Okay, so most of you know about my zombie masters series by now. I’m interviewing one zombie master each day as I count down the days to the release of my next zombie novel, The Savage Dead. With me today is one of my recent discoveries, Mr. James Cook.
I bought the first volume of James’ Surviving the Dead series back in May of this year on the recommendation of a friend, and was hooked from the first page. He hits hard and doesn’t let up. If you like intense, character-driven action and suspense, James Cook has you covered. Definitely follow the series in order, starting with No Easy Hope, then go to This Shattered Land and Warrior Within. You can pick up the books here.
But for now, please welcome Mr. James N. Cook, zombie master!
Joe McKinney: Thanks for joining me here on Old Major’s Dream. I’m glad you could swing by. You’re no stranger to zombie fiction. Would you mind telling the folks out there a little about your zombie-related writing? How do you approach the genre.
James Cook: My zombie writing, much like all my writing, is character driven. My work is less about the zombies and more about the lives of the people surviving the apocalypse. The zombies are the setting, the danger, the constant threat in the background. They’re the splash of cold water in the face every time you wake up from a good dream. They’re the monster that comes crashing through the window when you think you’re safe. The zombies provide the catalyst that drives people to abandon their old lives and start new ones.
The most interesting part of post-apocalyptic storytelling—to me at least—is the difficulty of day-to-day survival juxtaposed against trying to rebuild civilization. In my writing, I explore how societies, much like anything else, are large bodies comprised of small parts. The bricks of a society are individual people, and the mortar that holds them together is relationships. Add in the architecture of laws and government, and what you get is the tribe, the most basic element of human culture. Make the tribe big enough and you create a society. Pit these societies against each other, and you have war.
In my zombie series (Surviving the Dead), the end of the world didn’t stop warfare. If anything, it ushered in an even bloodier chapter of violence than what existed before. The reason for this is simple: human nature. The inescapable reality of the animals we are beneath the thin veneer of civilization. That’s what my books are about.
JM: The zombie apocalypse is happening right now. Are you prepared? Would humanity win?
JC: Am I prepared? Absolutely not. No one is. They might tell themselves they are, but they’re not.
Would humanity win? I guess that depends on your definition of winning. The pages of history are littered with the bones of once-great civilizations. If winning means rebuilding to the level of our old glory, then I doubt it. It took western civilization nearly 1600 years to recover from the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the Romans didn’t even have air conditioning.
If, however, your definition of ‘winning’ is survival, then yes, I think we would. Everyone who is alive today is a descendent of a small group of people in Southern Ethiopia who survived a mass extinction event. If we did it once, we can do it again.
JM: What’s your favorite zombie book, movie, short story, whatever? (Please feel free to ramble as much or as little as you like here. I’d love to know why that story or movie or whatever grabs you.)
JC: Season one of The Walking Dead. I’ve always been a huge fan of the ‘lone survivor’ archetype. Those early episodes were a big part of the inspiration for my first novel, No Easy Hope.
JM: What’s your favorite zombie kill scene of all time?
JC: Season Two of The Walking Dead. After Rick finds Sophia, he hides her and goes back to deal with the two walkers tracking her. It’s one of the few zombie kills I’ve seen on screen where the character uses his bare hands to kill the infected. Well, technically he used a big-ass rock, but you get the idea.
What really grabbed me about that scene was when Rick was hiding behind the tree, breathing deep, clutching the rock, and screwing up his courage. The look of determination on his face was classic.
JM: I’ve always felt the best and most effective horror is trying to investigate what we think of ourselves and what it means to be us. Washington Irving’s tales, for instance, generally grapple with the question of what it means to be an American in the post-Revolutionary War period. Nathaniel Hawthorne battled with the intellectual promise of a nation rising to international credibility while simultaneously choking under the yoke of a Puritan past. Stephen King made a name for himself chronicling the slow collapse of the American small town way of life. What do you think the zombie and its current popularity is telling us about ourselves?
JC: I think it shines a light on our fear of inevitable forces. Death is the most obvious of these, but that’s not the specific nerve zombies strike.
Most people don’t really understand much about the world around them. There are forces that affect our lives—politics, law, warfare, natural disasters, climate change, overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, corruption, racism, religious fanaticism—that we fear instinctively, but can’t quantify or speak of eloquently from an intellectual standpoint. Stated more plainly, we know the world is a big, dangerous, scary place, but we’re not really sure why.
There are literally billions of people out there who feel as if they are helpless bystanders in the vast ocean of events that is life in our modern world. This feeling of helplessness engenders a fundamental distrust of the world around us, and more specifically, of other people. This distrust of other people stems from a wellspring of fear that lives in each and every one of us because, as much as we tout our vaunted morals, and as much as we want to believe that we are compassionate human beings with hearts, and minds, and souls, and value, the truth is, we’re all just a few missed meals away from savagery. We’re all just hairless apes with brains too big for our own damn good. And we all know that if the proverbial shit hit the fan, the worst threat we would face would not be the circumstances of the disaster, but each other.
We know this, all of us, because the darkness we project onto others is just a reflection of the darkness that lives inside us. We like to try and convince ourselves that we are good people and those other people are the bad guys, but in reality, there is a bad guy in all of us. Anyone who doesn’t believe that has never gone hungry, or been afraid for their lives. Or both.
Zombies embody our innate fear of the darkness that dwells within us. And because we feel that darkness, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we see that darkness in other people. If all those people, in all their mind-boggling billions, decided to break bad and start murdering each other wholesale, there is no force on this earth that could stop them. We, the individual, being the good, decent, thinking people that we are, would be swept up in that tsunami and dashed against the rocks just like everyone else.
That’s what zombies represent. The individual evils of the world, one person at a time, aggregated into an irresistible tide of destruction. And the fundamental nature of the zombie—specifically its motivation to kill and its method thereof—preys on one of the oldest and most deeply-ingrained of human fears: the fear of being eaten.
Zombie apocalypse fiction symbolizes our understanding of the fragile nature of civilization, and the inevitability of its demise. We all know, deep down, that one dark day this whole fucking mess, all of it, is going to come to a screeching halt. And as much as we would like to believe differently, we all know beyond doubt that when the time comes, there’s not going to be a damn thing we can do to stop it. That’s what zombies tell us about ourselves.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was James N. Cook. Check him out on Facebook here.
And while you’re stalking James on the Internet make sure and stop by Amazon to pick up a copy of my upcoming zombie novel, The Savage Dead. You can do that right here.