what takes place in this story, more so than you might think.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Absolutely none. There are a fair number of counselor in-jokes in it, though. One commenter suggested that it be made into a short film for counselors in training, because of the way it illustrates proper responses to common issues, and illustrates how good counselors offer empathy and unconditional positive regard to their clients.

What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

The zombie apocalypse gives us a way to cut through all of the accumulated b.s. in our lives. As a bonus, we also get an excuse to go on a killing spree without guilt. I fell hopelessly in love with the zombie genre when Night of the Living Dead first came out. Besides all of the social and cultural issues it lets you examine, I’ve always been attracted to the idea of resetting civilization. Unless you’re pessimistic enough to believe that it’ll simply be the end of us all, a good zombie apocalypse offers us the hope of starting over and building something better than the toxic behemoth that we seem to be trapped inside now. Naturally, I and everyone I care about will survive and prosper.

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

I like Brian Keene’s The Rising and City of the Dead, because the zombies are intelligent, even though they’re a departure from the Romero concept. I’ve read a fair number of the Permuted Press books, and enjoyed them–they’re workmanlike and entertaining, and sometimes
better than that. World War Z, of course, because it paints on a broader canvas, and I’d love to see more of that. Stephen King’s Cell started off good, before it got into that other storyline that I’m not going to mention, because it would be a spoiler. I also enjoyed Xombies: Apocalypse Blues, at least partly because, having a daughter that I totally adore,  I’m a sucker for smart young girls as protagonists.

I have the nagging feeling that there’s something a lot deeper than we’ve already seen, that can be done with the idea of a zombie apocalypse. I’m not sure what it is. I haven’t yet read anything that rises to the level of the classics of other types of apocalypses. I’m in the middle of  The Walking Dead, Compendium One right now, and am deeply impressed by it. It’s practically literature. I still think that the best zombie fiction is yet to be written.

INTERVIEW: Paula R. Stiles, author of “Zombieville”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Zombieville” is about a group of aid workers (several of them Peace Corps volunteers) surviving in West Africa after the Zombocalypse–and doing surprisingly better than you’d expect.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I got into zombie fic through the back door–I sold a story (that I didn’t originally consider zombie fic), “The Gingerbread Man,” to Permuted Press and got involved in their writing group, The Pit, over there. Zombies are popular and I like to get published as much as the next writer, but also, I was hanging out with a lot of people who loved zombies. So, I wrote some more, like “Burning Down the House,” which was a take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers I’d had kicking around in my head for a few years, only with fungus.

As I recall, I wrote “Zombieville” for a Permuted Press anthology and it didn’t get bought. So, I shopped it around and Something Wicked seemed like a good fit (which turned out to be true). Plus, I liked the idea of appearing in an African ‘zine (and their covers are fantabulous).

“Zombieville,” more specifically, came out of two motivations. First, I kept hearing they wanted to do a Resident Evil movie set in Africa and I groaned a little, thinking about how many boring clichés they’d come up with for that. Then I thought, “Well, self, why not do your own take on an African Zombocalypse?” Not like anybody else was doing it.

I made the protags PCVs because I used to be one. I could have had Cameroonian protags (I’ve done them before), but I really didn’t think the Cameroonians would be freaked out enough by a zombie pandemic to generate much drama. So, I used expats.

As for where Bruce came from–one, he’s an homage to Bruce Campbell in a small way, of course. But on a larger scale, he came from a conversation I had a couple of years back with two Chinese lads I was tutoring at the time. They were both teens and absolutely huge. And we got to talking one day about stereotypes about Chinese expats in the West (all short and sneaky and inscrutable and all that). They were complaining about how they never got to see any good Chinese protags in western fiction, especially fic of the speculative variety. So, I took some of the issues I knew some Asian volunteers had in Cameroon when I was there and came up with Bruce, who was Chinese-American.

Naturally, his name is also a play on the great Bruce Lee.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Yes and no. The background was not hard to write, more to cut back down. I know that it’s YMMV with editors on infodump, but I’m a bit of an infodump nazi on my own. The problem was trying to get in an adequate amount of background to make Cameroonian society coherent to an audience I knew would need as much explanation as possible–and tell a story–all in less than 5,000 words, if possible. I’ve managed to sell two novelettes, but it’s a bear to sell anything over five thou, usually, so I avoid it when I can.

The other challenge was one I run into a lot. I’ve done some pretty wild and crazy things (Peace Corps was neither my first nor last Big Adventure). It…frustrates me when I see so much clichéd drama out there. When you do wild and crazy things as a lifestyle, you quickly learn that excess drama is stupid. So, you minimize it as much as you can. I actually find a lot of “adventure” fic (not to mention horror) seriously irritating because the characters act like complete idiots as part of a lot of artificially-generated drama. I absolutely refuse to have my characters act like fools just to move the plot along. And if that makes things too “linear” or not hysterical enough, so be it.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

All of my stories are personal in some way. I wouldn’t feel very motivated to write them, otherwise. In the case of “Zombieville,” it’s probably obvious at this point in the interview that the story stems from my Peace Corps experience. I didn’t actually live up in the Extreme North (I was down in the East Province), but I visited there twice when I was living in Cameroon and I absolutely loved Maroua. It’s a beautiful place and, except toward the end of tourist season in February when the locals are a bit fed up with the tourists, much friendlier and less aggressive than a lot of the rest of Cameroon. I found it…restful.

Also, I was in Cameroon during the early part of the AIDS epidemic and it was already having a serious effect on the culture. I knew Cameroonians who died of it, volunteers who went home HIV-positive. I was also working in EMS back in the ’80s when it was hitting the medical community for the first time. We PCVs were all tested before we went and when we came back and even so, I’ll never be able to donate blood again. Let’s just say that the UN either has been lying about the rates in Cameroon, especially, or was severely misinformed. They now know that the disease originated about 100 kms south of where I was (hell, I could’ve told them that back in ’94).

AIDS was already at epidemic proportions in Cameroon by the time I left in ’94 and that’s a pretty scary atmosphere to be in for two years (on top of all the other fun stresses)–and yet, you know, life just goes on. What else are you going to do? So, when I was reading all these zombie stories in The Pit and seeing people talk about the Zombocalypse as if it would be this catastrophic event, I kinda laughed and thought, “You know, I should just write a zombocalypse tale that’s a metaphor for AIDS in Africa.” It’s not actually the first AIDS-in-Africa metaphor tale I’ve written. Probably won’t be my last, either.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Not really that much, considering so much of it came from personal experience. There are lots of little personal-history details in there that just might get my car put up on blocks on the freeway some night if some of my old RPCV buddies ever read my stuff (not that anybody else would notice). Fortunately, I don’t own one right now.

But I did look up things to confirm them–country facts that might have changed since the ’90s, mostly.

What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

Well, as I said before, I came into it by the back door. Mostly, I’m in it because I like the zombie fic community and all those crazy kids out there writing it. They’re just good fun to be around, don’t really take stuff seriously.

In terms of what I find appealing about zombies, I’m going to be a heretic here and say I like the fast ones, or the ones that seem nearly normal until they get close enough to take a chunk out of you. I don’t consider Romero’s zombies to be “traditional,” anyway (they’re more like medieval vampires, in fact). Zombies are originally a Caribbean monster and it irritates me a bit that the “Americanized” version has taken over so completely that there are fans of zombies who just won’t accept anything else as a “zombie.”

But I find it really creepy when you have these relentless and mindless people after you, who exist only to eat you or convert you into them. Or both. It’s very, very disturbing.

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Mostly films and television and they may seem unusual: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (though they’re technically plants, they’re still zombie-like and relentless), the original Dawn of the Dead (love the commentary on mindless consumerism), Shaun of the Dead (a great Brit-culture spoof that’s also scary), Five Million Years to Earth (AKA the Quatermass Experiment, scary as hell when the mobs are taking out anyone who isn’t brainwashed by the Martians).

Also the Supernatural episodes “Croatoan” and “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things.” I love the use of the Lost Colony mystery in “Croatoan,” and how these ordinary people can seem smiling and normal even as they’re lifting their knives, how we never do find out exactly what happened. I also love how one of the brothers, Dean, is really almost as much a monster as any of the Monsters of the Week in both episodes. In “Croatoan,” he’s gone all I Am Legend (he even says he feels like Heston in The Omega Man) on the zombies, even to the point of shooting people before they’ve “turned.”

In “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things,” Dean has just been brought back practically from the dead. Physically, he came back fully, not so much emotionally. The zombie girl of the episode was brought back part-way by Ancient Greek necromancy, but continues to rot and has turned from a sweet kid into a homicidal maniac. Both of them have this sexual edge to their rage and he’s downright obsessed with hunting her in a very disturbing way. So, you’ve got this more-successful zombie fanatically hunting a less-successful zombie throughout the episode and the both of them scaring (or killing, in the case of the girl) all their loved ones. It’s like Pet Sematary on crack. I think you could say the message is: “If you love someone, don’t bring them back from the dead. It’ll really screw them up!”

And I can’t believe they got that staking scene past the censors at the end.

INTERVIEW: Paul McAuley, author of “The Thought War”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

Zombification of the Boltzmann Brain paradox (that if the universe arose out of a random fluctuation in chaos, self-aware entities could arise by the same process).

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I read a great article on Boltzmann brains in the New Scientist, and ran off with one of the ideas.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

It was one of those stories that flow straight through; that is, once I’d worked out that it was a first-person narrative, and the situation in which the narrator was telling his story.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

It starts off in one of my favourite places in London–the cemetry of St Pancras Old Church.  It’s one of the oldest religious sites in London; it contains, amongst others, the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, mother of Mary Shelley (she and the poet Shelley confessed their love for each other over her mother’s grave); Thomas Hardy once worked there; and it’s on one of my walking routes.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I read the article, and did a small amount of footling around on the web.  But not too much: this is a horror story disguised as a hard sf story.  I already had the setting.

What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

Zombies contain pathos (you can always count on a slapstick comedy moment of six in a zombie film) with dis-ease about our own mortality; that there’s something worse than death.  And apart from triffids, zombies are the slowest yet most relentless monsters in the sf/horror genres.  They keep coming and they keep multiplying, generating all kinds of interesting narrative arcs.

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

White Zombie, for Bela Lugosi and a totally OTT story.  Night of the Living Dead, for low key dread, an early example of serious gore, and for introducing the idea that a catastrophe might not be survivable.  HG Wells’s Things to Come, with its zombie-like wandering sickness, a template for all kinds of science thrillers about viral epidemics.  Joe Landsdale’s Dead in the West for, well, being a Joe Lansdale story about zombies and cowboys.  The graphic novel version is pretty good too.  And Shaun of the Dead was great fun and a fine homage to the zombie canon.

INTERVIEW: Molly Brown, author of “Living with the Dead”

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I saw a television documentary in which a number of people who’d had near death experiences were interviewed, and what they all seemed to have in common was that on “coming back from the dead” they’d found their priorities had changed and things that had once seemed terribly important–such as careers and material possessions–no longer held the same interest.

Several of them actually said that all they wanted to do since they’d come back was just sit on a park bench looking at the flowers and the sky, at which point it occurred to me that a real-life Night of the Living Dead wouldn’t be about the recently-revived dead attacking you (or wanting to eat your brainzzz), it would be about them sitting on a park bench and looking at the flowers.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

The town in “Living With The Dead” is not based on Centralia, Pennsylvania, but I drew more than a little inspiration from that particular real-life example of how quickly a thriving community can decline and die, and how there are always those few people who refuse to leave no matter how bad things get.

INTERVIEW: Matt London, author of “Mouja”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

Mouja” is the story of a zombie outbreak in feudal Japan. It follows Takashi, the leader of a small group of masterless samurai, or ronin, who have banded together to protect a farming village from the zombie horde. A samurai’s loyalty has always struck me as almost zombie-like in its blindness to external conditions. These are guys who frequently sacrificed themselves on behalf to their masters, either by rushing into a battle they knew they could not win or by committing ritualistic suicide in order to help their masters save face. The lore about this fascinating culture would have us believe the samurai were almost superhuman in their devotion, but of course, people are people. I wanted to create a character who is a slave to what he is, much as the zombies are slaves to what they are. Samurai have elevated their body movements to an economic art from. They are perfect, and yet they are brought down by lumbering, mindless cannibals. I could draw these comparisons all day. Samurai and zombies are like peanut butter and chocolate. I’m surprised the market isn’t inundated with this type of mash-up.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

Mouja”’s concept was something I had been thinking about for a long time. If any readers have ever seen the film Seven Samurai or one of its many imitations, similarities with “Mouja” will immediately become clear. I studied film at New York University, where I had a passionate interest in the films of Kurosawa and horror cinema. I’m not sure when I was first introduced to Kurosawa. In a way I have always been aware of him, the same way people always know what chicken tastes like. During the years I was in college (2003-2007) there was a surprising increase in the number of zombie films released—28 Days Later was the first one of that era that really resonated with me. Those years also saw an increase in Japanese horror films like The Ring and The Grudge that were either released in the US outright or remade by American companies. I felt tapped into these trends. Japanese horror films tend to be slow-burn ghost stories, like the films (based on books) mentioned above. Samurai films, on the other hand, are action-packed splatterfests as much as any American horror film.

Seven Samurai, perhaps the best and certainly the most popular film in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, essentially has the same plot as most zombie movies: protagonists improve the defenses of some location (shopping mall, British pub, whatever), deal with political or social problems within the group of survivors, and then fight off the horde (usually without much success). So a lot of the heavy lifting was already done for me. Substitute zombies for the anonymous bandits of the original film and we’re off to the races. At the same time, there were aspects of samurai psychology that had puzzled and fascinated me for a long time, particularly the samurai’s relationship with death. It seems to me that such a so-it-goes attitude would benefit those trying to survive a zombie uprising, but at the same time, I am skeptical that samurai were ever totally devoid of emotion.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Quite the contrary. The story stewed for a long time, and then shot out like a rocket.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

One time I was visiting my uncle’s farm and he asked me to clean his barn so I went in there with a rake and a mop and inside was a corpse just laying there in one of the water troughs. The corpse stood up and lunged at me. Fortunately I had that rake, so I jabbed the corpse in the eye and saved myself. I suppose “Mouja” was my way of working out what happened to me.

Okay, not really. My educational and professional background is in film. As a kid, it was movies and books, books and movies all the time. I can’t divorce one from the other. As a result, I consider myself to have a fairly cinematic writing style, and I tend to write cinematic stories. Purists may lash out at me for that, but in the 21st century, you can’t ignore such a huge part of our culture. “Mouja” is dark and bloody, but it was written with a lot of love.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

In addition to Kurosawa’s samurai films (mainly Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, and Yojimbo), my main resource was the Hagakure by Tsunetomo Yamamoto, which was a samurai how-to pamphlet written in the Eighteenth century. It is reminiscent of Sun-tzu’s The Art of War, and sums up a lot of what I’ve been rambling about above in its opening line: “I have found the essence of Bushido: to die! In other words, when you have a choice between life and death, then always choose death.” Also, I happen to have the privilege of working with the best editor in the business, John Joseph Adams, who put me in touch with several Japanese scholars who combed the manuscript for anachronisms.

What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

This is usually the part of the questionnaire where writers promise they won’t talk about how zombies represent consumerism and how human nature makes us insatiable, or how zombies represent the fragility of society, and then the writers go about explaining how zombies represent just that. Of course zombies represent those things, but what makes the living dead such an attractive trope is the universality of the metaphor. Zombies are like vampires and white whales. They can represent just about anything. For me, zombies are resonating at this moment in time because of where we are culturally. Sometimes I turn on the news and see these protests where everyone is suffering from the same delusions and I feel like the zombie hordes are already here. The United States is a deeply polarized nation, and whoever your drummer is, you can’t help but look at the other side and see them as zombies, mindless enemies bent on destroying your way of life. I can’t help but sit on the subway and look around at all the people and think Man, look at these sad robots trudging through their pathetic, lifeless existences. But the thing is, we’ve all thought that at some point on the subway. Zombie fiction addresses the “us versus the world” phenomenon we all feel at times. It’s no coincidence that the increased cultural polarization we have witnessed since 2002 mirrors the increase in zombie fiction and films.

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

I’m a fan of Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, about her trips to Haiti. She interviews the family members of real zombies, helpless people who were poisoned by psychotropic drugs. For me, reality is much scarier than fiction.

As for movies, I’m a fan of the original Night of the Living Dead more than any of its sequels or remakes. You’ve got nearly ten uninterrupted minutes of Duane Jones barricading the house and listening to the radio. No on-screen dialogue. It’s a massive info dump, and yet it’s gripping. That’s just brilliant filmmaking. Also, I loved Slither because it combined a lot of zombie tropes with grotesque body horror, another subgenre that fascinates me and features heavily in my writing.

keep looking »