Over the month I’ll be looking at a bunch of Aussie authors who write zombie fiction. Why? Well I do run Aussie Author Month myself, and while there are few Aussie names out there for zombies, they are damned good ones! Aussie Author Month also supports the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, so please help out if you can, whether by posting about it or donating.
And now, a Zombie Master himself, Rob Hood.
Why do zombies make good bad guys?
RH: Are modern apocalyptic zombies even “bad guys” at all? Being a Bad Guy implies some sort of conscious motivation. Before Romero, the walking corpses were: vengeful revenants back from the dead to seek retribution for evil done to them in life; resurrected Bad Guys (usually through their own machinations) pursuing some hellish intent; or, mindless drones under the command of a Big Bad Houngan or controller. Such characters are classic antagonists, focused and, most importantly, motivated (even if by default). The stories they are in focus on the consequences of an individual’s decisions and the struggle between Good and Evil. After Romero the trope that took the world by storm depersonalized “zombies” into a characterless and implacable horde, driving an apocalypse that had nothing to do with Intent. This modern zombie is a force of nature, like a tsunami or a plague (hence the prevalence of infection as an origin for the Living Dead). From a storytelling point-of-view these zombies thematically focus attention on the human protagonists and their struggle to survive, which is why such stories more commonly ask questions about the nature of humanity and of human society itself rather than dwelling on the nature of Evil. Add the spice of the zombies’ unnatural existence and you have an uncanny undercurrent that arises from their power as a metaphor for mortality – humanity’s ultimate “enemy”. Death is implacable, inevitable, inescapable. It feeds on life. In the face of it, how do individuals, and society as a whole, act? Given the inevitability of death, is there value beyond a mindless struggle for survival? This is what makes zombies so culturally potent. They are the ultimate metaphor.
How do you use zombies in your works?
RH: I’ve written quite a few stories with zombies in them, from very corporeal ghosts to the Romero-style hungry dead. I don’t think I’ve followed any distinctively original pattern in them. How I use them depends on the story and what it is about – and what very many of my stories are about is mortality. Writing about zombies seems inevitable in that context, or at least it does to me. I like ghost stories and their sense of the persistence of memory — the desire for resolution inherent in the past’s influence on the present. Inevitably this has led to stories in which the corpse returns to remind its murderer that nothing remains hidden – or which simply explore the lingering influence of the past. A number of my zombie stories have a pseudo scientific rationale to them, offering futures in which there exist technologies that allow corpses to be animated, controlled and used as “slaves” – sort of an economic rationalist slant. One of these is an otherwise traditional hardboiled detective murder mystery. Another is political satire (and this one has a veneer of voodoo lore about it). I have on occasion used apocalyptic zombie tropes to humorous effect, as in the evangelistic tale “In the Service of the Flesh” and in “Zombie au Gratin”, which appeared as part of a “scary food” cookbook. It’s only really in recent years that I’ve ventured into “traditional” zombie apocalypse territory, having been invited to do so. It’s been fun trying to give a fresh feel to what has become an almost by-the-numbers sub-genre.
One time I was telling you about zombie romances, and you said that you didn’t consider them zombies. What are the limits of classifying a zombie?
RH: Well, I guess I was being provocatively narrow in defining what a zombie is, so I’ll continue along that line. For me zombies are always about mortality, unnatural mortality – so anything that waters down the impact of that central metaphor rarely sits well. That’s why, in the old argument about “slow” versus “fast” zombies I usually come down on the side of the shamblers. In movies in particular (and the cinema has, unusually, driven the development of the apocalyptic/hungry zombie subgenre on the literary side), too much speed takes away the uncanny qualities that are, for me, central to making an effective zombie. They should feel unnatural: lifeless corpses that move about and thus by their very existence undermine reality as we know it. The really fast and vicious zombies appear to have purpose and will. They’re no different from your average maniac — and too lively to appear dead. What they convey is sheer danger. The fear for the audience lies in the violent aspects of their threat rather than in the implications of their unnatural existence.
But, you know, tropes get re-worked for better or worse – and so they should. And of course there have been some excellent and effective zombie romance films. One of my favourites is Zombie Honeymoon, a film about a honeymooning couple whose holiday (and relationship) is put under threat when the husband is bitten by a random zombie, dies and comes back from the dead. The filmmakers do a great job of developing a surprisingly complex metaphor for what happens when a “life partner” turns out to be very different from what they were when you committed to them – it is in effect about the moment when love dies.
So in the end, whatever works is valid enough. Having said so, however, it’s also true that when a zombie gets far enough from the core of what a zombie is (an unnaturally animated corpse) that the definitions don’t apply any more, why call them zombies at all? Werewolves are humans who turn into wolves (or vice versa). If you have a werewolf character who drinks blood and only ever turns into a bat, even under the full moon, maybe it would be sensible if to call them something else.
Tell us about your latest zombie-inclusive story.
RH: Actually I have two works coming out this year that have zombies in them. The most classically zombie-like is a novella written for an anthology based on the IDW comic franchise, Zombies vs Robots. Writing for a franchise is always challenging, but I had a great time concocting a story set in Cold War Russia and featuring arcane experiments, zombies and a clunky zombie-hunting robot from the future. When the story appears (as a monograph with a couple of other stories and later in the full anthology) readers should check the books out. The anthology includes a horde of big-name writers (and me) and the concept is so good the books can’t fail to be compelling.
The other zombie story of mine due to appear this year is an epic fantasy novel called Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead from Borgo Press / Wildside Press in the US. I’ve been trying to get this one published for some time, though its somewhat complex nature (often referred to as “literary”) has made it a hard sell. Anyway it features a character that isn’t the protagonist, but is central to everything that happens. He’s a corpse whose unnatural movement is driven not by infection but by what amounts to a curse, a curse that compels him to find and recover a mysterious object that was once in his hands and which he lost in a long-distant apocalyptic event. The object is greatly desired by all and sundry as it is reputed to be the source of ultimate power. The corpse (the titular Valarl) follows the path the object took through history, inexorably retracing where it was taken. Driven by the curse, Valarl only gets violent if someone gets in his way. He has no will of his own and only a faint recollection of himself as a human being. When other seekers of the object realize that Valarl will sooner or later catch up with the object in time, he becomes the central focus of their search. But of course nothing is what it seems and the problem with an Ultimate Power is that the one who finds it may discover they didn’t really want what it has to offer after all.
Naturally I think Fragments is a compelling and quite unique novel, albeit appearing at first glance to be in fairly straight-forward fantasy mode. Jack Dann has described it as “one of the strangest and most interesting visions to come out of the modern horror/fantasy genres” and I hope others will agree. I have no exact date for its release yet but there is a nascent website where anyone who wants to follow its progress can come to check what’s happening: http://fragmentsnovel.undeadbackbrain.com/. No one should expect a standard zombie story though.
Do you have a plan in case of zombie apocalypse?
RH: Yes, offer the zombies a copy of my collected works and while they’re busy trying to see how they fit into the scheme of things, run like hell!
Looking for more? Here’s his zombie bibliography complete with comments.
Intimate Armageddons, edited by Bill Congreve. Wollongong, Five Islands Press 1992
Immaterial. Ghost Stories by Robert Hood, MirrorDanse Books 2002.
Comment: It’s a skeleton, but it’s a pretty physical one.
Crosstown Traffic. Edited by Stuart Coupe, Julie Ogden and Robert Hood, Five Islands Press, 1993
Comment: Scientifically animated corpses…
A Place For The Dead
Bloodsongs 3, 1994
Immaterial. Ghost Stories by Robert Hood, MirrorDanse Books 2002
Comment: Um, well,….. people don’t leave their bodies even after they’re dead and get nasty…. oh, just read it.
Dead in the Glamour of Moonlight
Moonlight Becomes You: Crimes for Summer, edited by Jean Bedford, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1995
Sunday Sun-Herald, 28 Jan. 1996
Bonescribes. Years Best Australian Horror. Sydney, MirrorDanse Books, 1996
Immaterial. Ghost Stories by Robert Hood, MirrorDanse Books 2002
Comment: Ghostly revenge, but very physical.
Aurealis No. 31, 2003
Creeping in Reptile Flesh, Robert Hood, Altair Australia Books 2008
Creeping in Reptile Flesh, Robert Hood, Morrigan Press, 2011 (revised and expanded)
Comment: Um… sort of…. An alien heart creature that enters and animates the dead.
In the Service of the Flesh
Aurealis #35, 2005/6
Australian Dark Fantasy and Horror 2007, edited Angela Challis, Brimstone Press, 2007
Comment: Zombie evangelists… but not at first.
Moments of Dying
Black magazine, #1, edited Angela Challis, Brimstone Press 2008
Comment: A resurrected corpse in the “First Moment of Dying” section
Zombie Au Gratin
Scary Food, edited by Cat Sparks, Agog! Press 2008
Comment: Zombie recipe book…
Behind Dark Blue Eyes
Exotic Gothic 3, edited Danel Olson, Ash-Tree Press, December 2009
Comment: Haitian zombies in politics… sort of…
Professor Cadaveros’ Experiments in Transcendent Mortality as Reflected in Zombie Cinema
Faux “history” of major zombie films, in Continuum: Future Tense convention booklet, February 26–28, 2010
Comment: No comment…
Zombie Apocalypse! edited by Stephen Jones, Robinson Press/Mammoth Books UK, and Running Press US, 2010
Comment: Traditional Romeroesque zombie apocalypse
Walking the Dead Beat
Damnation and Dames, edited by Amanda Pillar and Liz Grzyb, Ticonderoga Publications, 2012
Comment: Scattered throughout the story… some of them prostitutes!
Footprints in Venom
In the Footsteps of Gilgamesh, edited Mark S. Deniz, Gilgamesh Press, TBA
Comment: Re-constructing Gilgamesh from archeological remains, so… sort of zombie…
Soul Killer [novella]
ZvR Diplomacy (tentative title), edited by Jeff Conner, IDW Publishing, [scheduled for this year]
and later in large This Means War! Vol. 2 from same publisher (big anthology)
Comment: Set in the Zombies vs Robots comic franchise world…
An “epic fantasy” novel Fragments of a Broken World: Valarl Undead is being published by Borgo Press/Wildside Press this year — and a zombie plays an important part (hence the secondary title).