Why are zombies so fascinating?
I didn’t want to be fascinated by them, but I started watching the AMC series The Walking Dead, and I was hooked. Then I found out my thirty-year-old son loves zombie fiction. He’s a bottom-feeding reader of zombie lore. “I read it all, Ma. If it’s free or cheap on Amazon, I’m all over it.” He’s also an ultra runner, so I got this idea to write him a zombie novel for his birthday. What could be better: unsuspecting ultra runners wearing teeny shorts, compression socks, brightly colored footwear, sports bras and hydration packs being set upon by flesh-seeking, animated corpses at around the 85K point of a 100K?
I started with research. World War Z by Max Brooks was my go-to textbook on the zombie apocalypse. The work of the author Jonathan Maberry of the young adult Rot & Ruin series became another component in my education. And The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology compiled by Christopher Golden was a genre-bending, permission-granting sort of book that opened my mind to the possibilities inherent in zombie fiction. I even talked to a family friend, a cardiologist, who helped me sketch out how fictional microbes could hijack a nervous system, invade the brain-stem and set up a “scaffolding” of sorts in order to exploit a corpse as a vector. (Oooh—I got goosebumps just typing that!)
Of course, my son’s birthday came and went (he was thirty in November of 2014) and I was nowhere near done with the zombie novel. The zombie novel took on a shambling, milky-eyed, teeth-gnashing, gut-strung life of its own.
Zombies chasing ultra runners isn’t really a plot. It’s a cool scene, but it isn’t a story.
So now I have all these characters who are leading me around by the nose, but boy-oh-boy—are they beating out a story! The working title is The Dead Don’t Sweat (thank you Sarah, Mark and Chris of the Windsor Writers Critique Group) and the setting is the post-zombie-apocalypse Pacific northwest from Hardy Bay on Vancouver Island down to Willamette Pass in Oregon. The GIO (Global Infestation and Occupation) has been over for ten years, but a hideously traumatized antagonist seeks to reintroduce shamblers (my term for Z) into the only place on earth that isn’t run by a military junta—the Pacific Northwest Protectorate. The main protagonist is a friar who heads up the newest branch of the Franciscans, the Burying Brothers. They have a nice, long Latin name, but I won’t bore you with it here. The old ski resort at Willamette Pass has become an enormous, tiered cemetery overseen by the Brothers. The former ski lodge, now the friary, is the starting point for the annual Waldo Remembrance 100K. This hugely-attended ultra marathon is the scene for a madman’s vengeful plot as the characters converge from all corners of the Protectorate. Some come to race, some come to bury the dead and still others come to fulfill the vengeance-fueled maxim that “no one gets to start over.”
The character based on my son is called Mungo “Go” MacIsaac. He started as the protagonist, but now he’s a lovable secondary character.
So, this thing has become a work of exploration for me. Life, death, more death, the exploitation of the dead, childhood trauma, the theology of the body, the nature of grace, madness and, of course, family values.
I went to the 4th Annual Writer’s Weekend at the Mark Twain House April 17-19. On Friday evening, Julia Pistell, the organizer, interviewed podcasters and publishing professionals Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman, founders of BooksontheNightstand.com. Ann recommended The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. It piqued my interest NOT just because of the recommendation, but because she said (and I’m paraphrasing here …) “As a work of science fiction, it exceeds its genre.” She added, “Think Jesuits in space.” Michael recommended one of his favorite genre-exceeding surprises: the aforementioned World War Z by Max Brooks.
Coincidence? Why, yes—the very definition of one! A remarkable concurrence of book recommendations without apparent causal connection. And if I were looking for signs to press on with this thing, I’d say these were some dang good signs and I’ll take ’em!