The current issue of Bull Spec contains my short story “Here be Dragons”. It’s taken a long time to find the right home for this story, and of course I amassed a fair collection of rejections along the way. The one I liked best was “a particularly intelligent zombie story”. The thing is, “Here be Dragons” is not a zombie story at all. Did the editor completely misunderstand what I was writing about? Of course he didn’t; what his comment did, however, was give me a flash of insight into zombie stories, and, by extension all stories.
See, it’s not about the zombies. I don’t care if you’re watching “Dawn of the Dead” or “Shaun of the Dead”, or, for that matter, “I Am Legend” or “An American Werewolf in London” or even “The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” What you’re really watching is not the monsters/aliens/invaders. You’re watching the responses of the protagonist or protagonists, the “good guys”. The real show is not the special effects and jumping-out-to-make-you-shriek 3-D monsters. It’s the way Our Heroes respond to a threat. It’s the personal interactions, the alliances and betrayals and breaking points of the people who are coping with the Others, whatever those Others are.
Sometimes the antagonist is one Other – Godzilla, or the psychopath in Silence of the Lambs – and sometimes it’s a group or a whole country, or another world altogether. It’s best for the antagonist to have a reason for, well, for being the antagonist. Sometimes it’s an illness, sometimes it’s a territorial need, sometimes it’s money or love. However sketchy, the reason has to be there. Zombies can’t help it – they’re hungry and they need Brain Tartare. It’s not the best reason in the world, but it’s simple and believable, and they aren’t just Evil Incarnate.(Evil Incarnate is SO fifteen years ago!)
As for Our Heroes, they want to survive. How they do – or don’t – is what makes the plot work. How they interact, how they differ in commitment or courage or ability, is what makes it engaging. The special effects are just window dressing, really.
I’ve written exactly one intentional zombie story, and I’ll probably never be able to place it anywhere because it’s A) funny and B) (more importantly) true to the traditional zombie lore, which precludes screaming, running, chewing up live people and passing on the curse, or eating brains. No fun there, apparently. I like it, and it will probably live in my bottom drawer forever.
In the meantime, I’m beginning to notice where I actually do use – um – zombies. They’re not zombies, but they are Others, and my protagonists need to deal with them, and the situations they create.
Maybe sometime I’ll write an intentional modern zombie story. So far one hasn’t occurred to me. But that one comment, on one rejection slip, has made me think about the whole genre differently. If I’m going to be accused of writing a zombie story, at least it was an intelligent one.
Gotta be the brains.