Friday, February 18, 2011

Origins of THE LIVING END


For years I’ve been a fan of zombie movies and zombie fiction. I was hooked the first time I saw George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. What a great concept! The best paranoid fantasy I’ve ever seen, and nothing has matched it in the years since. With the possible exceptions of Romero’s follow-ups DAWN OF THE DEAD and DAY OF THE DEAD. I even quite like the remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD directed by Tom Savini—a much underappreciated horror movie that’s quite good (but more on that for another day).

And then there are the zombie novels. At first, there weren’t many of them. And those were mainly just the movie-to-novel books and John Russo’s excellent RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (which had nothing to do with the later film horror/comedy by the amazing Dan O’ Bannon--other than the title). For decades, really, no author seemed to want to go near the concept of Romero-esque zombies in horror fiction.

The first real zombie novel I can recall encountering was Philip Nutman’s WET WORK. His zombies were the same as Romero’s and some of them were..well, not like Romero's zombies . He split the difference by making some of them mindless, and some of them intelligent. As a book of apocalyptic horror, it really worked on every level. There’s even a scene toward the end with George Herbert Walker Bush and Dan Quayle zombies. The book was a good combination of scary and funny. Again…there’s time for that some other day.

After that, there didn’t seem to be much in the publishing world in the way of zombie fiction. There was a long running comic book series called DEADWORLD that was kind of nifty. But it faded away. The years continued to tick by and now and again there would be a zombie film that would prove relatively popular, but the idea seemed to stay mainly within the occasional B-movie.

Because of my long admiration for Romero’s bit of paranoid genius, I’d wanted to write a zombie novel. In the days before the form was made popular I’d even written and published a zombie comic book script, “The New Ecology of Death” in Steve Bissette’s TABOO. In those days you really didn’t see much around that was anything like it, so it stood out. But during that time I didn’t think there’d be a market for a zombie novel from a mainstream press.

And then, with the advent of the Internet and print-on-demand and a proliferation of small press publishers there was suddenly an eruption of zombie fiction. Some of it was awful, and some of it was really good. I’d search out these self-published and small print run novels and often I’d be surprised at how well written they were. In quick order there were literally dozens of zombie novels, and some of those small press publishers were actually making money printing apocalyptic zombie fiction. In a flash of sales and literary gore, there was a market for something as bizarre as the zombie novel.

So I jotted down some ideas and wrote out some sample chapters. Initially, my idea for a zombie novel was to do something like Sherwood Anderson’s WINESBURG, OHIO. Something like that, but involving the zombie apocalypse, and holding it together a bit more coherently than the tales in that great book. However, my agent thought that while he could sell a zombie novel, the Winesburg thing was probably not a good idea. I thought about it for a while and didn’t really agree, and then I recalled that my favorite Ray Bradbury book, THE OCTOBER COUNTRY (aka DARK CARNIVAL) was his take on a supernatural version of WINESBURG, OHIO. So, reluctantly, I backed away from my original idea. (And, of course, now someone has actually written such a novel! Oh, well.)

Before I got started on my zombie project I took a long, hard look at the community around zombie fiction. And something that jumped out at me almost immediately was that a lot of the fans were either borderline or blatant racists. The discussion boards online were packed with gun-mad racists actually longing for something like a zombie plague so that they could start shooting everyone they didn’t like. It was pretty disturbing. So disturbing that I almost considered abandoning the project. I even wrote an essay about it, which I published here at my blog. That essay generated a bit of controversy and ill feeling toward me from blockheads and right wing assholes. Oh, well.

After some consideration I figured I could write a zombie novel that wasn’t—like many I’d read—a thin line distant from THE TURNER DIARIES. What the hell. I was ready to give it a try.

The thing about the zombie trope is that it encompasses so many fears. There’s the xenophobia, of course. But you can imprint just about any fear known on the scalps of zombies. Fear of death. Fear of life. Fear of disease. Fear of violence. Fear of madness. Fear of others. Fear of strangers. Fear of being the stranger. Fear of ignorance. Fear of knowledge. You name it, it’s probably lurking just under the surface of the faces of those rotting, implacable monsters.

As I gathered creative steam for the book I thought that I’d want to have a collaborator. However, I had to disconnect that particular route of attack when a year passed after I was largely finished with my section and the rest of the book was not forthcoming from my writing partner. By then, my agent was frustrated and at least one opportunity from editors had come and gone, so I cut those collaborative ties and wrote the remaining forty thousand words myself, adding them to the seventy thousand I’d already created and ended up with THE LIVING END: A Zombie Novel (with Dogs).

However, by the time I handed it in to my agent, the markets seemed almost glutted with zombie fiction! Here was this little ghetto within a ghetto of horror fiction and editors were being deluged with manuscripts about zombies. One editor even sent a note—“What’s going on? I get one of these across the desk every few days!” It was sad, but the main publishers were actually overloaded with zombie novels. And who could blame other writers by then? Max Brooks’ WORLD WAR Z had been a bona fide best seller. King’s CELL had sold tons of copies. The Emily Bronte’ pastiche was roaring up the charts. Zombie movies were going great guns at the box office. Maybe the delay was going to prove a death blow to the project.

But then there were the small presses. Guys like Permuted Press and Coscom and others were selling lots of copies of novels about end-of-the-world scenarios, often featuring the living dead. So we sent the book out into the small press world, leaving a lot of those professional editors holding the manuscript while they made up their minds.

And in quick order the good folk at Severed Press asked for a contract to publish my zombie novel, THE LIVING END. I tried to write a zombie novel that takes a different direction from a lot of that type of book. My zombies are traditional in that they’re the slow, plodding, incoming tide of death. But I wrote a book about the kinds of worlds that coalesce after (and around) something like the plague of the reanimated. As with my earlier thoughts—the variation on the Sherwood Anderson theme, I place the story in a particular place and featured a wide and varied cast. The germ of my original idea is still there, but stitched together by a more coherent narrative than what I’d originally intended.

That, briefly, is how it happened.

4 comments:

dogboy443 said...

Thanks for showing off my fancy cover.

HemlockMan said...

As soon as I can construct a script we can pitch a Smith/Masztal comic book version.

dogboy443 said...

I've got a 3-4 page sequence roughed out on my drawing board. I've got to finish it up soon before my spark goes out.

HemlockMan said...

Email the roughs when you can!