JOE MCKINNEY: When I released my first novel, Dead City, I knew nothing about the publishing industry. But I was lucky enough to meet you early, Harry. You were a valuable mentor to me in those early days and I’ve never forgotten that. It’s great to finally sit down with you.
HARRY SHANNON: My pleasure, Joe. When I heard about a Homicide cop who wrote zombie stories, it tickled the hell out of me. And Dead City was a terrific read.
JM: We’re both drawn to action horror, which seems to be doing quite well these days – especially when it comes to zombies. How did you find this niche?
HS: Don’t we all tend to write what we love to read? I grew up on spooky stories by Ambrose Bierce, John Collier, Saki, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Poe and Lovecraft. Later I discovered those cool old Gold Medal paperbacks and novels by John D. MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, Richard S. Prather, Donald Hamilton. Action and adventure and violence and scares, heroes who were the perfect mythic mix of observant, wise, tough and yet appealing to the ladies. Pure testosterone, I suppose. When Stephen King brought horror back in a big way, I was along for the ride from Carrie onward. As for zombies like the ones in PAIN, my interest goes all the way back to I Am Legend by Matheson. Those vampires were so brilliantly drawn, and the solitude of the protagonist was so extreme. Great stuff. And of course the original black-and-white Night of the Living Dead remains my all-time favorite horror film. That was a story that borrowed quite liberally from I Am Legend. Although I’ve published the Mick Callahan mysteries (Memorial Day, Eye of the Burning Man, One of the Wicked) and a thriller (The Pressure of Darkness) I remain best known for the horror material. It just worked out that way.
JM: You have a new novella out, a project called PAIN, with an introduction by zombie author Jonathan Maberry. Tell us about it.
HS: PAIN is my take on the siege story, the Rio Bravo thing. A handful of flawed human beings hold off a mob of bad guys and find their own nobility in the process. I just decided to do it with a bunch of infected townspeople attacking an isolated mountain ER. Why an ER? Hospitals scare the crap out of me, I suppose. I just gathered a bunch if disparate impulses and images, came up with the structure and then let my comedic sensibility run wild after that. So I hope it’s a funny read as well as a horrifying one.
JM: Iraq and Vietnam…these are two of America’s most unpopular wars, and yet they have given you some of your best characters, Mick Callahan and Jack Burke among others.Why do you suppose that is?
HS: That’s an interesting point. As many men of my generation, I grew up wondering how I would do in combat, and now feel fortunate that I never had to find out. I was very torn during Viet Nam, opposed to the war yet respectful of those who chose to fight it. Their suffering can still move me to tears. In the end, I did what I had to do to avoid going, but I’ve been debating those few years in my soul ever since. I’m never comfortable that others went in my place, but would have hated myself for going, so it’s an issue that has never been resolved. In that way I’m like the country itself. Unfortunately, Iraq and Afghanistan are turning out to be protracted, as endlessly controversial and almost as bloody. I suppose the conflict inside me, and inside of a lot of folks, can create some very rich characterizations, in my writing and in the work of many other authors.
JM: I loved the LZ scene at the beginning of your story “Blood and Burning Straw” from the collection A Host of Shadows. Having been on some harrowing helicopter rides myself, I can tell you didn’t come by the details in that scene just from watching Apocalypse Now. What do you draw on when you write your action sequences?
HS: That story was first published in Cemetery Dance by Rich Chizmar and Robert Morrish. I don’t know…I’ve spoken to vets in my counseling practice, and read extensively about WW2, Viet Nam and our current conflicts over the years. In my wayward youth I did a lot of dumb, wild-assed things, generally while intoxicated. Maybe those two facts come together in my imagination whenever I sit down to work. I’m flattered that a few vets have written me about some of the scenes you’re referencing, although one of them caught me on a minor error with respect to the Glock 9. I was suitably chagrined and changed the line in reprints of the story. Look, I think any man in touch with his darker side, and God knows I am, can feel the war within himself without much effort. That stuff truly frightens me. It pops up in road rage, jealousy, bickering with a spouse or even a child. It takes you by surprise, and for a few seconds to a few minutes, you can understand why murder happens. Anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about there probably doesn’t read horror or crime fiction very often.
JM: No one writes a haunted ex-soldier like Harry Shannon. And that makes me wonder about the role confronting and reclaiming the past plays in the best stories in the horror genre. Why do you suppose that is?
HS: Psychology is about confronting and reclaiming and re-framing the past, yes? So catharsis and transmogrification are part of the life process, at least if we’re evolving. Coming of age, in one way or another. Facing death and impermanence, the life cycle itself, the loss of those we love, the loss of our own fantasies and hopes and illusions. Clive Barker once said that horror is just another way of writing about the divine, and I agree with that. So I suppose if I do haunted guys well, those with violence in their histories who struggle to do the right thing, it’s just a melodramatic projection of the stuff I wrestle with all day long. My idols, authors like James Lee Burke and John D. MacDonald and Cormac McCarthy, they all seem to give voice to that archetype, too. I’m flattered a warrior like yourself sees my work that way. I suspect I wouldn’t last long as a Homicide Detective, at least not sober.
JM: Your novel and film Dead and Gone has become something of a cult classic. How did that one come about, and do you ever consider writing a sequel?
HS: I’ve outlined a project called Dead and Gone 2: Deader and Goner, and hope to get to it someday both as a novel and a film script. The indie film market collapsed along with the home DVD business and the US economy, so it may take a while to make good on that dream. Director Yossi Sasson and I were talking out our love of B movies from the 80’s, and something he said sparked an idea. Yossi and his wife raised the money to do that film micro-budget on HiDef, which wasn’t as cheap as it is now, and everyone on the project did it pretty much as a labor of love. My old friend Harry Manfredini did a brilliant musical score. Anyway, Grindstone bought it for Lionsgate DVD, just before the Big Crash. Downloading killed that business too, the movie was ripped off thousands of times before it ever hit the street. No one can make enough money that way to finance a sequel. Unfortunately, I worry that something very similar to what happened to music and film may be about to happen to books. We’ll have to wait and see.
JM: Brian Keene once described you as a “writer who is not afraid to walk into the shadows and drag the things living there kicking and screaming into the light.” That seems to me, in light of your skill with ex-special forces soldiers and a mastery of action horror in general, as more than just hyperbole. Confronting our horrors with a power of our own, especially in the physical sense that is unique to cops and soldiers, seems to be a fairly new thing for horror. Seeing as horror is generally a pretty good barometer of our nation’s emotional state, what are your novels and stories telling us about ourselves?
HS: I’d like to think I’m a reasonably deep thinker, but I’d never considered that angle before. Off the top of my head, the ongoing conflicts since 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, the way a small segment of society has to do all the fighting, the bleeding dry of our financial reserves by private contractors and keeping the wars off the books, all of those things combined have done something to our national psyche, at least in my opinion. We’re in a perpetual state of denial, clinging to a fantasy of national superiority even as we totter on the edge of bankruptcy. So the men and woman who do the fighting and risk-taking for us, what is it like when they come home? How do they fit in again with a population unaware of the extent of their sacrifice? How do they manage their own aggression when the rest of us have enough trouble with out PTSD and seriously bad memories? I guess that fascinates me, so several of my main characters are men like that, guys who have seen real ugliness, men to whom evil is not an abstract concept, who struggle to be decent and moral regardless. That fascinates me, perhaps as a metaphor for what it means to be human.
JM: You probably figured I couldn’t wait to talk about zombies. So…let’s build one. Slow or fast? Smart or dumb? Viral, voodoo, or other? Harlequin or horror? Why?
HS: I prefer the good, old-fashioned shambling, drooling Romero types. Speaking of metaphors, the zombies in PAIN are a stand-in for our bottomless human appetites. Sexuality, arrogance, greed, money, power, hunger, delusion, religiosity, the list goes on. So these breathing-impaired creatures who represent the end of things, the finish line, decay and rot and dust to dust, when they persistently and mindlessly come after us to inflict that unavoidable suffering, that’s truly terrifying. Both for what they symbolize and what they actually are, you know? They are death and dying incarnate.
JM: Okay, so we’ve got a zombie. That’s a terrifying thing. But when we look at your new novella PAIN, we see that they are not nearly as terrifying as the people around us. What is it about the zombie that makes us behave so badly?
HS: I don’t think it’s the zombies, Joe. Hell, we just do behave pretty badly. Not all at once, at least not most of us, but on and off all our lives. Who doesn’t have a list of “Dear God I can’t believe I did that” moments? I know I do. So studied under a microscope, the zombies are less complex and far less disappointing than most human characters in horror, who are so flawed and out of touch with their own weaknesses that we end up looking deeply into ourselves. Stephen King has always been brilliant at that, giving us an uncomfortable look at our own foibles even as he scares our pants off. Zombies are a delightfully reliable way to achieve a similar result.
JM: Okay, Harry, last question…then I let you off the hook. The zombie genre is well known for its metaphorical potential. Let’s say you get to write the last zombie story ever written. What social ill would your zombies represent?
HS: Whatever society was not quite conscious of yet, Joe. In the 80’s, Romero did a great job of mirroring the social conflicts of the 1960’s and 70’s, and then in the sequel the living dead stalk the malls and ride the escalators clutching their 80’s credit cards. For me, zombies are a mix of our fear of death and the impulses of our collective unconscious. Our appetites, selfishness, mindlessness, herd mentality. If I had to write the last zombie story now I’d probably give serious thought to our politics, which have become so inane and bigoted and ignorant it boggles the mind. Maybe the zombies should get elected to high office. They would fit right in with the candidates we’re getting. Hey, why don’t we give that a shot together one of these days?
JM: Thanks again, Harry, for the great conversation. Best of luck with PAIN! But also a special thanks for all the guidance and support you’ve given me over the years. You da man!