Once upon a time, I was a genre snob.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a reader of a large number of genres. When I was a kid, it was fairy tales, values stories (Joy Wilt Berry), children’s encyclopedias, young adult (Cynthia Voigt, Lois Lowry), and abridged classics with pictures. In my early teen years, fairy tale reads naturally led to YA fantasy; via my dad, I discovered Alan Dean Foster’s sci-fi “Pip and Flinx” books; and the sci-fi and fantasy interests combined in Anne McCaffrey’s “Pern” stories.
Mid-teens, I discovered the YA “Point Horror” novels (R. L. Stine, Richie Tankersley Cusick, Caroline B. Cooney, and Christopher Pike, among others). Into this mix, I added legal thrillers, mysteries, and a (blessedly brief) flirtation with teen historical romances (“Sunfire,” if you must know). Thanks to my mother, I also fell in love with Shakespeare.
Around the same time, I discovered adult thrillers and horror by the likes of John Saul, Michael Crichton, and Robin Cook. Then came Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice. Not long after that, my university freshman year engendered an interest in oddities such as Ancient Egyptian love poetry. If I wasn’t already a literary omnivore, my college career sealed the deal.
I even allowed the occasional mouthful of non-fiction.
The only genre — or sub-genre — I never developed a taste for was zombies.
No pun intended.
The Good, the Bad, and the Undead
Fairies, aliens, goblins, elves, viruses, mutants, vampires, crazed supercomputers — all of those, I could handle. I’ve never been squeamish (except when it comes to eyeballs), so anything a non-literary genre could throw at me, I could catch with ease.
Goblins were never anyone’s main concern. (There were always far worse villains to deal with. Necromancers and such, y’know.) Mutants had cool superpowers. Vampires might be undead, but at least they had the potential to be attractive and “clean” (if you believe Ms. Rice and, nowadays, Ms. Meyer).
But zombies? Hmm. Rotting, animated, cannibalistic corpses? Hmm. One of those abridged classics I read as a kid was Ben Hur; and though the book’s illustrations of lepers weren’t at all graphic, my brain has never had trouble painting those black-and-white pictures in vivid color and overlaying them to any imagined image of zombies.
Locomotive decomposition. Yum. Not attractive in the least. Definitely not “clean” — by any standard.
Plus, zombies just kind of shuffle, right? They can’t move fast, it’s easy to outrun them, so how in the world is that supposed to be scary? Scoffing, I went back to my psychopathic clowns, flying lizards, and warrior elves.
The Truth Will Out
Then my friend Bryan started giving me zombie literature and saying, “Here, read this. It’s good.”
I’m an omnivore. Even if I don’t think it’ll taste good, I’ll try anything once, if someone holds it right under my nose.
And that’s the story of how I finally acknowledged my literary snobbery.
Beyond the Zombie Feast
I’ve learned a lot over the past year of my introduction to zombie lore. One of the things I’ve learned is that I was partially right about zombies: In open spaces, they’re not scary — because the normal human has plenty of room to get away. The danger lies in letting a zombie corner you someplace where you can’t maneuver.
This, of course, holds true only if you belong to the Zombies Only Shuffle school of thought. Some people believe that Zombies Move Fast, but for the sake of argument, I’m just going to assume that these people are wrong.
Anyway. No matter the speed at which the zombies move, the main lesson I have learned from my Z-indoctrination is this:
Zombie stories aren’t about the zombies and how scary they are.
Zombie stories are about the people who survive — and how those survivors deal with the collapse of their world.
Zombie literature, strangely enough, is all about psychology. It’s about people and how they think and feel. It’s about how their past either helps them live through disaster — or dooms them to insanity, death, or undeath.
Will the survivors eke out a miserable existence in fear and deprivation? Or will they find the strength to rebuild, restore, and re-create? Can they band together in fellowship and reassemble the fragments of society? Or will they degenerate along with their civilization, becoming something even more monstrous than the zombies themselves?
After all, it’s not the zombies’ fault they’re barbaric. They can’t help their selfish focus on feeding their own hunger. How much worse, when a human chooses the descent into savagery, living only for the fulfillment of personal need?
Kind of makes one wonder how many “zombies” we already have walking around today, disguised as “normal” human beings.
To boil (ha ha) it all down to one basic statement: Zombie stories aren’t about scary grossness — they’re about characters. The survivors and how they overcome or succumb to hardship: that is what zombie stories are about. And that, gentle readers, is what each of our stories should be about, no matter what our chosen genre.
Maybe you pepper your story with explosions, manic car chases, and high-noon-style showdowns. Maybe aliens land in your main character’s backyard. Maybe she opens her door one fine spring morning to see her long-lost highschool sweetheart on the porch. The necromancer is chasing your boy wizard across an open plain, and the only spell the kid remembers is one that turns rocks into butter. Your med student walks into a hospital room where Patient Zero has crashed and bled out.
It’s all terribly exciting, breath-taking, heart-stopping, adrenaline-rushing, gross, amazing, terrifying — and it means absolutely zilch-zip-nada if you don’t know who your characters are. You can confront them with as large an undead horde as you wish, but if you don’t tell the story of what motivates your characters, nobody is going to care.
Paint a wild and fantastical a background…but remember that your characters are the ones up front and in the reader’s face. Develop those characters, illustrate their details, and you’ll have your reader’s attention from start to finish, through legal dramas and zombie hordes.
And that’s WILAWriTWe!
P.S. My latest zombie read is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks.