S.G. Browne

There was a time, for about three years or so after the publication of my first novel, Dead City, that I could sincerely claim to have seen every zombie movie ever made and read every zombie novel published in English.  Since that time the genre has grown so large that even the most hardened zombie fan would be hard pressed to make that claim.  But for a while it was true for me.  And for me, one of my favorite early discoveries came in the summer of 2009 with a wonderfully inventive and darkly funny novel called Breathers.

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I’ll be honest.  What stood about the book was not the title, or the clever and interesting description of the story, but simply the author’s last name.  Browne.  Spelled with an “e” at the end.  One of my favorite writers is a man named Sir Thomas Browne, a contemporary of Shakespeare.  Sir Thomas Browne wrote very learnedly and objectively about the many terrors of the night, and I still from time to time go back to his monographs on those terrors for inspiration.  And here was a zombie writer who shared the same spelling of the name.  It was a foolish thing to latch onto, but I believe life is full of such foolish coincidences, and the wise person learns to take note.  So I moved Breathers to the top of my To Be Read Pile and have been a Scott G. Browne fan ever since.

For those of you who don’t know him, Scott is the author of the novels Breathers (2009), Fated (2010), and Lucky Bastard (2012), as well as the novella I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus (2012) and the e-book short story collection Shooting Monkeys in a Barrel (2012).

He was born in Arizona and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, spending most of his formative years in Fremont, California, as well as a short stint on the island of Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, two-thousand miles southwest of Hawaii. From 1984 to 1989 he attended the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, where he majored in business organization and management and eventually realized that he wanted to be a writer.

After college, he moved to Hollywood, where he worked as a driver and an assistant producer doing post-production work on television spots and theatrical trailers for the Disney Studios. In 1992, he moved to Santa Cruz, California, where he lived for fourteen years writing novels and short stories and working as an office manager. In 2006 he completed his fourth novel, Breathers, which would become his first published novel in March 2009.

His writing has been influenced by Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, Christopher Moore, Kurt Vonnegut, and the films of Charlie Kaufman and Wes Anderson, among others.

In addition to writing, he enjoys biking, golfing, tai chi, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. He currently lives in San Francisco.

And here he is, ladies and gentlemen, Scott G. Browne!

 

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?

Scott G. Browne:  I always like the idea of flipping things around and wondered what if would be like if I were the zombie instead of the human. But rather than your stereotypical mindless, shambling zombie with an obsession for human flesh, I was a sentient reanimated corpse with no rights who was gradually decomposing. I wondered how society would treat me. What my parents would think. If I could join a bowling league. These were the questions that compelled me. When you think about it, most zombie fiction is about humans and how they deal with the problem of zombies. My stories are about zombies and how they deal with the problem of humans.

JM:  The zombie apocalypse is happening right now.  Are you prepared?  Would humanity win?

SB:  I am definitely not prepared. I live in San Francisco and I don’t even have an earthquake emergency kit, so chances are I’m not on Darwin’s short list. And I’m not overly optimistic that humanity would win. We have a lot of issues and once the zombie apocalypse happens, I’m guessing everyone who needs therapy is going to implode.

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.)

SB:  This Dark Earth by John Hornor Jacobs. It had a unique narrative structure with compelling characters and beautiful prose.  It felt as real as anything I could imagine and was one of those rare novels that made me wish I’d written it.

JM:  What’s your favorite zombie kill scene of all time?

SB:  The splinter-through-the-eye scene in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (aka Zombi 2). I saw that film at the theater when I was fourteen in a double bill with Scanners and the scene has always stuck with me.

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?

SB:  I’ve heard it said that the popularity of zombies is a direct reflection of our global fears about the economy and terrorism. Maybe it is, but I didn’t write Breathers or I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus out of any concern about Wall Street or Al-Qaeda. I dealt more with the concepts of prejudice and discrimination and civil rights. So I’m probably not tapped into the pulse of the nation on this one. You ask me, I think the current popularity of zombies is telling us that we’re tired of vampires and that we’re just not ready for the idea of a werewolf apocalypse. 

Check out Scott’s books here, and his website here

Oh yeah, and while you’re shopping Scott’s books, don’t forget to pre-order your copy of my next zombie novel, The Savage Dead.

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Scott Kenemore

Scott Kenemore can deliver a joke that keeps chuckling to yourself all day.  I like that about his writing.  I have been a fan of his “Zen of Zombie” Series for a few years now, and his dry, smooth wit has yet to disappoint.  More than that, in fact, it’s kept me coming back to his books again and again.

But the high water mark, for me, came with his companion volumes, Zombie, Ohio, and Zombie, Illinois.  Scott Kenemore knows the Midwest, from its rural farm belt to its big city corruption.  He puts on an effortless display of social commentary and personal empathy with every line he writes, and I for one have found it hard to keep away from what he writes.  And when people ask for my favorite zombie writers, I give them a short list that invariably has Scott Kenemore’s name on it.

But what really interests me about Scott is the depth and warmth of his personal correspondence.  I wish I could share the emails Scott and I have traded over the years, for he really is a genuinely wonderful man.  Perhaps those of you who have known someone almost entirely through their letters can appreciate how special an email or Facebook message can seem from that person.  If you are one such lucky person, I bet you get how I have developed a friendship with Scott Kenemore, though we live thousands of miles apart and have met face to face only twice. He’s a unique talent in the zombie genre, and one who truly deserves the title of zombie master.

Please welcome Mr. Scott Kenemore, writer and all around great guy.

 

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?

Scott Kenemore:  I expect I’m mostly known for a zombie humor book called The Zen of Zombie, and a horror novel called Zombie, Ohio.  I started writing satirical books about zombies, and moved into horror fiction from there.  As perhaps this tells you, I really enjoy the silly, comic aspects of zombies, and I enjoy using them in social satire.

JM:  The zombie apocalypse is happening right now. Are you prepared? Would humanity win?

SK:  My money is on the zombies.  If the zomb-pocalypse were occurring this moment, I would retreat to the roof of my building with some Molotov cocktails.  I think it would be fun to catch a bunch of zombies on fire down below me.  (Although I’d be well aware that any resultant amusement would be fleeting.)

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.)

SK:  This is a great question.  I’ll forever have a strong connection to the Romero films like Day of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead that first got me into zombies.  That said, Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead remains my favorite zombie film of all time.  It’s a rollicking mix of horror and humor, effectively scary, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. I can’t say enough good things about it.  I think my favorite zombie short stories are “What Maisie Knew” by David Liss, and “Pigeons From Hell” by Robert E. Howard.

JM:  What’s your favorite zombie kill scene of all time?

SK:  My favorite zombie-killing-a-person scene would probably be when Allan Trautman’s Tarman Zombie kills Suicide in Return of the Living Dead with a gruesome bite to the brain.

My favorite person-killing-a-zombie scene would probably be any of the action sequences from Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive involving Father McGruder.  (Although, does he actually “kill” zombies, or only beat them up a bunch?  That may be debatable…)

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?

SK:  I feel like every time I think I know the answer to this question, something changes my mind again.  However, answers that—at one time or another—have seemed to work for me include zombies as a statement about mindless consumerism, zombies as a comment on mob culture and mass hysteria, zombies as an inquiry into the mysterious nature of life after death, and zombies as a reminder of the tenuous and easily-overturned systems that hold modern society together.  Zombies, simply by being what they are, posit that the world could be a very, very different place.  They are agents of change, and harbingers of delightfully bad news.

Scott Kenemore, ladies and gentlemen.  One of my favorites in the genre.  Check out his books here, and if you want more, and I think you will, go here to check out his website.

Stephen Knight

The Zombie Masters Series rolls on as we continue the countdown to the release of my next zombie novel, The Savage Dead, and with me today is Mr. Stephen Knight, one of self-publishing’s huge success stories and one of the genre’s finest writers.  Nobody does military zombie fiction with as much authority, or with the same depth of characterization.  Stephen Knight is, simply put, in a class by himself.

He’s the author of the bestselling zombie apocalypse tale The Gathering Dead and the follow-up novella Left With The Dead.  But he’s far from a one trick pony.  He’s also written the horror thriller City of the Damned and the action-adventure Hackett’s War. And, together with Derek Paterson, he wrote the erotic thriller White Tiger. Knight currently lives in the New York City area, but ought to hurry up getting back to Texas.

I was extremely lucky to land my first novel with a major publisher.  It got me good exposure and great distribution.  For that I am incredibly thankful.  But the more my career develops, the more cognizant I am of the wonderful opportunities present in self-publishing.  I have watched industrious writers like Stephen Knight soar into the public eye by taking control over every aspect of their writing, from story craft to formatting to pricing.  I envy that degree of control.

That’s one small reason why I recently agreed to enter into a fantastic new writing project with Stephen Knight and Craig DiLouie.  We are going to be doing a series of six novellas (of about 40,000 words each) called The Retreat.  Here’s what Craig DiLouie had to say about The Retreat on his website.

As a new disease turns people into sadistic, laughing killers, in Boston, a battalion of light infantry struggles to maintain order. As the numbers of infected grow, the battalion loses control, and the soldiers find themselves fighting for their lives against the very people they once swore an oath to protect.

During the ensuring collapse, the lost battalion learns the Army is still holding out in Florida, which has been cleared of the Infected. Harry Lee, its commander, decides the only hope for his men is to get there. But first they must cross more than a thousand miles of America that has been turned into a war zone, fighting a fearless, implacable and merciless enemy.

The first two episodes will be published in the fall. Stay tuned for this exciting new series!”

But until then, enjoy this conversation with one of my favorite zombie writers, Mr. Stephen Knight!

 

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?

Stephen Knight:  Well, let’s see…so far, I’ve released five zombie-theme works: The Gathering Dead, Left with the Dead, The Rising Horde: Volume 1 and Volume 2, and a short story that takes place in the same universe called “The Farm.” All of them deal with the military response to the reanimated dead, because that’s pretty much missing in most of the books and virtually all the films out there. How could this nation’s peerless military simply give up and be overwhelmed? In The Walking Dead, there are tanks and everything lying around, but no indication that there were any major fights, no containment operations, no nothing. I set out to change that a little bit.

My usual approach to the genre is to take the best people suited to handle the zombie apocalypse, throw them into the mix, and then watch as they slowly unravel with their backs against the wall.

JM:  The zombie apocalypse is happening right now.  Are you prepared?  Would humanity win?

SK:  I have to answer this one in two parts. If I’m in New York City, then I’m majorly screwed. Unless I’m really smart and figure out things are hitting the fan early and vamanos while there’s still time, I might make it. But chances are good that wouldn’t happen. In a metropolitan area like New York, everything’s already difficult to begin with—throwing in the zombie apocalypse would send the city right off the rails in no time at all.

But if I’m at my other home in Connecticut, then yeah, I’m in great shape. Weapons. Food. Access to a boat, which I can use to get out into Long Island Sound. Also access to a plane with a range of around 700 miles. And even though it’s a very densely-populated region of the country, it’s not millions of people in a vertical environment like NYC, so the chances of surviving are quite a bit better, even for a slouch like myself.

But would humanity win? Yes, I think so. Mankind is just too tough to kill without an asteroid hitting the planet or a plague of nanites sweeping through us.

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.)

SK:  I liked World War Z simply because it was an interesting approach to the apocalypse. Craig DiLouie’s Tooth and Nail and The Infection are my biggest favorites, because they track well with my own work, and anything that deals with the military response is always kind of fun to read, especially when it’s as well-informed as Craig’s work is. Mountain Man was a whole different spin on the genre, what with the hero being a hermitic alcoholic, and a Canadian at that. But honestly, I’m remarkably under-read in the genre—there are dozens of titles out there I haven’t read yet, and some I have that aren’t good enough to mention.

Movies are different, I watch a lot of those. Romero’s groundbreaking work, of course, I saw all but the first one in the theater. The remake of Dawn of the Dead was very exciting, and one of the first inspirations that made me want to get around to The Gathering Dead. 28 Days Later was pretty darn good, too.

JM:  What’s your favorite zombie kill scene of all time?

SK:  I think when Cillian Murphy beaned a priest zombie in the head with a plastic bag full of Pepsi cans has to rank as number one. (Though I don’t know if that counts as a kill.)

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?

SK:  That we need more meat in our diet. And that it’s unfortunate that vegans run slower than the rest of us.

Make sure and check out Stephen Knight’s books here and his website here.

Questions about Dead City?

Quite a few readers have written to me with questions about my novels Dead City and Apocalypse of the Dead, so I thought it would be helpful to write a reader’s guide to the whole Dead World series. You can find it in the headings listed across the top of this webpage under “A Reader’s Guide to Dead World.”

I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, while at the same time providing some useful information. Of course, I can’t anticipate every question, so if there’s something special you want to know, just ask it in the comments section on that page. I won’t worry about spoilers in my answers back to you.

Enjoy!

Joe McKinney’s DEAD CITY is one of those rare books that starts fast and never EVER lets up. From page one to the stunning climax this book is a rollercoaster ride of action, violence and zombie horror. McKinney understands the genre and relies on its strongest conventions while at the same time adding new twists that make this book a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended!
–Jonathan Maberry, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Ghost Road Blues and Dead Man’s Song

I enjoyed Dead City. It was a quick, fun read. I also thought McKinney did a fine job of realistically portraying the police officers and keeping their world accessible to “civilians”. Not always an easy balance, but he pulled it off.
–Brian Keene, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rising, City of the Dead, and Dead Sea

Dead City is a real thrill for the reader, jam-packed with fast driving, shooting, desperate stand-offs and lots of blood. McKinney, a San Antonio homicide detective by trade, writes with an authenticity that brings the events of “Dead City” to bloody, grasping life.
–Matt Staggs, Editor of Skullring.org

Tight writing…is what makes Dead City seem frighteningly possible. I like to have chills race up and down my spine, and I like to have to look over my shoulder to make sure I’m safe, and his writing had me feeling this way the entire time I was reading … and even after I’d finished the book!
–Phillip Tomasso III for In the Library Reviews

From the very first page of this urban thriller, Joe McKinney puts the cuffs on his readers and throws away the key. Gritty suspense, great characters, and very real cops. You’re gonna like this guy.
–Tom Monteleone, author of The Blood of the Lamb and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel

Plague Dogs

The cover for Potter's Field 3

Plague Dogs
By Joe McKinney

If they’d come a few minutes earlier the dogs would have surprised him in the bedroom, kneeling next to the bed, muttering his goodbyes to his dead wife. They’d have found a middle-aged man in shabby clothes, dirty gray hair hanging in curtains over his face, his expression ashen with grief. He would have been unarmed. They could have torn him to pieces. But they came too late, and when they broke out of the treeline and into his weed patch backyard Mark Vogler was already on his feet and headed for the kitchen, where he had moved most of his tools.

At first there were only two of them, both mangy and feral, but there were almost certainly more moving around in the dense cedar thicket that lined the yard. The dogs were part of the pack that had been trying to get at him for the last week, chewing holes in the boards he had nailed over his windows and doors, baying in the night, melting into the cedar thicket that surrounded his house like ghosts when he got drunk enough to stagger onto the back deck and take pot shots at them with his pistol.

Now, numb with grief, but not as numb as he thought he’d be, he leaned his forehead against a gap in the boards and watched the dogs charging the house. He wasn’t afraid, and he found that funny. He tried to tell himself that he should be afraid, that this time the dogs would smell death inside the house and keep at it till they got inside, but instead all he could think about was how long it had been since he’d slept last. What was it, two nights? Three?

He coughed. Yeah, he thought, it’s mutated all right. I’ve got a day left, maybe two.

“You need to do it if you’re gonna do it,” he said.

He grabbed an old Ruger pistol he kept on the counter and ran his finger over the trigger. The gun was a .357 with a blued barrel and walnut grips, nothing fancy, but solid and reliable.

Probably the last solid and reliable thing left in this world.

His eyes snapped to a loose corner of the plywood board he’d nailed over the back door. A Doberman, its muzzle streaked with blood, one eye clouded to a pale milky pink from a recent fight, was forcing its head and shoulders inside.

“Aren’t you the smart one?” Vogler said. “I didn’t see you.”

Ropes of saliva and flecks of foam flew from the dog’s bloody mouth. There was a stuttering growl rising in its throat, and its one remaining eye rolled in its socket with a feral intensity that only hunger could create.

He put the business end of the Ruger against the side of the dog’s head and, doing his best Dirty Harry, said, “Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you?”

He fired, and then everything the animal had ever known and experienced sprayed out across the rainwater-sodden floor.

“Guess not.”

He stood there looking at the mostly headless corpse of the dog and he thought about what an animal knows, what its memory is like. This one looked four, maybe five years old. That meant it might have started its life as someone’s pet, though that phase of its life would have ended quickly. It might not even remember what life as someone’s pet was like, the regular meals, the occasional belly scratch. Most of its life had been spent feral, roaming the ruins of San Antonio with the packs, feeding on the detritus of a gone world.

The clicking of claws on the terracotta tiles of the back patio pulled his attention away. Both of the dogs he had seen earlier were there now, their sinewy bodies weaving through the rusted remains of his lawn furniture.

Vogler moved fast. He kicked the boards off the back door. They tumbled away easily with the Doberman’s weight to pull them down. The next moment he was through the door, his weapon trained on the lead dog. Vogler fired, turned, then fired again at the second animal. The first collapsed instantly from a solid head shot. The second fell back with a whimper, veined bubbles forming and popping at the hole in the side of its chest.

He kept the weapon trained on the second animal, waiting for it get back up, but it didn’t. It stared at him, panting, and he stared back at it, waiting for that exact moment when the dog’s life left its body.

He was looking at the dog, but he was thinking of Margaret, his dead wife. His grief was real, that much he knew, but he felt like he was too shallow to grieve her the way she deserved to be grieved. She had loved him honestly, despite all his years of self-absorption and putting his career before her, despite his ability to convince himself that providing for her was the same thing as loving her, and that made him wonder if his grief was for her passing, or for himself having to live without her.

He thought, Oh Jesus, am I that shallow? I am, aren’t I?

Vogler looked up at the tree line. The rest of the pack had come out of the trees. They were standing inside what had once been his yard, the fur bristling down their backs. None of them barked. The feral ones didn’t do that.

“Get out of here!” he yelled.

They didn’t move. They didn’t even flinch.

“Get!”

He ran down the steps and into the yard, screaming at them and waving his arms in the air like some mad prophet coming down from the hills to announce the end of days.

All but one of the dogs ran. It was a short-haired lab with a scar down the left side of its muzzle and the dirt and blood on its flanks was so thick that Vogler couldn’t tell what color it had once been.

“You better run, you son of a bitch,” he said.

But the dog just stared at him. Vogler raised the pistol and closed one eye and put the front sight square on the dog’s head and pulled the trigger.

The gun blast echoed through the surrounding hills, and when the noise was gone, Vogler wondered at how quiet it was here at the end of the world. Like a graveyard on a Sunday morning.

***

He couldn’t catch his breath as he remounted the stairs and went back inside. In the darkened kitchen he stood with one hand over his heart, trying to will himself to breathe. And then he coughed. He coughed hard, again and again, and each hack felt like something was inside him, trying to claw its way out. When the coughing finally subsided he steadied himself against a granite counter top that had been the finest money could buy not so many years ago, before the San Antonio flu and the military quarantine and all the useless madness that had come with those times. He stared at the light fixture above the empty floor where their dining room table had once stood. The room seemed to swell and contract, swell and contract, like he was standing inside a giant lung, and he thought he was going to vomit. Vogler had been a surgeon in the early days of the flu, and he’d heard patients describe this exact feeling, the same nausea-inducing hallucinations, the shortness of breath, and he knew what was coming. Another six or eight hours and his lips would start to take on the blueberry stain of cyanosis as his lungs filled with fluid and he drowned to death in his own blood and snot.

And then he remembered the pistol in his hand. Vogler looked down at it then and was surprised to see it was still there.

“Just make sure you save yourself a bullet,” he said, and was mildly amused at how easy the decision to use the gun on himself was to make.

He wondered what it was going to taste like, the soot-stained metal.

Vogler stepped outside again to see if the pack had returned, but the yard was empty. He leaned against the porch railing and let his mind drift. Behind him stood an eight thousand square foot monstrosity, a moldering Mediterranean-style villa that had been his dream home ten years ago when he built it for Margaret. It stood on top of a low, domed hill, commanding a view of other hills, other mansions. They were all wrecks now–all that remained of what had once been the Dominion, San Antonio’s wealthiest neighborhood. Looking to the south, he saw the city skyline and the yellowish, hazy dust that rose from it. Those streets were crowded with the mummified corpses of the victims of H2N2, the San Antonio Flu.

He turned away.

There was an obligation waiting for him inside. Margaret, in the dying moment of clarity that had penetrated her fever, had asked him to bury her next to their son in the soft dirt beneath the old oak in the front lawn.

He had promised her he would.

“Promise me you will,” she’d said, trying to sit up, trying to grab his arm, but unable to do either. “Tell me you will. Promise me.”

At first he thought she repeated herself because of the fever. Maybe she wasn’t thinking clearly. But then he saw the look on her face and he knew different. He knew her mind was as sharp as ever.

Twenty-five years earlier, right after completing his residency, his head swollen with pride at his accomplishment, there had been a nurse, a sexy brunette with brown eyes and small breasts and graceful hips. A short, white hot affair had followed. He ended it when Margaret found them out. And then, as she made him promise to bury her body next to their son’s, he had seen an echo of the doubt and mistrust that had plagued their marriage during the decade after that affair. He felt its sudden return now like a knife in the gut.

He went to the bedroom, and with a great deal of difficulty, for the coughing had returned, he shouldered her shrouded corpse and a shovel and headed for the old oak tree in the front yard to do his widower’s duty.

***

He dug for two hours, listening by turns to the slice and crunch of the shovel cutting into the earth and the snarls and yaps of the pack that was circling around him.

He touched the pistol in the waistband of his jeans and felt reassured by it. When he was done, he was going to lie down on the other side of his son’s grave and eat the gun.

“It’ll be like it used to be,” he said to the simple cedar post marker at the head of his son’s grave. The boy had been twenty years old when he died, but at that moment, Vogler thought of him as he had been many years earlier, a four year old child coming downstairs in the middle of the night to climb in bed between his parents.

Vogler wiped the sweat out of his eyes and went back to digging. Despite the coughing, despite the knowledge that there wouldn’t be anybody to throw earth on top of him when he was done, he had a sense that the labor was a good thing, that he was making good on the most important promise he had ever made. It felt good to sweat. The stiffness in his lower back felt good. The pain was honest, and Margaret deserved that. After all the years and all the troubles, she deserved something honest from him.

***

Later, when the hole was finished and the body was put inside and he had said all he could say in words to a woman who had shared his life with him and given so much of herself to him, he began to shovel the dirt back in.

So absorbed was he with his work, so overheated by the unaccustomed exertion, that he failed to hear the big black dog loping through the grass towards him.

He didn’t so much as hear the dog as feel the weight of its stare on his back. And when he did finally feel that weight he spun around on his heels and let out a startled cry at the charging black mass of fur and teeth.

The dog leapt at his face and knocked him down and tore into him. Vogler put his hands up to keep the dog’s teeth away from his throat and they fought, not as man and dog, but as two wild things whose only weapons were the muscles and the fists and the teeth they were born with.

Vogler managed to get one hand in the dog’s mouth and grabbed onto its lower jaw. The dog’s teeth shredded the palm of his hand, but Vogler wouldn’t let go. He twisted the jaw and the dog went down. But even then, even with the dog on the ground, whining in pain, Vogler refused to let go. He pushed the dog’s head up and away, exposing the throat. Vogler threw punch after punch into the soft flesh of the dog’s throat. “You go to hell, you son of a bitch!” he roared, screaming the words with the rage of one who has seen the world around him die and has been unable to do a damned thing about it, even for all the wealth and power that had once been his to command.

The dog convulsed under the blows, raking at Vogler’s belly with his back claws in a futile attempt to save himself. But there was no stopping Vogler’s attack. As a civilized man, he had farther to fall to reach that savage state where only survival mattered, and when he did finally make that fall, when the protective veneer of reason and humanity fell away and there was nothing left but the bright burning spark of primal rage inside him, he proved to be the stronger. He sank his teeth into the dog’s throat and tasted the fur and then the blood as the dog’s life leaked from its veins and down to the corners of Vogler’s mouth.

The dog kicked once, twice more before it died, and with that last kick snagged the trigger guard of the Ruger and pulled it from Vogler’s waistband. Vogler was bent over forward so that he couldn’t feel the gun leave its seat. But he did hear it go off, and he did feel the bullet punch into his belly and go tearing through his organs like a boy with a stick who has rammed the pointed end down into a fire ant mound and stirred it till nothing but an angry mess remains. That was what his belly felt like. That was what the pain of being shot in the gut felt like.

Vogler coughed in disbelief, then pitched over, face down in the soft black dirt beneath the oak tree. He lay there, trying to catch his failing breath, his eyes growing darker by the second and his skin crawling with sudden cold till it seemed he was the only being left alive on the barren, bald tip of the world, the blackness of space all around him. The thought passed through his mind that in the time before the world died of the flu he had been a surgeon, the head of a hospital…a wealthy man…a married man…a father. And now, he was a dying man, and none of it counted anymore because now he was none of those things. Now, he was merely a tree falling in the woods, unseen. Unheard.

The dogs closed in on him. He could hear them, he could hear their excited panting and their slobbering jowls slopping together, and he knew what was coming. Though he couldn’t see, he could still feel, and he could feel hot breath and wet teeth on his fingertips, the teeth pulling at the skin, almost gingerly but for their sharpness, taking a hesitant first taste of the flesh.

THE END

“Plague Dogs” originally appeared in Potter’s Field 3, published by Sam’s Dot Publishing, 2009. The anthology was edited by Cathy Buburuz.

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