Interview: Darrell Schweitzer

Tell us a bit about your story, "The Dead Kid." What’s it about?

A gang of suburban kids keep a zombie child captive in their "fort" in the woods so they can amuse themselves tormenting it. The protagonist, David, is afraid of the "bad" kids but rebellious enough that he tries to join their company. He and his younger brother are shown the zombie. As part of an initiation ritual, David has to spend a night in close quarters with the zombie. Later, as part of an initiation ritual, it is set on fire, but not destroyed. As the story progresses, David begins to identify with and empathize with the zombie, which is actually the lost child of a magician. His moral redemption is achieved by his brother and the zombie, which he comes to see as a person.

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

Don’t we all get our ideas from that factory in Poughkeepsie? But more to the point, this story comes out of anyone’s childhood. I did know a "tough" kid was was allegedly eaten by a werewolf in the manner described, although he was not a bad kid and didn’t beat anybody up over it. I knew another kid who did wild and crazy things. The hornet-hive stunt would have been his style, but he didn’t do that. Someone in my younger brother’s class actually attempted that stunt of riding on the outside of the P&W train to Philadelphia. He was not successful. He hit a pole, rather the way David does in his dream. He was flung off, broke every bone in his body, and died hideously several days later. I was told that his family was asking people to pray that he would die, so severe were his injuries. The setting itself, Cabbage Creek Woods and the surrounding area (the abandoned mansion belonged to the Pew family) were all quite real, back around 1965. I found a hunting knife in that "fort" once. Most of the area is now paved over or turned into an athletic field outside the Radnor (PA) police station.

A much more powerful inspiration is the story of the "Boy in the Box," whose corpse was found in a woods in northeast Philadelphia (quite near to where I now live). The case has never been solved after about fifty years. There are police detectives who have obsessed over this throughout their entire careers and into their retirement. They don’t even know his name. He is a complete mystery. My suggestion that he was the lost son of a magician from the past (or another dimension) is as good as any. And I discovered his name.

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

The zombie is the evil vampire brought back. Vampires in fiction have become beautiful and romantic and even cuddly. You may remember the description of Frank Langella as "cuddly Dracula." So the vile, bloodsucking revenant has been reinvented as the post-Romero zombie. Remember that the Romero zombie, of the brain-eating sort, have no basis in folklore. Haitian zombies are not like that at all. It shows the power of the film medium that Romero completely redefined the zombie in popular consciousness.

But I like to be subversive. Not only have I written about genuinely evil vampires (see "Runaway," in the anthology I, VAMPIRE and also in my collection REFUGEES FROM AN IMAGINARY COUNTRY) but now I have a sympathetic zombie.

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

I am not sure I have seen enough zombie movies to have a wide-ranging opinion. I recognize the importance of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. You will notice that it has had a powerful enough impact to have gone through two cycles of sequels and parodies. Last time Romero made several sequels, there was THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. Now we’ve had a whole cycle of remakes and it inspired SHAUN OF THE DEAD — a very lovely film, which I recommend highly. As for zombie stories, well, the "modern" zombie fiction "genre" starts, I suppose with the Skip and Spector stories. I remember a fine Robert McCammon story called, I think, "Eat Me."

Any new work of ours just out or forthcoming you’d like to mention, or anything else you’d like to add?

I used to be editor fo WEIRD TALES. I am now co-editing anthologies with Martin Greenberg. Seek out THE SECRET HISTORY OF VAMPIRES (DAW, 2007).

The key volumes of my own fiction are the novels THE SHATTERED GODDESS and THE MASK OF THE SORCERER, and the short story collections TRANSIENTS (my modern-horror collection; a World Fantasy Award finalist), NIGHTSCAPES, REFUGEES FROM AN IMAGINARY COUNTRY, and NECROMANCIES AND NETHERWORLDS (with Jason Van Hollander; this one also was a WFA finalist, and, by the way, it contains a zombie story — sort of — called "The Paloverde Lodge.")