Everybody’s experience is different, I’m sure, but for me, breaking into professional publishing was like transferring to a new school in the middle of the semester. I knew absolutely no one. I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t know the cool kids, and I certainly didn’t know who to look out for. It was a little intimidating to say the least. Lee Thomas was an early mentor. So too was Lisa Morton. But the person who really did the most to teach me the ropes, who really spelled it all out for me, was Harry Shannon. I’ve never forgotten the debt I owe him.
That was almost ten years ago. Since then, Harry and I have become fast friends. We’ve cheered to each other’s successes, and even gone in together on a few projects. Most notable to today’s interview was a story he sent me for my freshman effort as editor, the zombie anthology Dead Set. Harry, and his co-author, Steven Booth, sent me a wonderful story called “Jailbreak.” It told the story of a young female sheriff and her deliciously dangerous prisoner on the first night of the zombie apocalypse. I found it fast paced and highly charged with sexual tension, always a great combination for storytelling. What’s more, it bore the stamp of a seasoned pro working his craft in top form. I was delighted to include it in Dead Set.
And then, a few years later, I got an email from Harry letting me know that he and Steven were expanding the story into a novel…and they wanted me to write the introduction for it!
I was overjoyed. And upon reading it, I was stunned. In turning the short story “Jailbreak” into the novel, The Hungry, Harry and Steven turned Sheriff Penny Miller into one of the most original, and certainly one of the hottest, female leads in zombie fiction. The Hungry has since turned into a series of outstanding adventures for Penny Miller, and has earned my friend Harry Shannon a place as 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?
Harry Shannon: My first zombie made a cameo in the first draft of Night of the Beast, way back in the 1970’s. He had been a small-town Grocer, and a mentor to the lead character. He died and got his ass changed. The horror of his sudden transformation from a beloved friend to something to be feared gave me chills. I’d read about zombies of course, and seen some films, but that was the first time I’d ever written about one. Created one of my own. By the way, I’m a big fan of the traditional American variety–slow, rotting, voracious and unrelenting.
JM: The zombie apocalypse is happening right now. Are you prepared? Would humanity win?
HS: One hopes. I think so. We are certainly rehearsing for it often enough. We are all survivalists now, or at least joking about becoming one. People have taken every unknown terror and bogey man and stapled it to the zombie trope. Plagues, economic ruin, the collapse of civilization, terrorism, Fascism, communism, it is all there in The Walking Dead and the best of the zombie fiction out there is always still deeply human. The zombies are just standing in for our fears–good stories are always about interesting human beings.
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.)
HS: My favorite zombie film is still the original, black and white Night of the Living Dead. I play it most every Halloween while passing out candy. It seems so ridiculous at the beginning, the wooden acting, the awful score…yet once I hear “They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” I shiver. The Monkey’s Paw is still probably my favorite zombie short story, in part because the creature only has to knock to give us nightmares. I’d also have to give Honorable Mentions to the homage of Pet Semetary, 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead (original), and The Walking Dead series, which keeps hooking me every season, even though I think I’m burned out on it. And of course your own Dead City series, Jonathan Maberry’s recent YA stuff, the list goes on. It’s an embarrassment of riches these days.
JM: What’s your favorite zombie kill scene of all time?
HS: That is a very tough question. If I had to choose one…Damn, maybe I can’t do that. So here are a couple off the top of my head. The poor man having to put down his buddy in the department store office, back in the original Dawn of the Dead. Having to sit there waiting for a good friend to turn. It’s just heart breaking. And then there’s that little girl eating her parents up in the pitch black basement in the original NOTLD. That one for the same reason. The black and white print makes that image unforgettable. If we saw a bunch of fake gore in color it probably wouldn’t disturb me half as much.
For all the silliness The Walking Dead has pulled off some amazing kills the last two seasons. Michone severing the head of a zombie but garrote comes to mind…anyway, I’ll stop. It seems I can’t choose one, but I’m seeing a pattern when I ponder scenes that have impact on me other than inspiring wild laughter. One thing always gets me. It is the deep angst of killing your own friend or loved one that never seems to grow old. Perhaps that is the true horror of zombies–not that we come back, but that we must help each other die.
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 yolk 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?
HS: I agree, Joe, and I would even go a step further. I see the zombie genre as primarily an existential exploration. After all, as Clive Barker once wrote, horror is just another way of writing about the divine. Zombies go back to Jewish legend of the Golum, down through Frankenstein to George Romero and King. The fear of dead coming alive again peppers our distant past and pops up in cave paintings. So the tales persist, they are in our DNA. Sure, as you note, as time goes on the background eventually changes. That part evolves, and as you so succinctly point out, consistently reflects our present circumstances–cultural and otherwise.
We may set out to weave fiction about death, but we inevitably turn the camera back on ourselves. On the very meaning of life. Because in the end, horror is mostly about what it means to be alive…and then to ultimately and quite unavoidably have to die.
In that way horror is oddly Buddhist. It embraces the reality of suffering, seeks a way to rise above pain through the release of attachment, explores the attainment of compassion and wisdom for at least one of the characters. And generally the ultimate ascension is just to release all that nonsense and try to live in the moment. And so it is with a good zombie story. Maybe it is awfully pretentious of me to read all that into one manner of telling a tale, but both horror and crime noir drag me back again and again because they both entertain me and mean something. They are about something. They touch on cruelty, temptation, courage, endurance, and facing down existential dread to finally know peace.
As for the zombie craze going on today, I’m sure glad it’s here, because all four of the The Hungry books, which I’ve coauthored with Steven W. Booth, have been a lot of fun to write. Dead and Gone had some zombies in both the novel and movie versions. PAIN was a full on zombie book, sardonic and violent and all about obsession and compulsion. Believe me, I have a lot more zombies living my head.
I think zombies, as I said earlier, somehow allow us to explore timeless human stories in a very visceral (pardon the pun) way. Our characters face the worst stuff reality can throw at them. They struggle to remain human in the face of a relentless evil. The zombie herds are not the point; they are just the situation these complex people find themselves in. T
Today, times are still tough. We face economic and cultural threats to the continued supremacy of US empire, serious economic inequality here at home, terrorism in our cities and abroad, a crumbling medical system, major social changes, legal decisions that contradict basic convictions for some people…Hell, a whole host of new fears.
So is it any wonder we’re overrun with zombies? Those seemingly inexhaustible bogeymen that never fail to teach us both who we are, and what we may yet become if we just stand firm? I love zombies. We can learn a lot from our breathing-challenged brethren. All we have to do is listen. This was fun, thanks for asking me to join in the discussion. Hey, and best of luck with the new novel!