A Reader’s Guide to Dead World
By Joe McKinney
Featuring everything you ever wanted to know about Dead City, Apocalypse of the Dead, Flesh Eaters, Mutated and the other stories making up the Dead World Series.
I didn’t set out to become a writer.
Growing up, I used to write the occasional spooky tale, drafting it out longhand with a cheap ball point pen on a yellow legal pad. Once the story was finished, I’d tear out the pages, staple them together, and leave them on the corner of my desk for a week or so before throwing them away. I never placed any significance to what I was doing. I never had any intention of doing anything with my stories. Writing wasn’t something I saw myself doing one day. It was just something I did.
And then, in the winter of 2003, I became a father. I remember leaning my head against the glass, looking in on the nursery, watching my baby sleep. Proud as I was, I felt this overpowering need to preserve the essence of the man looking in on that nursery, because I knew that one day, the little girl sleeping in there would want to know something about her father that growing up with him and living under his rule would never teach her.
Sometimes a thought like that is merely an impulse, a momentary thing that slips away like a dream upon waking.
That wasn’t the case with me. Over the next few months the thought continued to gain traction, until I couldn’t keep it in any longer. I took up my pen and my legal pad and got to writing. Eventually, I did about eighty pages of an SF novel called THE EDGE OF THE MAP. It was high space opera in the classic 1950s vein. And it was pure crap. Every time I started writing I wondered what in the hell I was doing. I wondered why I bothered. Not a word of it felt genuine.
And even worse than that, I wasn’t doing a thing to answer the original impulse that made me want to start writing in the first place.
Briefly, I considered taking up painting.
But then I realized that if I was going to do this thing right, I needed to be true to what I loved. Love, after all, was what this was all about.
I grew up on a steady diet of monster movies and horror fiction. My first literary infatuation was with horror, and it occurred to me that if I had any chance of doing this thing the way it ought to be done, I needed to write what I loved. DEAD CITY, my first published novel, sprang from that decision.
I was lucky DEAD CITY landed when it did. It put me on the crest of the zombie revival that began around 2005 with Brian Keene’s THE RISING, and because DEAD CITY came out through a large publishing house, I was able to get some good exposure. The book sold well, which in turn led to a career in writing.
DEAD CITY has since grown into the Dead World series, which to date includes four novels and half a dozen stories. The novels are easy to come by, the stories less so. At least for the time being. But even if you haven’t read the stories, or in case you missed one of the novels, there’s no need to worry. I wrote each and every entry in the series in such a way that a reader can come to any novel, any story, in any order, and still feel like they’re caught up with the overall storyline. This makes it easy on the reader coming to the Dead World for the first time, but has also caused more than a few readers to ask what I think the overall series’ preferred chronology is. So, just because I like doing things like this, I’ve put together a little reader’s guide to walk you, the reader, through the Dead World I’ve created. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, while at the same time providing useful information. If you have specific questions, please feel free to add them to the comments section below. I’ll answer those questions in full, without regard to spoilers.
Enjoy your tour.
DEAD CITY (Pinnacle; November, 2006). Reprinted with a new cover and the first five chapters of APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD (Pinnacle; November, 2010).
To answer that, I have to turn back to the summer of 1983. I was fourteen. That summer gave me two landmarks in my education. The first was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a movie that scared the ever-loving crap out of me. I watched it one night on cable and slept cradling a baseball bat for the next month. I dreamt of the living dead circling my house in the night, rattling the walls with their endless moans, forcing their way inside. No movie had ever done that to me before. Very few have done it since.
And then, just when I thought I had learned what real scary was, Hurricane Alicia made landfall. I grew up in Clear Lake City, a little suburb south of Houston. We were just across the lake from the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel and the numerous shrimp camps down in Kemah, and we were square in the bull’s eye of the storm.
I spent all night in a closet, listening to the storm trying its hardest to rip my house from its foundation and send it sailing off like a kite. The next morning, I went to the front door and looked out over a sea of caramel-colored water. Every roof was missing shingles. Trees were toppled. Cars and trucks were submerged to their roofs. I saw a water moccasin glide through the swing set in my neighbor’s back yard. And at the entrance to my subdivision was a shrimp boat that had been carried seven miles inland by the storm surge. The destruction was staggering, and for a boy of fourteen, it felt a bit like the world had been turned upside down.
Of course, my fear didn’t last long. Later that day my best friend came by in a canoe and we paddled all around the neighborhood, acting like river explorers heading up the Amazon in search of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It was a blast.
But even as the fear of those two landmark events subsided, my fascination with them was growing. And so when I sat down to write a story about how terrifyingly complex the world had become for me as a brand new father, I found myself turning back to the two most frightening encounters of my youth.
The Rise of the Zombies
A basic principle of disaster mitigation theory is to plan for the disasters you’re most likely to face. It does little good for a police department in North Dakota, for example, to plan for a hurricane. But here in San Antonio, we are only 170 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. That makes us far enough away from coast to avoid all but a few gusty rain storms, yet close enough to act as the evacuation point for every coastal city from Brownsville over to New Orleans. So when the San Antonio Police Department trains for hurricanes, they train for the near total evacuation and relocation of multiple coastal cities, including some, such as Houston, that are nearly three times San Antonio’s size.
The mission is enormous, requiring all the logistical planning of a military invasion – only in reverse – and the analogy was not lost upon me when I started thinking of a cause for my zombie outbreak.
Before the action in DEAD CITY begins, Houston has been hit by four major hurricanes. The first of these storms was a Category 3 storm named Gabrielle that fizzled to a tropical storm just before making landfall. Most of the population in the Houston-Galveston area, which all together totals about 5 million people, did as they were asked and evacuated in anticipation of a huge storm. But when Gabrielle turned into a lot of nothing, most of those who evacuated felt cheated and stupid for wasting their time. And then, a week and a half later, a second mandatory evacuation order was issued, this one in preparation for Hurricane Hector. With Gabrielle still fresh in everyone’s mind, the vast majority of the Houston-Galveston area refused to evacuate.
Hector knocked Houston back on its heels. The storm did enormous damage, managing to flood most of the sea level communities between Galveston and South Houston, where the vast majority of the nation’s oil and gas and chemical plants are located. Millions of people were trapped as the flood waters carried spilled oil and chemicals into the flooded suburbs. All electrical power was knocked out. Fresh water was unavailable. The city’s sewage lines back-spilled into the flood waters. That sewage mingled with the oil and the chemicals from the refineries and the drowned bodies that were rotting in the scorching Texas summer.
The federal government has a long tradition (one going back at least as far as the Johnson Administration) of getting caught with its pants down when it comes to disasters in the Gulf of Mexico, and then following up that negligent lack of preparedness with painfully slow and inadequate follow up. It’s just the way things go, and in the Dead World, Hurricane Hector was no exception. For a critical span of eight days, local authorities received only token aid from Washington. And when the federal government finally did decide to act in a meaningful way, it was too late, for Hurricane Kyle was waiting just offshore, and it was bigger and badder than Hector ever thought of being.
Kyle tips the scales. The storm surge is immense, and it floods the entire city. So severe is the flooding that most experts believe Kyle permanently alters the shape of the coastline. What was once the nation’s third largest population center is now at the bottom of a very shallow sea.
In the midst of all the destruction and suffering, the military begins evacuating refugees by the hundreds of thousands to San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base. But what nobody realizes at this early point is that some of these refugees are infected with the necrosis filovirus, a hemorrhagic fever akin to Ebola, Marburg and the Crimean-Congo viruses. The necrosis filovirus is a level 4 biosafety hazard, but unlike its more well-documented cousins, the necrosis filovirus is incredibly fast-acting. Whereas a person who contracts Ebola or Marburg is likely to exhibit a headache, backache and other flu-like symptoms within five to ten days, a person infected with the necrosis filovirus will begin to show symptoms within a few hours. Complete depersonalization and aggression and a near invulnerability to pain manifest themselves very rapidly, turning the infected person into what is essentially a zombie. The illusion is all the more complete when you see the clouded pupils and encounter the smell of rotting flesh. The only difference between the zombies in the Dead World and the zombies developed in the Romero mythos is that the Dead World zombies are living people.
It doesn’t take long for the infected to be taken to San Antonio’s numerous hospitals, where the infection spreads rapidly. As DEAD CITY opens, the infected are already overloading the hospitals and spreading out among the general population. The Outbreak, as the first wave of the zombie apocalypse is called in the Dead World universe, is underway.
The narrator of DEAD CITY is Eddie Hudson, a young patrolman, husband and father stationed on the west side of San Antonio. Eddie’s nothing special. He’s not a very good shot. He has no special knowledge or skills. And he’s certainly not the brightest bulb in the box. I’ve read several reader responses on Amazon and other book forums that see this as some kind of deficiency, but I think those readers miss the point. This is not a book, after all, about kicking tons of zombie ass. Sure, a lot of zombie ass gets kicked, but that is incidental to the main point of the book, which is to show both the fragility of our modern day world and to suggest a possible remedy for that fragility.
I’ve read several other zombie novels that feature main characters that are unmitigated bad asses – Jonathan Maberry’s PATIENT ZERO and J.L. Bourne’s DAY BY DAY ARMAGGEDON come immediately to mind – but I didn’t want that for DEAD CITY. I wanted someone who could stand in for the reader, someone with whom they could identify rather than hero worship.
There is a medieval play called EVERYMAN. Most people who took a freshman year English Lit class are probably familiar with it. The play opens with Death informing Everyman his time is up, it’s time to go. Everyman pleads to stay. Death tells him no, he has to die, but if he can get somebody to come with him, he’s welcome to bring a companion. One by one, the allegorical figures of wealth, friends, family and all the others turn their back on Everyman, saying they’d gladly go with him on a journey of life, but not of death. Eventually, only Good Deeds agrees to go with Everyman into the grave, and it is through a combination of Good Deeds and contrition that Everyman eventually ascends to heaven. Nearly everybody gets that the play is an allegory meant to show the importance of confession and penance in the Christian’s journey to salvation. But Everyman is also, in many ways, the basis for Eddie Hudson’s journey through the first night of the zombie apocalypse.
Eddie’s journey takes place over three acts. In the first act, most of the San Antonio Police Department, and in fact much of the City’s ability to respond to any sort of crisis, is completely destroyed. Eddie Hudson has grown used to being part of a large army of sorts, with the full might of the Department ready to come to his aid at the touch of a button. That is gone at the end of the first act.
The second act opens with Eddie emotionally adrift. With all of his former advantages gone, he doesn’t quite know what to do. And then, while wandering through the ruins of a gas station in his old patrol district, he finds his best friend and former partner, Marcus Acosta. Eddie and Marcus are basically a variant of the Odd Couple. Eddie is a family man, with all the attachments and sense of obligation that implies. But for Marcus, the end of the world means nothing more than the end of alimony payments. Still, they are best friends, committed to each other’s welfare.
But friendship can only take Eddie so far, and like Everyman before him, eventually he has to go on without Marcus at his side, and at the beginning of the third act we find Eddie standing alone once again, surrounded, facing down certain death. Of course he manages to escape (he is narrating the story first person, after all, so you know he has to live through it), and his experiences here in the third act prepare him not only for his reunion with his wife and child, but also for his ultimate redemption. And now that he has achieved control over part of his world, the real challenge of rebuilding that world begins.
The parallels to Everyman are pretty obvious. Both characters get their friends and resources stripped from them by events outside their control. Gradually they are left with nothing but themselves, and their ultimate salvation dependant upon their actions.
But despite the parallels, DEAD CITY is by no means a religious allegory. It’s a purely secular book. My intention in DEAD CITY was to show how thin the veneer of our society really is. And you don’t need a zombie apocalypse to prove that. Even a localized disaster can serve to show that our control over our lives is tenuous at best. But unlike a flood or a forest fire or a train wreck, only a zombie apocalypse can turn one’s friends and family into insensible agents of destruction, and that’s why Eddie Hudson has to fight a city full of zombies.
A Note on the Geography of DEAD CITY
Before I leave off Eddie’s part of the story I need answer one of the most common questions I get about DEAD CITY. If you were ever in the Air Force, chances are you’ve been to San Antonio. And nearly everyone, even the non-Air Force types, has heard of the Alamo. In fact, tens of millions of Americans have visited it since the late 1960s. In other words, San Antonio is well known to a great many Americans, and even a great many foreign travelers.
Quite a few have contacted me and remarked that, while they know San Antonio well, they don’t recognize most of the street names I reference in the book.
They’re quite right.
In fact, though the locations I describe are well known, and in most cases easy to recognize, I’ve given them different names.
I did this for two reasons.
The first reason is that I was completely ignorant of professional publishing and its rules when I wrote DEAD CITY. I didn’t know the rules about using real places fictiously, and so I figured that if I didn’t know if it was okay to say a particular incident occurred at the corner of Zarzamora and Culebra, I probably shouldn’t do it. My reasoning was that I was writing about a big city. What was the harm in making up a few street names?
The second reason is a little more complex. The San Antonio Police Department has very specific rules about its officers writing for publication. Not only do they take a suspicious view of officers giving away police tactics and procedures, but they also want to preserve their valuable relationship with the public they serve. I had nightmares of some community activist throwing my book at the feet of City Council and saying, “So, this is what the San Antonio Police Department thinks of my neighborhood!”
I did not want to explain that scene to Internal Affairs.
So, I made up some street names. The places are real, but they’re called by different names. The first line of the book is a good example. The empty parking lot near the corner of Seafarer and Rood is actually the empty parking lot near the intersection of Roanoke St and Culebra. I think there’s an Auto Zone there now, but at the time I wrote DEAD CITY, it was a vacant lot.
So, where did the names come from?
Well, at the time I wrote the book, I was finishing up my master’s degree in English from the University of Texas at San Antonio. I was reading a lot of poetry, preparing for my comps. If you want to find your way around DEAD CITY, don’t bother with a map. You’ll have better luck with the table of contents of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
“Survivors,” originally published in Dead Set: A Zombie Anthology, edited by Joe McKinney and Michelle McCrary (23 House Publishing; February, 2010).
I didn’t write DEAD CITY with the intention of turning it into a series, mainly because I find most series annoying. Sure, The Lord of the Rings was cool. I also liked the Dave Robicheaux books by James Lee Burke. But with nearly everything else, the magic that worked in the first book tends to become tedious and annoying about midway through the second book.
Even still, I get why authors love to do them. First and foremost, they make money. A lot of readers, I guess, enjoy the comfort of covering familiar ground. I don’t begrudge them that. Hell, I followed Buffy through all seven seasons. I even kept on with Angel after that. So I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with covering familiar ground. It is what it is. Sometimes it works. Publishers know this, and so they encourage their authors to turn good ideas into lucrative franchises.
I have nothing against making money. In fact, I rather enjoy making money. But there has to be more to it than that. If money was all there was, storytelling would be down there on the very bottom of the career ladder. It may be that Stephen King makes so much cash he needs to build a warehouse out back just to store it all, but we can’t all be Stephen King. Most writers, in fact, make a shockingly low wage. The figures get even more embarrassing when you start figuring the actual money earned per time spent writing. It’s a wonder really, that anybody does this job at all.
But we do it. And every year, hundreds of thousands of authors submit their manuscripts to publishers in the hopes that they will be able to do it too.
I can’t speak for any one else, but for me, the physical process of creating stories is hugely rewarding. There are innumerable hours spent in frustration and self-doubt, but there are also those wonderful moments when all the cylinders are firing and the story is pouring out of you and feel like you’ve lost yourself in your imagination. Those are the moments that keep writers coming back for more of this abuse we call writing for a living.
Writing a novel, even when it comes with white hot moments of excitement like I’ve just described, is mentally exhausting. When I was done with DEAD CITY I developed a sort of separation anxiety. Though I didn’t have any real desire to revisit Eddie Hudson, at least not right away, I did want to go back to the world I had created. Houston, after all, was still underwater, and though San Antonio was mostly cleared of the infected by the end of DEAD CITY, other parts of the Gulf Coast were not so lucky. There were other parts of Dead World that needed exploring, and for that reason, I began to think of the possibility of doing a series of books, each one following a different set of characters through some other part of Dead World. That way, I could assuage my separation anxiety without doing the very thing that so frustrated me as a reader. I could have my cake and eat it too, in other words.
Meanwhile, I was writing other stories and publishing them here and there. One of the stories I published after DEAD CITY was a vampire tale called “Down in the Cellar” in Nights of Blood 2: More Legends of the Vampire, edited by Bob Nailor and Elyse Salpeter, and released by 23 House Publishing. I was impressed by the way 23 House did business, and I wrote Mitchel Whitington, the managing editor, to let him know. As it turns out, Mitchel enjoyed my story a great deal, and had tracked down a copy of DEAD CITY as well. He told me he was getting a zombie-themed anthology together and asked if I’d be interested in co-editing it with a fabulous lady named Michelle McCrary, organizer of the Shreveport Zombie Walk. I agreed right away.
As I was thinking of the short story I would write for the book, I kept coming back to one of the major criticisms I received of DEAD CITY. Eddie Hudson’s story was one of redemption, and to tell that story I needed a compressed period of time. One night was just about perfect for my purposes. (Remember Scrooge’s surprise in A Christmas Carol: “And the spirits have done it all in just one night!”) I could have ended the book after Chapter 33, but I felt like I wanted to show the change in Eddie after the one night of hell described in the rest of the book, which is why I included Chapter 34.
That told the story the way I thought it should be told. But, as I mentioned earlier, quite a few readers thought differently. They wanted details of the six weeks that pass between Chapter 33 and 34. I felt for them, because I wanted to write about that part of the overall story, but my instincts told me that Eddie Hudson was not the right person to tell of that confusing time. That part of the story would have to wait.
And then Dead Set came along, and I saw my chance to tell the story of those missing six weeks.
Hence we have “Survivors,” my contribution to the anthology.
The main character is James Canavan, a Marine corporal from Houston on assignment in San Antonio. Canavan and his platoon have been tasked with a very simple mission. Their lieutenant is pinned down with a few survivors. Canavan is to take his men into downtown, rescue the lieutenant and any uninfected survivors, and get them to safety.
But of course nothing is ever as easy as it sounds, especially when there are hundreds of thousands of zombies flooding into the area. Despite deploying prodigious amounts of firepower, Canavan’s squad is soon torn apart, and Canavan himself the sole survivor. While trying to fight his way back out of the compromised area, he encounters a woman who is dying in the bombed out ruins of a bank. Amid the swirling dust and the moaning hordes of zombies, the two share a tense and bitter moment that changes Canavan forever.
When I wrote “Survivors,” I knew the main thematic drive had to be one of survivor guilt. The missing six weeks from DEAD CITY were a time of rebuilding, or at least an attempt at rebuilding, and survivor guilt is an unfortunate symptom of that process. After all, there can’t be a need to rebuild without an equally strong sense that something has been lost that is worth rebuilding. Those who live through traumatic moments of loss know this. They know there is a drive to throw oneself headlong into any kind of mind-numbing labor, and that that labor is at once an urge to destroy oneself while at the same time building up the memory of those who have died.
What was needed, I decided, was an outsider, someone who could bring in a firsthand account of what happened in Houston, while also commenting on the deep sense of loss continuing on through the rebuilding process.
That meant telling a very dark story, which certainly describes James Canavan’s adventures in San Antonio.
“Ethical Solution,” originally published as “People for the Ethical Treatment of Zombies,” in The Harrow, Volume 10, Number 5 (2007).
There is an elementary school teacher in DEAD CITY named Ken Stoler, and if Eddie Hudson were here with us today, he would tell you that God never made a sorrier sack of shit than Ken Stoler.
Stoler and Eddie spend the middle third of the book arguing about the philosophical and moral implications of a world populated by zombies. Eddie, being who he is, finds the conversation rather pointless. But Stoler won’t let it go. He has discovered that the zombies closing in around them aren’t really dead, as Eddie believes. They are very much alive, but infected with a disease that eats away their minds so that they are, for all intents and purposes, completely depersonalized. They feel no pain, only aggression, so that they will continue to attack even when mortally wounded.
Eddie never does see Stoler’s point. For him, it is a matter of kill or be killed. The zombies don’t allow him another option, so he intends to be the one doing the killing.
Stoler, on the other hand, absolutely refuses to heap violence on the zombies. “You wouldn’t kill someone just because they have the flu, would you?” he argues.
“I would if they were trying to eat me,” Eddie counters, rather petulantly, and rather ineffectively. He lacks the mental horsepower necessary to debate Ken Stoler, and they both know it. Stoler hopes to use this to his advantage and convert Eddie to his cause. He wants to quarantine off the entire Gulf Coast region and put pressure on the government to research a cause for the disease turning the infected into zombies. Every single infected person, he argues, deserves to be rehabilitated. We can no more hold them criminally liable for their acts of murder and cannibalism than we can hold an insane person responsible for murdering someone.
That, of course, is not an effective argument to use on a cop, and though Eddie tries to respond in an intelligent manner, all he ends up doing is tripping over his tongue. And when Ken Stoler leaves the book, it is none too soon for Eddie Hudson.
After DEAD CITY had been on the shelves for a few months, I started getting emails from people who loved Ken Stoler. And just as many from people who hated him. No one, it seemed, was on the fence about him, which is exactly how I hoped he would come across. Ken Stoler generated so much attention, in fact, that I decided to put his ideas to the test.
But, as in “Survivors,” which would come along two years later, I sensed that Ken Stoler wasn’t the right person take the test. At the end of DEAD CITY, Ken Stoler has gone on speaking tours, and manages to make quite a few friends, and just as many enemies…much as his character did with DEAD CITY’s readers. The way I looked at it, I had created a wide world outside the confines of DEAD CITY’s covers: Why not bring in a fresh batch of characters, nearly all of whom are caught up in Ken Stoler’s cause? Sending them back into San Antonio would give me a chance to color a little doubt into Eddie Hudson’s version of events, and it would also give me a chance to show how the rest of the country had been affected by the Outbreak.
And it would give me a chance to introduce a man destined to become one of the most important characters in the whole Dead World series.
Ben is single, mid-thirties, smart, but not pompously so. He’s a staff writer for The Atlantic. He was born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, just like Janis Joplin, and when the first reports of cannibalism started coming out of Houston right after Hurricane Mardell, Ben went into action. He made a decision right then to write the definitive history of the Outbreak, covering every aspect of the zombie plague, from the lofty, but ultimately empty, speeches on the White House lawn to the plight of the lowliest individual hiding out in the back alleys of a ruined town.
Just before the events in “Ethical Solution,” which takes place about eight months after Eddie’s ending to DEAD CITY, Ben Richardson gets wind of an English professor from the University of Texas at Austin named Dr. Sylvia Carnes. Dr. Carnes has bought Ken Stoler’s cause hook, line and sinker, and now she plans to take a chartered bus through the military quarantine that surrounds San Antonio. She has about forty students with her, each one a member of the local chapter of People for an Ethical Solution, and a court order authorizing her to enter the quarantine zone. The idea, she tells Ben, is to show the rest of the country that the infected – she refuses to call them zombies – can be handled in a humane way by normal people. This, she hopes, will open the door to meaningful research into a cure.
Ben Richardson is naturally skeptical. He and Sylvia Carnes fall on opposite sides of the issue, but he nonetheless maintains an open mind, and convinces her that he should come along on her expedition into San Antonio.
One of the complaints I got from San Antonio locals who read DEAD CITY was that I didn’t mention many of the city’s wonderful landmarks, such as the Alamo. Well, okay, I said. You want the Alamo, I’ll give you the Alamo. So the basic plot of “Ethical Solutions,” if you know anything about the Battle of the Alamo, wasn’t hard to imagine. The more important part of that story was the way the debate between Sylvia Carnes and Ben Richardson develops. They cover quite a bit of ground during “Ethical Solutions,” but even still, neither character is any closer to winning over the other by the end.
Real agreement, in fact, wouldn’t happen for another eight years – and three books – later, when the two of them met again in the crumbling ruins of St. Louis.
But that’s a different story.
APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD
APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD (Pinnacle; November, 2010).
DEAD CITY was meant to show a very private view of the apocalypse. Hence the first person narrative…the constant focus on the family…the mounting sense of claustrophobia…the book’s events spanning a single night. All those elements were a deliberate part of the overall point of view.
But when I sat down to write the next book in the series, I felt I had to go the other way. I needed to cut a wide path. I needed to show the zombie apocalypse going global. I envisioned multiple groups of characters fleeing the advancing zombie hordes, seeking shelter in the frozen expanse of the North Dakota Grasslands. In my mind I saw a huge novel, both in scope and in size, an homage to the giant Stephen King horror novels of the 1970s.
Turns out, my publisher was thinking along the same lines. The folks at Kensington called me and said, “What do you think about writing an epic?”
“An epic?” I said.
“Yeah, you know, a huge book. Really do it up. Blow the whole world up, that kind of thing. A really epic book.”
Now, I have a confession to make: flagrant misuse of the word “epic” is a pet peeve of mine. Aloud I told my publisher of my idea and shared in his enthusiasm that we were going to be in business again; but inside, I was groaning, for I knew then that people would erroneously pin the tag of epic on the book that was to become APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD.
Why does that bother me so much?
I’m glad you asked.
The Nature of the Epic
Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey – those were epic poems. Virgil’s Aenied, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost – all epics.
Stephen King’s The Stand – not an epic.
Joe McKinney’s APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD – also not an epic.
You see, we’ve gotten sloppy with our genres these days. And I don’t mean genre as in horror, or science fiction, or romance. I mean genre in the more traditional sense. Genre as it pertains to specific literary forms, such as comedy, or tragedy, or even in slightly narrower poetic terms, such as the elegy, or the ode.
I was trained to read literature as an academic. Dealing in the finer points of literary terms was my stock and trade for a good long while. And when you talk about literary terms with the familiarity that some people reserve for sports statistics, you can’t help but make an inward flinch whenever somebody misappropriates a significant term.
Hence my consternation with the inappropriate use of the term “epic.”
For too long we’ve called books epic because they’re huge. Somebody puts out a 700 page novel and the next you know it’s being called the next big epic fantasy, or SF novel, or whatever.
But epic should – and does – mean more than simply big.
In traditional academic terms, an epic is a long, narrative poem defining the significant heroes and historical context of a nation. That is why Homer’s epics focus on the exploits of Greek heroes such as Odysseus and Achilles and Agamemnon. That is why Virgil’s Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, who escaped the fall of Troy in The Iliad to become one of the founding mythological figures of Rome. That is why Dante’s The Divine Comedy populates the afterlife with real people from Italy’s warring city states. That is why Milton’s Paradise Lost can be read as a commentary on England’s brief flirtation with a purely legislative government under Cromwell.
Epics define the culture and the values of a nation. And, as you will no doubt remember from your freshman year Intro to British Literature, they have a number of other distinct conventions meant to telegraph the work’s genre to its reader.
For example, they begin in medias res, or, in English, “in the midst of things.” This is why Star Wars started with episode 4…and you can pause here to pat yourself on the back if you clicked on this before you finished the sentence.
True epics can also be read as maps of a given culture’s cosmology. Reading an epic, you not only learn the limits of a culture’s physical world, but their spiritual world as well. That is why Dante’s The Divine Comedy takes us first through hell, then purgatory, and finally to heaven. Milton’s Paradise Lost is also a clear example of this.
Also, epics use things such as heroic epithets and catalogs and godly intervention and long digressive passages. And their authors generally telegraph their intentions to write epics early in their career by first earning their writing chops with pastoral poetry.
That does not apply to APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD. I didn’t do any of the things outlined above. Neither did Stephen King in The Stand. Neither did Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time series. Neither did any of the other modern scribblers you can think of. In fact, about as close as any American author has ever come to writing a true epic is Melville with Moby Dick.
(You in the back. Sit down and stop waving your hands in the air in protest: Lucas never finished the Star Wars series, and if it ain’t finished, it ain’t an epic. I’m not budging for Edmund Spenser, so I’m sure as hell not gonna do it for George Lucas. You can’t move me on that point.)
And here’s why Moby Dick is as close as an American author has ever come to the epic. Epics encapsulate the sum total of a nation’s experience, and the way they do that is by being encyclopedic. In other words, they absorb all other poetic forms current in their day and age and therefore make them subservient to their narrative.
Melville does this with drama, with biblical exegesis, with shipping, with science, with action, with comedy, and on and on.
I was aware of all this when I wrote the outline for APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD. I knew the book would – undeservedly – be called an epic. And for that reason, I threw in a couple of nods to those who, like me, cringe at the misuse of the word.
The most conspicuous of these nods comes on page 320 and 321 of the first Kensington edition, when Ben Richardson quotes some of the bad poetry he’s seen pinned to the shirts of various zombies they’ve encountered.
Students of English epitaphs will notice several vaguely familiar poems, the most obvious of which are for William Bunn and the dentist John Hannity. Both of these poems, and several of the other zombie-themed epitaphs quoted in this section, are loose adaptations of famous folk rhymes from the British Isles. I expect my English and Irish cousins will recognize the rhymes before most American readers, simply because the poems are a part of their culture and not the American one, but just in case some American reader figures it out first…Bravo to you! You got the joke.
The Quarantine Authority
I’ve already mentioned that Ben Richardson is one of the most important characters in the entire Dead World series, and here’s the reason why.
Ben, aside from being an active participant in the book’s events, is also my stand in. Ben Richardson began the post-apocalyptic phase of his life as a journalist, determined to describe every aspect of the zombie apocalypse in what he intended to be the definitive history of the zombie apocalypse. When APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD begins, Ben is already in the process of compiling his book. Not only does he narrow in on the specific human cost of the tragedy, but he writes with authoritative skill on the political machinations behind the cataclysm. Through him, and specifically, through his journals, we learn the shape of this world that is devolving into anarchy.
In the early days of the Outbreak, the only thing that divides the American people from complete destruction is The Gulf Region Quarantine Authority. These men – and yes, they are a not so thinly veiled commentary on the U.S. government’s pathetically inept approach to illegal immigration – are basically the modern day equivalent of the Little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dyke. They are a Band-Aid for the patient who is rapidly bleeding to death.
Here’s what Ben Richardson has to say about them:
From the notebooks of Ben Richardson.
Houston, Texas: July 5th 5:40 am
We’ve got about twenty minutes until takeoff and I wanted to jot down a few notes about the quarantine zone. Sometimes I find it hard to wrap my mind around how big it is. The logistical scope of the project is simply staggering.
Back in its heyday the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency patrolled the 2,000 miles of border land between the United States and Mexico. Of the Agency’s 11,000 agents, more than 9,500 of them worked along that 2,000 mile stretch of desert. They hunted drug dealers and illegal aliens with a huge array of tools, everything from satellite imagery and publicly-accessible webcams to helicopters, horses, and plain old fashioned shoe leather. Even still, the border had more holes in it than a fishing net.
In comparison, the Gulf Region Quarantine Authority only has a wall of some 1,100 miles to patrol. The wall stretches from Gulfport, Mississippi to Brownsville, Texas, paralleling the freeway system wherever possible to aid in the supply and reinforcement of problem areas. The GRQA keeps this stretch of metal fencing and sentry towers and barbed wire secure with just over 10,000 agents, most of them former CBP and National Guardsmen and cops. They are aided at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard and in Mexico by federal troops.
Yet despite their numerical advantage over the old U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, their job is infinitely harder. Nobody in the old CBP thought too much of it that a steady stream of illegals got through the border every day. They just shrugged and went on with life. But the GRQA can’t afford to let even a single zombie through their line. That would spell disaster. The pressure is high, the price of failure is apocalyptic.
Their job terrifies me. These guys are frequently posted outside of major metropolitan areas where the zombie populations are thickest. Day and night they have to listen to that constant moaning. They have to stand by and listen to the plaintiff cries for help from the Unincorporated Civilian Casualties, the Gulf Region Quarantine Authority’s official designation for the people who were unable to make it out of the quarantine zone before the walls were put up and who were sealed inside with the zombies. Hearing all that noise for just a few weeks is demoralizing. I can’t imagine what it would be like to hear it every single day for months and years at a time.
Even worse, I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow used to hearing it.
It is little wonder that so many of the GRQA go AWOL at least once or twice a year. Or that they are never punished for it when they do. Most don’t even get their pay docked.
And it’s no wonder that the leading cause of death among GRQA agents is suicide.
Actually, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often than it does…
The Chosen One
Playing opposite Ben Richardson is the Dead World’s second most important character, Nate Royal.
Nate is an unlikely hero. When we first meet Nate, he’s a small fish in a small pond. He’s sitting on a park bench, watching the world go by, feeling impotent and angry at the deal he’s been given, when suddenly he sees the sexy young wife of the town’s leading attorney. Nate, who’s dealt with this woman before, zeroes in on her as the cause of all his problems, and he sets out to abduct her.
This is our introduction to Nate Royal, and from the start we find him difficult to like. But then something happens. Nate gets attacked by a zombie. He’s wounded, and because he’s heard on the TV about what happens to people who get infected by a zombie, he slinks off to die in a neighbor’s tool shed.
Only Nate doesn’t turn. He is immune to the necrosis filovirus. When the military doctors who have set up shop in the area discover his unusual condition, they pack him off to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. Once there, Nate meets a military doctor named Mark Kellogg, and while the two of them never really become friends, they do develop a unique relationship.
Kellogg is an intellectual. He’s a military officer, true, but he doesn’t think of himself that way. In his mind, he’s a doctor who just so happens to wear a uniform to work. Kellogg ends up taking Nate under his wing, and as the two men get to know each other, the novel’s key theme of rejecting nihilism comes to the forefront. Because Nate is most certainly not an intellectual, he lacks the specialized language to discuss nihilism like a philosopher. He only knows what he feels.
This presents Dr Kellogg with an obvious problem. Nate Royal, because of his immunity, represents humanity’s greatest hope. And yet Nate, who so despises the universe’s seeming lack of concern for his fate that he seeks comfort in suicide, is unwilling to play the part of hero. Their relationship is as much of a statement on the way an older generation attempts to hand the baton of responsibility off to the next as it is a rejection of the classical hero archetype. Nate is definitely not a hero, and yet is called upon to play the part. If APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD had been a World War II story, he might have reluctantly lived up to the challenge. But I don’t think modern American culture quite believes in heroes anymore. Comic books are more popular today than ever before. So too are songs and movies about superheroes. And yet, time after time, those same modern offerings on the hero give us flawed characters that don’t live up to what’s expected of them. The phenomenon even extends into politics, where Barrack Obama failed to live up to the media image of hope and change that propelled him into office. I’ve been watching this trend develop over the last decade or so, and perhaps that explains why I selected a hero who not only rejects the role of hero, but can’t even be convinced to take on the challenge reluctantly. Time and again, Dr. Kellogg has to lift Nate up and push him in the right direction. And can one truly be called a hero if there is no free will involved in the actions that would traditionally qualify one for hero status?
The Persistence of Jonestown
The original title of APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD was Resistance. I changed the title after a lengthy and at times heated discussion with my editor and agent. Though I’ve come to like APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD as a title, I still, in many ways, prefer the original title. Resistance is not quite so in your face, and it conveys the book’s central theme of rejecting nihilism. Each of the book’s character sets – Michael Barnes and Ben Richardson; Dr. Mark Kellogg and Nate Royal; Ed Moore and Billy Kline; Jasper and Aaron; Colin and Kyra – are engaged to some degree in playing this theme out. When I was plotting out the book, I knew I wanted to end with a microcosm of the apocalypse. I also wanted that ending to speak directly to the theme of nihilism. And, as has become my modus operandi when I need to craft major plot elements, I turned to my youth for inspiration. What I found there was Jonestown.
I was ten years old when the news broke about the mass suicides down in Jonestown. I remember watching the seemingly endless footage of dead, rotting bodies stacked on top of each in the ditches surrounding Jonestown, my parents on the couch behind me too horrified to snap to the fact that their ten year old kid probably shouldn’t be watching such things on TV, and feeling completely repulsed. How, I asked, could so many people just give up on life? How could one man convince so many people to do something so ridiculous?
Those questions stayed with me, even as I made jokes with my friends about drinking the Kool-Aid. Over the years the legacy of Jonestown continued to bother me. I read a great deal about Jim Jones and his followers and the final days there in the jungles of Guyana, and I’ve never made any secret that I drew a great deal of the conclusion of APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD from that research, but in all my studies I never found an answer to my original question. I found lots of wild ass guesses concealed as educated theories, but nothing that really, solidly, answered the question.
I think we have a deep-seated need to belong somewhere. We’re social animals, and in many ways, successfully fitting into our given society is emotionally healthy. But beyond fitting in, we also want to know that our lives have value, even if we never grow rich or get famous or add to the collective knowledge of mankind. Cults of course provide for this by a creating the illusion of family, a sense of inclusion. Gangs do the same thing. So does high school football, and turning out in droves to support a pro sports team, or blogging, or belonging to professional organizations and gardening clubs. The point is we seek out ways to be included. That’s a healthy instinct, up to a point. The problem with cults like the People’s Temple or Heaven’s Gate or political institutions like the Nazi Party is that our desire for inclusion gets easily perverted into a rabid sort of fervor that grows beyond our individual ability to control. And when that happens, all hell breaks loose.
At one point in APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD, Dr. Mark Kellogg tells Nate Royal, “We are put into this hostile, alien world as isolated individuals. We can learn to like other people, even love them, but we can’t ever truly know them, and so we remain isolated. We’re not allowed to know why life has meaning, not for sure anyway, and yet we feel compelled to create some sort of answer. It’s an absurd downward spiral of impossible things, and yet it’s our lives.” And Nate, with dawning comprehension, asks, “So what does that mean? Are you saying that a world based on bad reasons is enough?” The two men eventually decide among themselves that this is so. A world based on bad reasons is enough. Their answer makes sense within the context of their relationship, but falls short of satisfactory when put in light of the events at Jonestown, and the fictional counterpart of those events as they occur in the novel.
APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD doesn’t provide any real answers. Indeed, I don’t know if there are any. But each of the characters in the novel tries to wrestle with what happens at the Grasslands in their own way, and maybe one of the book’s readers will find a branching off point that helps them to answer the real life mystery of why good people can abruptly lose their minds, as happened in Jonestown.
We shall see.
But for now, the mystery of Jonestown persists.
FLESH EATERS (Pinnacle; April, 2011)
For about a year after DEAD CITY sold to Kensington, I did nothing but write short stories. I was cranking them out at a fevered pace, sometimes as many as three a week, and selling most of them. It became almost like a drug for me.
“Ethical Solutions” was a product of that addiction.
And then, at the end of that year, my agent came calling for another book. “A sequel to DEAD CITY, maybe?” he asked.
As I said, I never had any intention of becoming a writer. I just wanted to write. I hadn’t given any thought whatsoever to another book. I told him my thoughts on sequels and he seemed disappointed, but asked what else I had.
I didn’t have anything written, but I did have an idea for a police procedural set against the backdrop of a pandemic flu outbreak. “I could expand that story idea into a novel,” I said.
He liked the idea, and I got to work on Quarantined, my second novel. The book sold, and went on to garner a Stoker nomination from the Horror Writers Association for Superior Achievement in a Novel.
But the thrill of selling a second novel, coupled with my agent’s interest in another zombie novel, got me curious about the rest of the world I had created in DEAD CITY. Specifically, I turned my attention to Houston. I had left most of the city under water, and because the city had been evacuated so poorly, and then shut off behind quarantine walls shortly afterwards, all the treasures of the nation’s third largest city lay ripe for plundering. All those banks with their vaults full of cash…all those museums with their walls covered in priceless art…all those jewelry stores with their diamonds on display…they got me thinking. Imagine someone desperate enough, someone skilled enough, someone brave enough…they could run the Coast Guard blockade out in the Gulf, scuba dive into the flooded ruins, and take anything they wanted. All they had to do was avoid the soldiers guarding the walls and the nearly two million zombies still wandering inside the city.
From that, the third book in the Dead World series was born.
I knew I wanted a heist story to act as the plot’s spine. Originally, I planned to have a team of four men and women scuba dive into the flooded city, grab the cash, dodge a few zombies, and maybe make it out alive. Along the way, they would do battle with the Quarantine Authority and a wild bunch of gangsters. It was going to be great fun.
And then, after I started writing out my plot synopsis and my story outline, I realized I was making the same mistake I’d made with THE EDGE OF THE MAP, my failed SF book from several years earlier. The heist story I’d envisioned didn’t have anything authentic to it. Sometimes a writer’s best ally is that little voice inside his head that yells “Bullshit!” and luckily mine was working that day.
Luckier still, I listened.
Once again I turned to my personal experiences. Living through a hurricane was one of the most frightening events of my life, while the weeks I spent working in the shelters after Katrina and Rita were some of the most exhausting I’ve ever spent. It occurred to me that if I was going to write an effective storyline, it would have to involve those two elements. I decided I would tell the story of how the first zombies appeared and spread to the rest of the Gulf Coast. I would tell the story of the hurricanes that sunk Houston and created the Dead World. I would tell, in other words, a prequel to DEAD CITY.
Oh, and there would be a heist in there as well.
The Crucible of Duty
The main character of FLESH EATERS is Eleanor Norton, a sergeant with the Houston Police Department’s Emergency Operations Command. She is also a wife and a mother. As the storms roll in and the City of Houston begins to fall apart, Eleanor is caught between her job and her family, unable to devote her complete attention to either. Aware that she is spreading herself too thinly, Eleanor confronts head on the novel’s main theme: What is duty?
As the novel begins, Eleanor thinks she has a handle on this question. She has done her homework and has thoroughly prepared her family to shelter in place during a hurricane. Her husband and daughter have more than enough food, water, and medical supplies to get them through a few weeks without power and running water. Eleanor, in fact, has made preparation a near obsession. But, as she finds out, mere preparation is insufficient. There is a greater danger than raw sewage and flood waters, and its name is boredom. While she’s at work, her family is stuck at home, literally unable to leave their front door, and while they have plenty to eat and drink, the perpetual boredom leaves them angry and restless.
Meanwhile, at work, Eleanor is being pulled in a hundred directions at once. Because of its unique placement near the nexus of Houston’s freeway system, the University of Houston’s campus is turned into a refugee center. As the nearly 2.5 million people living between Galveston and the City of Houston proper flee northwards, the sick and the old and ill prepared stop at the campus for protection. The shelters quickly swell to unmanageable numbers, which leads to many more problems, such as dysentery, cholera, starvation, and a host of sanitation problems and medical shortages generally found only in third world nations. Between salvaging boats to evacuate the refugees and struggling to maintain order, Eleanor spends long hours, and sometimes days on end, at the campus. When she returns home, which is surrounded by flood waters, she finds that her husband and daughter have been fighting their own battle with boredom, and that their resentment of her apparent freedom has reached a boil. Being home soon becomes as much work as being at her job.
But Eleanor isn’t the only one dealing with the seemingly mutually exclusive demands of first responder work and family life. Her boss, Captain Mark Shaw, has been passed over for promotion to Deputy Chief, and feels that his assignment at the Emergency Operations Command is basically the department’s way of putting him out to pasture. But when the hurricanes hit, and his command post at the University of Houston campus becomes the only legitimate police authority in the area, Captain Mark Shaw finds himself the man on top, the place where the buck stops. He is confronted not only with the demands of organizing the shelters and the evacuation of those shelters, but also of being the father. Shaw’s two sons are both Houston Police Officers, and he knows that there isn’t going to be much of a future for them. The city they’ve known as home all their lives is, after all, under water. Once the disaster is managed, his two sons will almost certainly be out of work with everything they own washed out to sea. As Captain Shaw sees it, he has two duties: evacuate the citizens who have entrusted him with their safety and see to it that his sons are provided for after the disaster has passed.
It seems like an impossible task, but Shaw has a plan. Through his connections as head of the EOC, he has learned of a local bank with 7 million dollars in cash abandoned in its vault. The bank is flooded and the property and the money declared a total loss by the insurance companies. He sons are able to recover the money. Now, the only task is getting out of Houston alive.
Of course the zombies make that difficult. And when Eleanor Norton learns of the heist, the Shaws find themselves stuck between survival, doing their duty to the refugees, and looking out for their own futures. In a lesser man, this wouldn’t be a dilemma at all. Self-interest would take over and the problem would work itself out. But Captain Mark Shaw is not a lesser man. Some men have religion, Captain Mark Shaw has duty. He is deeply conflicted by his role in the bank heist, and this proves to be his crisis of faith, for he sees the money as his greatest sin and at the same time the key to providing for his family.
It is an issue that only becomes murkier as he and Eleanor Norton battle it out in the flooded ruins of Houston, but their debate on duty does place FLESH EATERS squarely into the overall theme of family and community that runs through every work in the Dead World series.
MUTATED (Pinnacle; September, 2012).
The first three books in the Dead World series are generally lumped into the post-apocalyptic class of literature, and I’m okay with that. It doesn’t bother me in the same way that calling APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD an epic does. But even still, I feel compelled to point out that none of the first three books are truly post-apocalyptic. They are, more properly, disaster stories. Apocalyptic stories. The “post” part of the post-apocalyptic tag is missing.
Until MUTATED I hadn’t played much with the world after the zombie outbreak. My short story “Dating in Dead World” covered some of that ground, but there’s only so much you can do in the limited space of a novella. I wanted to show, in detail, where the scenarios I had put in place would lead. So, in MUTATED, we have the Dead World approximately eight years after the events in APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD. It is now a world of abandoned cities and crumbling roads and a population so decimated that a traveler can walk for days without seeing another human being. And it is the Dead World’s final word on post-apocalyptic events.
For as long as I can remember I’ve thrilled at the sight of abandoned buildings. Something about those dark, empty windows, the vacant doorways, the sepulchral quiet of an empty train station or hotel lobby, spoke of discontinuity, and of trauma. There was a vacancy in those wrecks that evoked loss and heartache and the memory of dreams that have fallen by the wayside. They were a sort of negative space in the landscape, symbols of our world’s mortality.
And then zombies came along, and I fell in love with them for many of the same reasons.
But here’s the thing.
It took me a while – as a writer I mean – to figure out that abandoned buildings, and even abandoned cities, don’t just appear because a horde of zombies happen to show up. Sure, most everybody gets eaten, and so you end up with a lot of buildings and very few people, but it goes a little deeper than that. Zombies and abandoned buildings, it seems to me, are actually two sides of the same coin. Aside from the obvious similarity – that they are both miserable wrecks somehow still on their feet – both are symbols of a world that is at odds with itself and looking for new direction. And in that way, zombies merge symbolically with the abandoned buildings they haunt in ways that other monsters never really achieve with the settings of their stories.
But just because the zombie and the abandoned building are intimately related symbols doesn’t mean that they function in exactly the same way.
Consider the abandoned building first.
When a building dies, it becomes an empty hull, and yet it does not fall. At least not right away. Its hollow rooms become as silent as the grave; but, when you enter it, its desolate inner spaces somehow still hum with the collected sediment of the life that once thrived there.
When we look at graffiti scrawled across fine Italian marble tiles, or a filthy doll face up in a crumbling warehouse parking lot, or weeds growing up between the desks in a ruined schoolhouse, we’re not just seeing destruction. We’re also seeing what once was, and what could be again. In other words, we’re seeing past, present and future all at the same time.
The operative force at work here is memory. Within the mind, memory links past, present and future. But in our post-apocalyptic landscapes, our minds need a mnemonic aid…and that aid is the abandoned building. The moldering wreck before us forces us to consciously engage in the process of temporal continuity, rather than simply stumble through it blindly.
Put another way, we become an awful lot like Wordsworth daydreaming over the ruins of Tintern Abbey. Like Wordsworth, we’re witnessing destruction, but pondering renovation, because we are by nature a creative species that needs to reshape the world in order to live in it. That is our biological imperative.
And so, in the end, the abandoned building becomes a symbol of creative courage.
But now consider the abandoned building’s corollary, the zombie.
Zombies are, really, single serving versions of the apocalypse. Apocalyptic stories deal with the end of the world. Generally speaking, they give us a glimpse of the world before catastrophe, which becomes an imperfect Eden of sorts. They then spin off into terrifying scenarios for the end of the world. And finally, we see the survivors living on, existing solely on the strength of their own wills. There are variations within the formula, of course, but those are the nuts and bolts of it.
When we look at the zombie, we get the same thing – but in microcosm. We see the living person prior to death, and this equates to the world before the apocalypse (or the ghost of what the abandoned building used to be). We see the living person’s death, and this equates to the cataclysmic event that precipitates the apocalypse (or the moldering wreck of an abandoned building). And finally, we see the shambling corpse wandering the wasteland in search of prey, and this equates to the post apocalyptic world that is feeding off its own death.
It is in this final note that the symbolic functions of the abandoned building and the zombie diverge. As I’ve mentioned, the abandoned building, so long as it stands, calls to our creative instincts to rebuild. But the zombie, so long as it stands, speaks only to our ultimate mortality.
And so, the ruined hotel or office park becomes our mind’s cathedral, the spiritual and creative sanctuary of our memory, while the zombie becomes the devil that drives us into it.
I see a satisfying sense of symmetry there.
Writing MUTATED gave me the chance to tie up a lot of loose ends from the previous books. For example, the last time we heard of Ken Stoler, he was leading a national campaign to protect the rights of the infected. Dr. Sylvia Carnes, the University of Texas English professor and acolyte of Ken Stoler, was last seen driving off in a chartered bus after losing all her students to an ill-fated trip into San Antonio. And when we said goodbye to Ben Richardson and the rest of the escapees from the Grasslands cult at the end of APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD, they were walking into a military convoy. So not only is MUTATED unique in that it is the only truly post-apocalyptic book in the series, but it is also the only novel in the bunch that can truly be called a traditional sequel.
The book begins with Ben Richardson, who never quit working on his history of the zombie outbreak. Since escaping the Grasslands at the end of APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD he has crisscrossed the United States, searching out survivors and gathering their stories and writing about his observations. Excerpts from his book are peppered throughout MUTATED, and from those excerpts it becomes clear that Richardson knows his work will never be finished. The idea of writing the book has become his crutch, the one thing that enables him to get up every morning and go on living in a world that has otherwise lost its meaning for him.
And then, while hiding from a roving band of zombies in the ruins of St. Louis Pizza Hut, he runs into Dr. Sylvia Carnes. She’s in the company of two young women and two bodyguards. Unbeknownst to Richardson, Sylvia Carnes and her group have fled a compound run by Ken Stoler in order to meet up with a doctor who may have developed a cure for the necrosis filovirus.
But the world Carnes and the others have escaped into is not so simple. Stoler’s community is at war with a man known as the zombie king. This man, whose skin has turned a dark red from rosacea, has built up an army of zombies and uninfected human soldiers. The Red Man also wants to capture Carnes and her people. Thrown together in the ruins and dodging common foes, Richardson and Carnes join forces, and together they go on a quest down the Mississippi River to find the man who just might be able to save the human race from itself.
A Note on the Dead World’s Geography
The Mississippi River was a deliberate choice for Richardson and Carnes’ quest. Not only is it an iconic American landmark, and not only is it the roadmap for Huckleberry Finn’s far more famous quest, but it also happens to be dead in the middle of the continental United States.
Go back through all the stories in the Dead World and you’ll see that they all converge on the middle of America. While no one part of the United States is more or less American than any other part, the Heartland is just that…the heart of America. Taking the story to the Heartland is a metaphor, really, for the series’ overall theme that our survival is based on our ability to form a strong, healthy community.
Walking With Zombies: A Natural History of the Undead
Let’s talk about zombies for a bit. In the Dead World, the necrosis filovirus spreads through exposure to the bodily fluids of an infected zombie, and the usual vector is a bite. The virus causes the complete depersonalization of the infected person, essentially turning them into a zombie.
It does not kill them, however. The living, infected person exists as a mindless husk, intent solely on aggression. They can’t care for themselves in any meaningful way, and they have no sense of danger or the ability to avoid it. And in most cases, they are so badly injured by the contact that caused their initial infection that secondary infections are rampant. What this means in practical terms is that most of the infected die off very soon after getting infected, either from their initial injuries, injuries incurred while hunting for food, or from the food itself that they eat. Imagine a zombie feeding on something that’s been dead in the middle of the road for a few days and you can see what I mean.
In APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD, Ben Richardson and Michael Barnes get trapped on a rooftop. While looking over the side of the roof, Richardson realizes that the zombies below are using strategy to flush out prey. The shock is nearly too much for him. He had been so certain that the infected needed to be exterminated outright after his trip to San Antonio with Dr. Carnes in “Ethical Solutions” that he had ceased thinking of them as humans. But now, watching them use strategy, all his certainty disappears.
But what he doesn’t realize, at least right away, is that the zombies are changing the longer they live. To be sure, the change is a gradual one. But it is happening.
The zombies Eddie Hudson and Eleanor Norton face are all Stage 1 zombies. These zombies are freshly infected and almost completely depersonalized. They are incapable of reason, and have no capacity to anticipate the actions of others. In some cases, they are so far gone that they can’t even recognize other zombies. Most of the time, these zombies are the traditional slow movers of the Romero movies. There are a few, however, who are capable of moving with great speed. Eddie Hudson calls these fast movers. These are infected persons who were in excellent physical condition at the time they were turned and who were infected by injuries so minor that their ability to move around was not impaired. Luckily, they are few and far between.
Assuming a zombie survives his or her first eight months or so of undead life, they begin to change into Stage 2 zombies. These are the zombies that Ben Richardson and Michael Barnes face in the flooded ruins of Houston. They are capable of using simple strategies, such as cooperative hunting, to corner prey. In most cases, Stage 2 zombies are still slow moving.
It is extremely rare for a zombie to advance beyond Stage 2, but a few live long enough to manage it. Stage 3 zombies have regained a great deal of their fine motor skills and are even capable of approximating language through grunts and primitive gestures. Dr. Mark Kellogg experiments with a few Stage 3 zombies in APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD. They are rather like trying to keep chimpanzees as pets, he realizes. Left alone for too long, they can, and will, break locks, feign injuries or sleep, and in some cases respond to their names and other verbal cues. They are, however, still aggressive to a fault, and unable to contain their impulses.
Before the Red Man (so named because of the rosacea that has turned him a burgundy red from head to foot) no one envisioned a stage 4 zombie. The idea of someone completely, or even mostly, regaining their sense of self after being infected seemed too implausible to be considered a threat. But that is exactly what the Red Man is, a stage 4 zombie. The Red Man has regained nearly all of his memories and his sense of self, but the necrosis filovirus has left him hopelessly insane. It has also given him the ability to communicate through normal speech with his army, and through grunts, smells and moaning, with the zombies. He is the next step in evolution in this world made up of two different species of humanity.
The Red Man’s only natural enemy is the man who doesn’t play by the rules that have made him MUTATED.
Nate Royal Returns
Nate Royal, for all his many faults, is immune to the necrosis filovirus. This puts him in direct opposition to the Red Man: the man who becomes the ultimate zombie versus the man who can never become a zombie. They represent opposite ends of the spectrum, and a meeting between the two is inevitable.
While hiding in an abandoned farmhouse from an army of zombies, Ben Richardson and Sylvia Carnes witness Nate Royal’s first confrontation with the Red Man. What they see is impossible, at least according to the rules by which they’ve come to live. It also opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. A man immune to the zombie virus could redefine the struggle they have spent their lives fighting for.
The only trouble is Nate himself.
Nate has never had things very easy. Dr. Mark Kellogg was able to help Nate along, but only after many hours of shared suffering and individual attention. Now that Kellogg is gone, Nate is like a compass needle spinning aimlessly around the dial, trying to find his true north.
But Nate remains vital, for even after all these years, he still carries the flash drive that Dr. Mark Kellogg put around his neck just before he died. Contained in that flash drive is the answer that humanity has been waiting for, the cure to the necrosis filovirus. The trouble is that Nate has run out of gas, spiritually speaking. Dr. Kellogg’s guidance has brought him only so far. And now, eight years after Kellogg’s death, Nate finds himself once again ready to give it up and die.
And then he finds Ben Richardson. While the two of them are floating downstream on the Mississippi, Nate rediscovers the true north he has been missing. He takes from Ben Richardson the guidance he needs to confront the Red Man.
Whether, ultimately, he is successful, depends on your point of view. What kind of future do you want?
Dating in Dead World
“Dating in Dead World,” originally published in THE LIVING DEAD 2, edited by John Joseph Adams (Nightshade Books; September, 2010).
“Dating in Dead World” is the last entry, chronologically speaking, in the Dead World series. The main character is Andrew Hudson, the baby Eddie Hudson spent a night of hell trying to rescue in Dead City.
It’s been almost twenty years since Hurricane Mardell swept through Houston, flooding the city and giving birth to a virus that turns the living into the walking dead. The world has been overrun by zombies and left in ruin. But there are still groups of people left alive, and they are carving out an existence in the wasteland.
Some of the survivors have moved into protective compounds, but Andrew Hudson wasn’t lucky enough to grow up in one of those. He was raised as a street urchin out in the ruins of San Antonio, where he makes a living as a special courier between the strongholds of the dead world’s warlords. During one of those runs he had the good fortune to meet the daughter of the area’s most powerful warlord, and he won her heart.
Now, they’re going on their first date. How hard could that be, right? Kids have been dating forever. Well, when taking your date out involves high speed pursuits through zombie-infested ruins and being used as pawns in an underhanded power grab scheme, nothing is as easy as it seems.
“Dating in Dead World” was written right about the same time that Kensington Publishing came asking me to do another zombie book. I had made a few readers mad with the ending to Dead City, and I wanted to address the criticism before I went on with the rest of the series.
And that meant writing about Eddie Hudson again. The thing to remember about Eddie Hudson is that he is not a reliable reporter. Most people get that wrong about him. He’s deeply fractured by the events he recounts in the novel, and the optimism he expresses at the end of the story is…well, let’s just say he’s not telling you everything. He’s telling you about the world he wants to believe in, not the world as it really is. “Dating in Dead World” came from that issue. And because “Dating in Dead World” was written to refute Eddie Hudson’s optimism, the logical lead for the story was Eddie’s son, Andrew Hudson. So this story really becomes as much a conversation between father and son as it does a commentary on the Dead World series itself.
John Joseph Adams, editor of THE LIVING DEAD 2, asked me where “Dating in Dead World” came from – not just the idea for the story, but the personal background of the story. I think the answer hinges on personal accountability. I find it impossible to respect people who can’t accept responsibility for their actions. That’s something I learned from my dad, and something I’ll always be thankful for.
Case in point: He gave me some important advice on personal responsibility. Right before I left for my first date, he gave me the only bit of parental sex education I ever received. “Remember this,” he said. “You will be held personally accountable for everything that happens to that girl from the moment she leaves her front door to the moment she walks back in it. Conduct yourself accordingly.”
It wasn’t until after I’d written “Dating in Dead World” that I realized I was channeling that advice. I guess it took.
Read Andrew Hudson’s take on his first date and see if you don’t agree.
Toward a Preferred Chronology
People keep asking me if they need to read the Dead World in a certain order. With the exception of MUTATED, I’d so no. You can read any piece in the series in any order and still come away with a perfectly clear understanding of what’s going on. And come to think of it, you could even read MUTATED first and still have that understanding.
So the simple answer is no, there is no preferred chronology. Read on. Enjoy yourself.
Okay, that was for all those folks who are completely new to the series. The rest of you, those who have read at least one of the books and are looking for some insight into the rest of the series, what follows is for you. If you want to read the Dead World series the way the author would like the series read, this is it:
APOCALYPSE OF THE DEAD
DATING IN DEAD WORLD