Interview: John Langan

Tell us a bit about your story, "How the Day Runs Down." What’s it about?

Briefly, it’s Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN with zombies. Or rather it’s what would have happened to that kind of literary work had zombies intruded into it–which is to say, it’s an overview of a small town that’s been ravaged by the living dead, conducted by the being who’s responsible for the place.

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

Some years ago, I began writing a monologue from the point of view of the Stage Manager of OUR TOWN that dealt with zombies; the first few lines of the Stage Manager’s opening speech in the story are pretty much unchanged from what I wrote then.  I’m not sure what prompted me to combine those two things:  no doubt, having read and seen Wilder’s play several times during high school and college didn’t hurt.  There was a certain mordant humor in the juxtaposition of the Stage Manager’s homespun wisdom with zombie horror that appealed to me.  I went a reasonable distance into that first effort before it closed itself off to me.  As I recall, I became too concerned with inventing appropriately grim deaths for some of the local celebrities of the place where I grew up–that, and chronicling the progress of the outbreak became too daunting a task.  In the years that followed, I’d think about returning to the piece, wonder how I might continue it, but it wasn’t until the prompt of The Living Dead arose that I decided it was time to write this thing, which I did in a little more than a month.  This time, I was aiming for something relatively short–which, needless to say, didn’t exactly work, but which helped me to construct a narrative that was much leaner.  There’s something to be said for letting ideas ripen.

Tell us about the protagonist of the story.

There are a number of important characters in the story, but if I had to name one as the protagonist, I guess it would be the Stage Manager, who’s a kind of genius loci in charge of a small upstate New York town, Goodhope Crossing, that has been devastated by zombies.  He’s doing his best to relate recent events to the audience/reader, but he’s fairly overwhelmed by everything he’s seen.

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

Probably the most difficult part of the story to write was Mary Phillips’s long monologue, particularly the part concerning the fate of her children.  It’s not the kind of thing that would have troubled me in the past, but as the father of a small child now, I found approaching this material almost surprisingly hard.  It was what I knew had to happen for the larger narrative, but I can’t say I enjoyed it much.
To speak technically, the decision to write this as a play, even if just a closet-drama, was one that I felt I had to make but that I was extremely nervous about.  While I enjoy writing dialog, to have a work that depends on dialog, without the reassuring frame of authorial description/commentary, was daunting.

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

My stories often turn out to be personal in ways that are glaringly obvious to anyone who knows me, but that elude me.  That said, this is the first story that makes use of the landscape of my childhood–suitably altered for the purposes of my narrative, but close enough for me.

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

Although I thought about re-reading OUR TOWN in preparation for writing the story; and, once I was writing it, considered at least calling my siblings to compare notes about the locations in it; I decided to do neither. I made this decision because, while I intended the story as a response to Wilder, I didn’t want to follow him scene-by-scene–I wanted to allow my drama the chance to proceed in its own way.  And given the restrictions of time and length I was under, I thought it would be better to draw on the landscape of my memory, rather than consulting maps, changing names, etc.  To tell the truth, had I gone that route, I’m sure additional things to include would have occurred to me, and I’d still be writing now.

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?

Zombies–by which I mean the post-Romero zombie that really seems to have defined our current concept of the beast–have the virtue of simplicity; while you can trace aspects of their behavior to a host of monsters that have come before (like vampires, they rise from the dead; like ghouls and werewolves, they eat our flesh; like Frankenstein’s monster, they’re reanimated corpses; like most monsters, they have a particular weakness that will kill them immediately), they boil all that down to the basics:  they’re back from the dead, they want to eat us, they can be killed with a shot to the head.  I suspect that part of their effectiveness lies in the way they present us to ourselves, by which I mean, if you think about a monster like the vampire or the werewolf, you can see them as aspects of human behavior magnified and embodied; i.e. the vampire’s connection to various kinds of (taboo) eroticism has been explored ad infinitum, while the werewolf’s link to animal violence has also been recognized.  With the zombie, what you get is us, pretty much as we are, maybe with a little damage, and we consume one another.  No eroticism, no animal violence, just a single, overwhelming appetite.  That’s simultaneously very straightforward and very disturbing.

I haven’t really done much with zombies before this, in part because there’s not a whole lot you can do with either the slow or the fast post-Romero varieties:  their dramatic range tends to be rather limited.  I do have a couple of ideas for changes that might be made to them, including trying to retrieve the older, Caribbean versions of the zombie, but that’s in the future.  What’s more, narratives that feature zombies tend to follow a couple of plots almost religiously:  either we’re being overrun, or we’ve been overrun.  I suppose you might see both plots as versions of the siege narrative; although there’s a variation in which we’re moving across a zombied landscape.  Anyway, the zombie narrative in its current incarnations tends to be very formalized, the horror genre’s equivalent of a villanelle.  It’s the kind of thing that can seem very easy to write, because it’s so structured–and I suspect this is one reason for its popularity, especially among readers/viewers.  But the form is a challenge to do something original with–which
may be one reason for its popularity with writers/filmmakers.

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

I’ve greatly enjoyed Dave Wellington’s zombie trilogy, and I think Sarah Langan’s THE KEEPER and THE MISSING [No relation. — ed.] both ring some very interesting changes on the walking dead. Stephen King’s recent CELL was good fun; although his earlier PET SEMATARY is actually a zombie novel of a much darker stripe.  I’d add Robert Kirkman’s ongoing WALKING DEAD comics as a fine example of how much can be accomplished within the confines of the by-now-traditional zombie scenario.  And while it isn’t fiction, Kim Paffenroth’s GOSPEL OF THE LIVING DEAD remains the best recent critical treatment of Romero’s zombies I know.

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

My first collection of short fiction, MR. GAUNT AND OTHER UNEASY ENCOUNTERS, should be published by Prime in December; it contains all my fiction published so far, as well as a brand spanking new long novella.  I’ll also have a story forthcoming in Ellen Datlow’s anthology of stories inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, POE, which should be out from Solaris early in 2009.