No one was doing much in the way of zombie fiction back when I wrote that story. I had nowhere at all to sell it when I first wheeled it off the typewriter (yeah, it was even before wordprocessors). It was in my to-sell stack when I first got wind of Skipp and Spector's zombie anthology BOOK OF THE DEAD. They ended up rejecting it, but by that time (they held it a looooooooooooong time, Barbara), Steve Bissette had already accepted it for TABOO and I had adapted it to comic book script format.
So the story upon which I'm basing the novel is one that I've been walking about with for quite a long time, even for me. (And I'm notorious for not giving up on an idea or a project.) When I first wrote it I was maybe 26 years old. Now I'm 55. That's a long time. The germ of the tale came from, of course, George A. Romero's version of the zombie, and a flash of an idea that occurred to me while watching the great cult classic FIEND WITHOUT A FACE. In a bizarre way, I crossed Romero's themes with Lovecraftian vibes overflowing with imagery gleaned from my subconscious after viewing FIEND WITHOUT A FACE.
I hope to deliver the completed book soon to one of my publishers, Severed Press, who were generous enough to pay me an advance to write it. I know they say never to say never again...but in this case this will be my last glorious gasp of zombie fiction. Get ready.
This scene scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.
THE NEW ECOLOGY OF DEATH (an excerpt)
James Robert Smith.
James Robert Smith.
She woke up early to get the house ready for guests. Jill Pittman was a soft touch and she knew it it—although in a subconscious way—and was the target of endless visitors. Just about the only thing that could stop any of her guests from frequenting her home was death. Either hers or theirs. So far, she had outlived any number of old friends and acquaintances. Sometimes the constant visitors were a burden bordering on the extreme, but the alternative was loneliness, and Jill Pittman found that to be unacceptable.
The old woman was a bonafide people person and nothing short of oblivion was going to cure her of that.
Every morning she took a quick shower. A good, hot shower. It always woke her up and got her blood flowing and relaxed her ancient muscles. Jill had never understood people who could sleep all night, sweating and drooling, and then could get dressed for the day without properly bathing themselves. Her husband had been like that, preferring to shower at night and then doing without a good bath until just before going to bed the next evening. The very idea made her shudder.
Of course Mr. Pittman was no longer with her. He’d succumbed to a sudden heart attack five years before. He’d not been around to witness the horrible thing that had occurred when the dead had begun to come back. She recalled Ben’s old arguments about how corrupt the US government was and how one day they’d all have to stand against it with guns and go back to the original intent of the Constitution. What an idiot he’d been.
Turning on the hot water, she was consciously happy and thankful for that luxury. If not for that government her husband had so feared and hated, she wouldn’t be able to take a hot shower with such ease. When, in the worst days of the infection, the police had shown at her door to ask her for her husband’s weapons, she’d only been too happy to respond positively. Since his death she had only touched them to keep them oiled and cleaned. Jill hadn’t even had ammunition for most of them and had been relieved to see them go with the men who’d arrived to remove the weapons. At that point the soldiers and the police had taken charge of the emergency and things were improving with each day. Those horrible creatures no longer stalked the streets and shadows and that monstrous explosion of random shootings came to a screeching halt.
Mrs. Pittman was glad for the government, for the security it had given them, and, yes, for the hot showers she could take of a morning.
It had been ages since she—or anyone she knew—had seen one of those infected things in the city. Even her son and most of her relatives who lived in rural areas and who called her (thanks to the government preserving the infrastructure) from time to time never reported them anymore. They were gone. Now she felt safe when she was alone in her house in the evening and she didn’t have to keep her windows blocked with thick blankets, peeking out in the light of day and taking them down only when she’d seen that everything was clear. In fact, all of those old shades and blankets were folded up and put away, or else were on the beds where they were supposed to be.
Outside, the wind was blowing up a bit. She could hear it pressing against the windowpanes as she stood under the stream of warm water, enjoying the feel of it as it washed away the soap and layers of sweat and dirt that she had scoured off with her rough wash rag. Jill preferred a rougher fabric to wash with, feeling that it got down into the pores more effectively and therefore she would emerge from the shower much cleaner, as she now did.
Toweling down (again with rough, textured cotton fabric), she climbed into her clothes—fresh underwear and her long yellow dress that she’d just bought at the Belk’s in the South Town Mall. Over that she pulled on a pearl-pale light sweater and put on a pair of her day-slippers of a similar pearl hue. She wasn’t going to go out, so there was no reason to pick a pair of shoes. The slippers would do fine.
Guests would begin arriving within the hour, she knew. Conway Diggs was coming—he’d been recently widowed, and Tootsie Avery would be there in quick order. After that, who knew who would arrive at her door for the hospitality she always offered and the food and drink everyone came to mooch from her.
That had been a negative thought, she realized. But it was true that often she felt that some of her guests really were there only to mooch. That Mr. Edmonds who had moved in two doors down seemed definitely only to arrive at mealtimes. The previous owners of that house—a young couple—had unfortunately been victims of that terrible infection and the panic that followed. Why couldn’t she recall the name of that couple? Now she wouldn’t be able to think straight until she had recalled their faces and names.
As for Mr. Edmonds, he rarely had anything at all to say other than the bare minimum that one would expect from a guest. Most of the time, once food was served, he would just sit quietly alone and eat and then quickly excuse himself to go who knew where. Oh, well. If that was all that brought him there, it was all right with Jill. God, she knew, looked upon people such as herself positively. She would be received in Heaven when her time came.
As soon as she was dressed she spritzed herself with just a bit of the new perfume she’d picked up at one of the boutiques in the mall. Once again, she was reminded of what a gift the government had bestowed upon them all. When it looked as if things were going to fall completely apart, the folk in charge had done the right things at the right time. Her husband’s life-long worries and mistrust had been for nothing. And to think she had often been swayed by his crazy political ideas. Going to the kitchen, she was treated to the smell of newly brewed coffee. The machine had been programmed the night before and a large carafe was waiting for her. She poured a cup and took it black. Perfect.
She’d been thinking about what she was going to prepare for lunch. That Mr. Edmonds had told her that he had quite enjoyed her chicken salad the week before, so maybe she would make that. He lived alone and probably had no one to cook for him. In fact, she’d rarely seen anyone stopping to visit him. She frowned and plucked at her lip. What had that couple’s name been?
Now she had it. Tom and Irene Gladden! They were a delightful couple, now that she remembered their names. So young. How could she have forgotten them like that?
Going to the refrigerator she took out a dozen eggs. You couldn’t make a good chicken salad without some Grade-A Jumbo eggs. There was a faraway popping noise that she immediately recognized as the staccato delivery of gunfire. So familiar from the worst days, one hardly heard it anymore. In fact, it had been some weeks since the last time she’d heard that awful sound. She went to the sink and peered out. From there, she had a good look down the entire north end of the street, and could see Mr. Edmonds’ house. Daisy Calloway was walking her collie and had stopped on her way along the sidewalk beneath a bare cottonwood tree, staring off in the distance. Obviously, her neighbor had heard the sound, too, and was gazing in the direction from which the shots had come. Cars moved down the street in either direction, obeying the speed limits. The sounds did not come again and Daisy soon continued on her way.
Jill put a quart of water in a medium pot and placed it on the burner. Carefully, she put four eggs in, turning it to medium heat. Best to let them come to a boil slowly.
And then it occurred to her that the Gladdens had had two children. Twins, she suddenly remembered! Why had she let something like that slip her mind? Oh, she was getting absent-minded as she neared eighty. And not just twins, but girls. Identical girls, four years of age, quite precocious and blonde with green eyes, like their handsome father. Their names had been Alicia and Arlene and Jill had baked cupcakes for them once a month and…
Jill Pittman all but doubled over, as if suddenly sick. Only the fact that she was standing at the counter beside the sink prevented her from slipping to the floor.
Because now she remembered. The Gladdens had been victims of the infection. Mr. Gladden had come down with it. Later, the police had gone door to door telling everyone remaining how Mrs. Gladden had tried to hide her sick husband in one of the spare rooms. And he’d gotten out. Attacked his wife and had. Killed her.
Jill sobbed. The images she attempted to hide from herself came flooding back. The little girls, those two darlings, had tried to run. But they’d gone back for their mother who had been left bleeding along the street while their father…what had been their father…tore at the poor woman. And then he’d attacked them, also. From this very window Jill Pittman had stood frozen, unable to move, watching what had come next. Then, as now, the screams of the two girls and the sight of that blood had been too much for her. She’d fainted dead away. Now, darkness took her and finally, despite the barrier of the counter, she did slump to the floor.
In a while, though, her eyes fluttered open and she lifted herself from the cold, white Linoleum. Oh my, she thought. I mustn’t let anyone see me like this. Quickly she came completely to her senses and stood up. What is wrong with me? She couldn’t let anyone see her fainting that way. Too many of her friends and neighbors depended on her. Her son would have her put into a home if he saw something like that.
In the back of her mind, the thought of Tom Gladden was stuck like a virulent tick in the folds of her brain. She covered that thought and those images, but still it remained, waiting. And she was withholding that information back in some dark corner. But there, tickling at her conscious thoughts was what the police officer had told them all when he’d come to question them and warn them, each and every one.
“Tom Gladden—or what used to be Tom Gladden—has not been located. He could be anywhere. You should all keep your doors and windows locked just in case he…it…returns.”
But that two-year-old monologue was cloaked these days by something bright, anything at all, transforming from day to day to keep it at bay. Her mind had covered that over with something less difficult with which to deal. And it wouldn’t pop up again until it bobbed to the surface of its own accord.
So, she went back to preparing the salad, surprised to find that the water and the eggs were already boiling. Her feet made hardly a sound as she marched back and forth across the floor, moving from stove to sink to counter and back again in that order as she retrieved the ingredients and tools to make lunch for the half dozen or so guests that she knew would arrive well before noon. She had to hurry to get it all in order before the first of them showed up. The images and the very existence of the Gladden Family were forgotten once more, as if they'd never been.
And all the while, beneath her kitchen floor, in the dry and dusty crawlspace just under her slippered feet that scratched to and fro on that pale, clean floor, something that had once been Tom Gladden lay, staring. It just reclined there in the dust, motionless, gazing at the cobwebs and pipes and exposed wooden beans just above its hard and withered face.
“My name is Tom Gladden,” it thought. “I have been dead for two years. I killed my wife and children.”
Beyond that, it only waited, motionlessly, for...something.