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The Brains behind the Undead

By Staff | Oct 28, 2008

It’s Halloween and time once again for books and movies of the macabre. Zombies in fiction and movies have become more popular in recent years. Several authors whose books tackle the zombie equation weigh in with their thoughts on the genre.

So why did these authors choose to write about zombies?

Mark Henry, author of “Happy Hour of the Damned,” a book starring a zombie fashionista, says, “I’ve loved them since I was a child. Ever since that first one shambled into the graveyard after Barbara and her unfortunate brother in ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ I was hooked.”

Cherie Priest, whose “Not Flesh Nor Feathers” featured a zombie curse set against a flood, says, “Because I find them genuinely frightening; they’re different from monsters like vampires and werewolves, which come with their own inherent glamour. No one wants to be a zombie, not like people want to join the ranks of the other monstrous or undead.”

Joe Schreiber said, “I actually wasn’t aware that I was writing about them until I finished “Chasing the Dead” and heard someone describe it as a zombie novel. The dead do walk through that book, as they do through the current novel that I’m working on, and I think the reason I keep going back to them is that there’s nothing scarier than the shell of an individual you thought you knew once all that familiarity has been scooped out and replaced with cold death.”

Carrie Ryan, who is writing about zombies from a young-adult perspective, says, “I think zombies kind of chose me! Ever since I saw my first zombie movie, I’ve been fascinated by them. As for my first book about zombies, I’d been writing a YA chick lit book and struggling with it and whining about it. One day my fiance said, ‘Write what you love’ and I jokingly said, ‘the zombie apocalypse!’ Turns out he was right!”

So how did these writers come up with their version of zombies? What was their inspiration?

Henry says, “I was inspired by the short stories of editor Douglas E. Winter. He’d done these spot on parodies of Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney back in the ‘80s, ‘Less than Zombie’ and ‘Bright Lights, Big Zombie.’ The first humorous sentient zombie protagonists to my recollection — If I’m wrong please let me know so I can read some more.”

Priest says, “I have a couple of different kinds of zombies in my fiction arsenal: One set is the reanimated corpses of hate crime victims, propelled and controlled by one hive-mind alpha, and the other set is a collection of poisoned people who died and didn’t fall down. Both were inspired by circumstances of the stories they populate.”

Schreiber’s zombies come from a fear. “First and foremost, I always write what scares me. My undead may behave differently depending on the needs of the story and the psychology of my characters. In my current project, the zombies are victims of a bioweapon, so when they come back, they actually behave more like individual molecules of a larger pathogen, almost an unconscious imitation of the virus that created them in the first place.”

Ryan says, “I think my inspiration was a healthy dose of zombie movies plus the necessities of the world I was writing in. My book takes place many generations after a zombie apocalypse and there were zombies everywhere so I had to figure out how zombies could still be around, how they could last that long.”

So what is the undead appeal in Hollywood and books right now?

Henry thinks it has to do with a horror movie trend, where movies focus on graphic violence and gore. “I think it’s a result of the ‘torture porn’ movement in film or the backlash of torture porn. After a few ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostels,’ moviegoers caught on to the fact that there’s a difference between watching something horrific and the experience of going to an actual horror movie. Horror is not about being grossed-out, it’s about fear. Fear requires tension and there’s no tension in torture porn. It’s just death scenarios. Zombies are horror, whether they’re slow plodding unstoppable mouths or frenetic killers hurdling trash cans in a single leap to run down a victim, they’re frightening.”

Priest thinks it may be a reaction to our current world. “The earth is melting, unstable nuclear powers are rising and apocalypse looks like a dreadfully realistic scenario. Sometimes it feels like there’s not much we can do about these things, but when you put a horde of shambling zombies in place of the unmanageable threat, and at least there’s a collection of reasonable actions you can take. Everybody knows, ‘Aim for the head’ and ‘Don’t let ‘em bite you.’ Everything else is just hunting and gathering.”

Schreiber says, “Personally, I prefer to think that people like zombie stuff for the same reason they like vampires and slasher movies. People love to have the crap scared out of them, me included.”

Ryan says, “What’s funny is that when I started writing my book at the end of 2006, I had no idea that zombies were becoming more popular. In fact, I was quite sure that editors and agents would laugh at the idea.”

So do these writers consider themselves horror writers?

Henry says, “I don’t really know if I’m a horror writer. I know there are elements of the books that are definitely horror. In scenes I can see it. But overall, the framework changes. Sometimes it’s just comedy (albeit filtered through my sick head), sometimes it’s mystery and yeah, sometimes it’s straight-up horror. That’s always been the genre that resonated most for me, the books I was drawn to were inevitably either scary or funny. I guess it’s natural for me to mash-up the two.”

Priest’s family history has to do with her genre choice. “When I was a kid, all horror novels were absolutely forbidden in my mother’s evangelical Christian household; so they’ve always held a certain mystique for me. Every time I got caught with one I was reprimanded, even to the extent of having library books thrown away. But it’s like when you tell your cat to get down off the kitchen counter — your cat doesn’t think, ‘Oh, I’ve been very bad and I mustn’t do that again.’ Your cat thinks, ‘There must be something really good up on that-there counter. In the future, I will have to be sneakier.”

For Schreiber, there’s no denying it. “I’m a horror writer, all right. I just wrote a scene last weekend of a 13-year-old boy climbing a mountain of chopped-up corpses and having them slowly come to life underneath him. It wasn’t ever a matter of choice.”

Ryan says, “All the YA books are put on one shelf — there’s no distinction between romance, horror, sci-fi, etc. So I think young adult authors have this great freedom to blend everything and bend the genre expectations. So I think of myself as a young adult writer more than anything else.”

Mark Henry’s “Road Trip of the Dead,” is due in March from Kensington. Cherie Priest’s “Fantom,” is due this winter from Tor. Joe Schreiber has two new books slated to come out in November 2009. Carrie Ryan’s “The Forest of Hands and Teeth,” is due in March from Delacorte.

Visit my blog at www.grafwv.com to find out the authors’ favorite zombie movie, debating slow versus fast zombies, what scares them and more!

Contact Amy at amendenhall@graffitiwv.com