A couple of people have contacted me to say, “What’s with the zombies? I don’t get the attraction!” That looks like a delicious can of worms. Let’s eat that.
I replied with something diplomatic like, “Well, you know, not everything’s for everybody and that’s cool but by the way, I make it fresh!”
But really, first off, how weird is that?
Is there any other profession where someone who doesn’t use your product or service goes out of their way to say, “I hate that”? I don’t like the smell of the acrylic nail salon at the mall, but I don’t rush in there to tell them “I don’t get it. Why would you do that?” Likewise, hard core military fiction? Not for me. Unicorns? Not for me. However, I don’t contact the authors looking for…well, I’m not sure what they were looking for exactly. Justification? An apology?
Second, my zombie apocalypse isn’t about zombies.
Good science fiction doesn’t teach you how to build a warp engine. I’ve tried to read some amateurish stuff that goes deep in the weeds of world-building and it has all the allure of a technical manual. (Which is a snarky way of saying it’s not for me, I guess, but at least I’m not chasing down those writers on Twitter and Facebook to say, “I don’t get it. Why would you do that?”)
My rule is Follow the Art. I wrote a story with zombies because that’s where Art took me.
Horror isn’t about the monsters.
Horror is about how we react to the monsters. In This Plague of Days, I take a family from the heartland of America and put them in peril. First it’s a plague (no zombies) because I wanted to show what a lot of dystopian books don’t show. I wanted to show how things fall apart instead of starting the story after the fall. As the conflicts escalate (especially in Season Two) faithful readers will come to understand why things happened the way they did in Season One. This is a big story with long arcs, secrets and big payoffs down the road. If I wanted to write a short story, the action would come in a smaller box. This is a big gift box.
Much of the horror doesn’t come from the infected.
Throughout This Plague of Days, everyone’s scared. Scared people, even heroes, make bad choices. As the zombie action evolves in Britain (and hits American shores in Season Two), that midwestern family in suburbia faces danger not just from the world flu pandemic, but from other survivors. In short, people are shitty to each other. They’re selfish. And sometimes they surprise us by being decent. There is room for nuance and, by the way, no villain thinks he’s a villain. Even when I daydream of drowning haters in an acid bath, I think I’m righteous, for instance.
People are more interesting than monsters.
Monsters don’t have choices. They’re following their needs, instincts and natures. But when people do bad things? They’re choosing evil. Family dynamics under pressure in the Centrifuge of Death and Global Disaster is much more interesting than drooling, shuffling dead lunkheads.
My zombies aren’t “true” rise-from-the-grave zombies.
My zombies are really people infected with a virus of the 28 Days Later variety. They’re fast and they’re getting smarter and more organized. I even make jokes about zombie movies where the tropes don’t bear examination. I’m telling a tale of Good versus Evil where most people are conflicted about the battle. Don’t assume it’s dumb because the z-word is attached.
Some people make rise-from-the-grave stuff work great, too. I’ve read plenty of smart horror. If you haven’t, maybe you need to read more, not less.
It didn’t even have to be zombies.
To me, the place of zombies in This Plague of Days, is as a force of nature. A world flu pandemic is a force of nature and the family deals with that first. The Brits in Season One run from the infected cannibals in the same way we’d run from packs of rabid dogs. If you’ve ever seen the movie The Ghost and the Darkness (two real life rogue lions who got a taste for humans and went on a killing spree) that’s my take on zombies.
Ultimately, Zombies R US.
When the story is done, themes and larger metaphors emerge. Amid rising action, hard choices and people you care about in trouble, This Plague of Days raises questions about the natures of God, Mankind, sacrifice and whether we’re worth sacrifice. Everyone reads a book through their own lens and will take away what they will. I think this is fiction that is very rich soil to till. It’s no coincidence that Jaimie Spencer’s on the autistic spectrum and his special interest is words and their meanings. This Plague of Days is about our meaning.
So, if you have any doubts about the value of zombies in particular or horror writing in general, there’s my justification.
The defence rests. No damn apologies.
Now, let’s eat another can of worms and follow the links to a discussion about the place of religion in horror.