Thursday, March 26, 2015

In Praise of the Humble Zombie

Boy meets girl.  Girl becomes zombie.  Can’t live with her. Can’t shoot her.  Sometimes love is complicated.

Zombies are all the rage right now.  Everyone, it seems, loves a good zombie story.  And how can we not?  Cue Barbara Streisand:  “People. . . .  People who eat people. . . .”

Even my cat Ellis loves zombies.  (I kid you not.  Follow this link for photographic proof).  Really, it’s no surprise.  Cats love a good chase.  Zombie movies have those out the wazoo, along with enough other plot elements to appeal across a wide demographic:  crashing cars, falling planes, burning buildings, guns galore, explosions, action, danger and adventure of all kinds, political intrigue—you name it.  The best ones even have a bit of romance.

And the good news for zombie storytellers is that creating a zombie character does not exactly present the most difficult of writing challenges.  Zombies are not particularly complicated.  Not a lot of deep psychological layers here.  The toughest problem in writing zombie dialogue is figuring out how to spell “Graaaaarrrr!”  Zombie needs are simple.  They’re very direct.  They know what they want, and they go for it.

In fact, zombies tend to be a rather homogeneous bunch.  Most of them have similar back stories.  They wake up dead one day, and realize they’re powerfully hungry.  Only one source of food will do.  They have a hard time putting their needs into words.  But they know what must be done.  They set out to do it.  And there you go.  

Of course, zombie tales can't really happen.  They're just make-believe, and contain no possible connections to real life.  Right?

But what if one did?  In fact, what if it had both feet planted in reality?

In the real world the dead are the dead, and short of divine intervention, nothing is going to bring them back.  True, in not every zombie story are the victims “undead,” but those usually revolve around some fictional disease that makes victims crazy.  To count as a plausible zombie story, the scenario must be grounded in actual science.  This rules out the walking dead, but does leave room for a fictional disease that makes its victims violent.  A handful of zombie plots have done that.  But let’s see if we can take our tale a step further, and make it reality-inspired.  For that, “plausible” isn’t good enough.  We have to find not only a disease but a pandemic that actually has struck in the past with zombie-like symptoms.  And, of course, there’s never been any such thing, has there?

So let’s do it!  And here’s where the fun begins.  Basing a zombie story on a real-life pandemic, as it turns out, presents some unique problems, but also some unique opportunities.  Here are some of them.

The plague is real.  And this means the zombies can’t be dead.  They’re sick, but they haven’t yet kicked.  In fact, you can’t even call them “zombies.”  They’re real people, and they have rights.  This would present a unique problem for the unafflicted, one not contemplated in the traditional zombie story.  Specifically, from a legal standpoint, you couldn’t simply shoot on sight someone suspected of being sick.  What to do?  Here they come!  And by the way, Mom is looking a bit peaked.  And come to think of it, Sis seems a bit twitchy, too.  Think fast.

The method of transmission is unknown.  The real-life pandemic did not appear to move directly from victim to victim.  So, the same must hold true for our novel.  Were this to happen in real life, scientists would no doubt assure the public that no one can get the disease from a bite or from zombie blood.  Yet, everyone seems to be getting sick.  OMG—you mean there’s no way to avoid it?  Outrunning the zombies won’t help you?  How in the world would people protect themselves?  Would the scientists’ assurances that victims are not contagious even be believed?  Would you believe it?

Will civilization fall?  And what are the implications of that?  A big enough outbreak—and yes, we’ll base our novel on a really big one—would put civilization on the skids.  Which would raise a question:  has this happened before?  As it turns out, there’s substantial evidence to suggest that human civilization actually has risen to great heights in the distant past, perhaps more than once, only to be destroyed.  What caused those calamities?

From the novel:  The last sane day on planet Earth.

And finally, if you’re going to write a novel about civilization ending because of what insurance underwriters would call “an act of God,” then you pretty much have to ask this question:  Does God exist—and would He allow such widespread destruction to take place?  A good way to explore such a thing in fiction is to have a character ask the question, and see what he comes up with.  In our novel, John Cruz will ask it.  His relationship with his maker forms an important plot element.  This is one reason I was recently invited to discuss the story on a Christian radio station.  (A zombie story that might appeal to Christians?  Maybe.  It sure made for an interesting discussion.)

The story was intended strictly as fiction--just imaginative make-believe rendered for fun.  Some

predictions set forth in its pages began to happen immediately--the rise of ISIS and the advent of violent flash mobs, to name two.   But then in one week two headlines erupted that certainly got my attention, one concerning a homicidal airline pilot, and the other announcing the advent (or maybe the return) of the sleeping sickness, exactly as foretold on the novel.  This is beginning to freak even me out.  Read more about those developments here.

Meanwhile, to the humble zombie, I say, “Long may you live!”  Actually, that’s probably not the best choice of verbiage.  But you get what I mean.


The Kindle version of A Journal of the Crazy Year will be on sale for 99 cents March 24 through March 30 only.   More info is available here.

© 2015 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment