Sunday, May 19, 2013

Apocalypse 101

For those not familiar with the story, Apocalyptic Organ Grinder is set approximately 150 years after a religious cult released a doomsday virus upon an unsuspecting world.  While the Gabriel Virus definitely drove mankind to the brink of extinction, a handful of people managed to survive. Fleeing rampant disease spread by staggering amounts of decaying bodies, they were forced to abandon the cities of the Old World and began rebuilding society in the form of small, isolated settlements.  The majority of these Settlers are still susceptible to the Gabriel Virus and a single case of infection has the potential of completely wiping out a community.

To complicate matters, there are a group of survivors who became genetic carriers of the germ. They display most of the virus’ symptoms, including blisters on the skin filled with contagion-addled pus, but cannot be killed by it.  They are, however, highly contagious to those who don’t have a natural immunity.  Because of this, they were driven out of the burgeoning settlements and forced to form primitive societies within the forests they call home.  Their very existence is seen as a threat to those who can die from the virus, so each settlement has one person designated as the protector of the populace.

These protectors are called Sweepers and their job is to patrol the wilderness and kill any infected people they find.  The meat of the novella centers around a Sweeper named Tanner Kline and a Spewer huntress called Lila. When their paths intersect, events are set into motion which rapidly spiral into a vortex of hatred and violence with the fates of each community hanging in the balance.

The book is different from other post-apocalyptic tales in that there are no good guys or bad guys,;  as one reviewer of the first edition aptly noted, “there’s just a bunch of miserable people trying to survive.”  Because I didn’t want to write a Good versus Evil story, I tried to maintain a neutral tone while working on the novella. Rather than passing judgment, I wanted readers to draw their own conclusions about these characters and the events they are swept into. Both Lila and Tanner are shown for who they are: they both have traits which are admirable, to be certain; but they are also individually marred by hatred, prejudice, and fear.

The second edition from Random House will be available next month through their sci-fi/horror ebook imprint, Hydra, and my excitement about this has reignited my interest in this particular universe.  I’ve spent most of the day working on a short story called War Driving which takes place only a few months after the survivors first fled the cities.  The Sweepers in this time period aren’t the trained killers who patrol future forests; they’re teams of armed scavengers  who make supply runs into the towns and cities, returning booty from a fallen world to a struggling community who desperately needs it.  It’s been fun to actually go into the cities, which was something I never did in Apocalyptic Organ Grinder; it’s also introduced a new group of survivors into this universe: those who chose to stay behind when the majority of those still alive left.

I find this new group interesting, because I know – in the long run – they don’t survive. A century and a half into the future only the Spewers and Settlers remain.  The ruins of the Old World are truly barren with nothing to differentiate the scattered, skeletal remains from those who’d fallen to the Gabriel Virus.  They are a doomed culture still clinging to life, willing to defend the remaining supplies to the death.

I’m not sure exactly how far War Driving will go.  Right now, I’m thinking of it as a short story. But I can easily see it turning into a full-blown prequel to Apocalyptic Organ Grinder. I think the stories would complement each other nicely.  So I’ll just have to wait and see exactly where these new characters lead me.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Canon Fodder

One of the definitions of canon -- and the one which applies most to fictional creations -- is "a body of principles, rules, standards, or norms". In many cases, canon is necessary in the literary world. For example, authorized novels set in the Star Wars universe must maintain consistency for suspension of disbelief to be sustained. In that particular reality, it is an accepted fact that the injuries leading to Darth Vader's life-support systems were the result of a duel with Obi Wan Kenobi on the fiery planet of Mustafar. This is as much a part of that universe's history as the invasion of Normandy is to ours. If an author veered from canon and claimed Vader's disfigurement came from a freak pod race accident, that work would lose authenticity to people familiar with the world and be generally disregarded (or, more likely, openly mocked and ridiculed).

So there definitely is a place for canon when different writers are creating works in a shared reality. There's also a place for canon in an author's own distinct creations. One of the quickest ways to lose a reader is to contradict your own, previously established rules. What I've never understood, however, is how some people can attempt to impose canonical rules upon a genre.

Just to be clear, I'm talking about zombie-themed fiction here. For some reason, other archetypal monsters haven't suffered this same fate. No one argues, for example, that a vampire isn't a vampire if it doesn't behave exactly like Count Dracula; no one works themselves into a frenzy because Stephen King's werewolves get "wolfier" as the moon waxes, as opposed to transforming only by the light of a full moon. Yet for some reason the walking dead are treated differently.

There are some hardliners out there who claim that your fictional creatures aren't "true" zombies unless they follow the rules set by George Romero in his classic Living Dead trilogy.  And I'm not just talking about fans of the genre, but other authors as well. To me, this is absolutely ludicrous. Why would I limit my imagination by adhering to someone else's preconceived notions of what constitutes a zombie? And, if I did, what would separate what I'd penned from fan faction? Simply because the original source material is in public domain? Because I only borrow the general ideas and not the same protagonists? Either way, the outcome remains the same... I would still be playing in someone else's sandbox.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with fan fiction. It can be a lot of fun to imagine different events stemming from your favorite books or films. But as authors we have the ability to create entire worlds to our own specifications; as artists, we have the ability to lend new perspectives and ideas to fictional realities, to make them distinctly ours. And it really does boggle my mind when I try to figure out why someone would willingly trade in that freedom.

However, even if we take creative differences out of the equation, it seems that zombie canon is an extremely subjective thing. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of an all-you-can-eat buffet where people pick and choose what they like and leave the rest behind.

For example, Romero-esque canon states that zombies don't run. They should only shamble along slowly with their true strngeth being in their numbers, not their individual speeds. People will argue this until they're blue in the face: Zombies... don'  To accept this piece of canon, you have to totally ignore the fact that the zombie who attacked Johnny in Night of the Living Dead ran after the car when Barbara was trying to get away. Was he as quick or coordinated as the sprinting undead in the remake of Dawn of the Dead? Of course not; but, by the same token, he wasn't just simply shuffling along either. If this isn't enough evidence, then re-watch the original Dawn of the Dead. Right after Ken Foree gets a cup of coffee out of the vending machine, he's attacked by a pair of zombie children.  Children who run to attack him.

Returning to the cemetery scene in Night, however, we stumble across more pieces of contradictory canon, the first being "zombies don't use tools". I'm sorry, but when the cemetery zombie was attempting to break the car window with a rock, he certainly seemed to be using a tool to me. It's not as if he just happened to be holding that stone when he stumbled across Johnny and Barbara. No, he attacked the car and when the initial assault proved futile, looked around and scrambled after something he could use to break the window. This also goes against the so-called canon stating that zombies are incapable of critical thinking. The zombie was presented with an obstacle and found a creative solution to overcome it.

One piece of proposed zombie canon, though, is pretty consistent with Romero's vision: zombies have to be reanimated corpses --anything else simply isn't a zombie. Personally, I strongly disagree with this point of view as it seems overly simplistic. To accept this line of thinking, you also have to accept that the only thing which makes us human is a beating heart and functioning pair of lungs. To me, the infected in Pontypool and 28 Days Later are undeniably zombies, even if they are technically still alive. Everything which makes them human is entirely gone; they exist only at the most base and primal levels and no longer seem to be in possession of consciousness as we know it. The person they used to be is, for all intents and purposes, dead... even if the body isn't.

Besides being a pet peeve, I think there's also an intrinsic danger in applying canon so liberally. If we all agree to only create works which strictly adhere to a set of rules governing all zombie-themed literature, the genre will quickly become stagnant. We will be subjected to the same types of characters, dealing with the same set of circumstances, and will basically write the same book again and again. We would, in essence, become the very things we write about: soulless husks going through the motions while lacking the life-giving spark of innovation and creativity. At that point, you may as well put a bullet in the genre's head, for it would truly be dead.

"When we all think alike, then no one is thinking." ~ Walter Lippmann 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

In the Presence of Gods

I discovered William S. Burroughs through a goth named Frank who lived with us for a while. He had a tattered copy of Naked Lunch with a yellow cover and so many dog-eared pages that it was impossible to tell where he’d actually left off. I remember sitting in our living room, reading this book, and being enthralled with the surreal and disjointed tale Burroughs wove. As soon I finished Naked Lunch, I bought and read Junkie, which had an introduction telling the back story of the Beat authors of the 1950s. That introduction led me to the works of Kerouac and Ginsberg, among others,  and I hungrily devoured all I could find.

One book in my collection was The Portable Beat Reader, which was an anthology of novel excerpts, short stories, poetry, essays, and correspondence between authors.  It was through this book that I was introduced to the works of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who owned and operated the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco (which, incidentally was the first all-paperback bookstore in the country). In conjunction with this, he also operated City Lights Publishers, publishing works by authors like Charles Bukowski, the aforementioned William S Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsberg.

After  the publication of Ginsberg’s masterpiece, Howl, the book (which was being imported from a printer in London) was seized by customs officials.  Following this,  Ferlinghetti  was arrested on obscenity charges, eventually being acquitted in 1957 at the end of a long trial. His successful defense of this work established an important precedent for the publication of controversial material with redeeming social importance and was a major victory for First Amendment rights. As authors and readers, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to this man.

So my excitement in learning that he would be making an appearance at the University of Charleston in  was understandable. On the appointed day, Farrell and I filed into a small room lined with folding chairs. There was a table with refreshments near the door and the walls were adorned with Ferlinghetti’s paintings and sketches. There were about forty people or so in attendance and the event kicked off with William S Burroughs phoning in from Tangiers to read some of his own work. Following this, Ferlinghetti took the stage.

At one point, he was reading a poem which contained some surreal imagery to underscore an important theme. Most of the audience completely missed the gravity behind the imagery and responded with polite laughter; for a fraction of a second, an expression of shock crossed the poet’s face as he looked out over the smiling crowd. When he returned to reading, he completely abandoned the poem; instead he improvised verses dealing with people who were distracted by spectacle without taking pause to consider underlying messages. It was biting, satirical, and amazingly brilliant. I was in awe as I watched this living legend craft his art on the fly and thought it was hysterical that the very people he was spearing with his words were as clueless as they’ d been when they originally laughed.

When the reading concluded, I approached Mr. Ferlinghetti and apologized on behalf of the audience for their misplaced laughter. He was a gracious and somewhat dapper man, thoughtful and well-spoken. We spoke briefly before he signed my copy of The Portable Beat Reader and wished me luck in my own artistic pursuits. I walked away feeling as though God had just autographed the Bible, crackling with inspiration and awe.

Constantly Risking Absurdity
By Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Constantly risking absurdity
and death
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of the day
performing entrachats
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
any thing
for what it may not be
For he's the super realist
who must perforce perceive
taut truth

before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
with gravity
to start her death-defying leap
And he
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
her fair eternal form
spreadeagled in the empty air
of existence 

Thursday, May 2, 2013


When I was 19, I lived in York, South Carolina and worked at a chemical plant. I would work four, twelve hour shifts and then be off for four days before returning for another four on.  Due to the way pay periods were structured, this meant every other check included eight hours at time and a half. Chemical Operators, even back then, get paid very well to begin ; because of this I had more money than a single 19 year old with a head full of bad ideas really needs. My bills were minimal and I owned my car outright, a dark blue Dodge 600 with high end tape deck and custom speakers. One day as I was on the way home from the grocery store, something caused a gallon of milk to leak and by the time I arrived home I had an empty jug and soaking wet floor on the passenger side. I used a wet vac to suck it all up (or so I thought), but after a day or so of baking in the hot Carolina sun, my car was flooded with the odor of curdled milk. I tried to shampoo the carpet, sprinkling it baking soda, spraying on odor neutralizer… just about everything I could think of.  The sour milk smell was stubborn though and refused to abandon its haunt, driving me to desperate measures.

I had a bottle of cherry scented air freshener that I’d picked up at Pep Boys, the idea being that you’d depress the pump a time or two to spay a mist which reminded me of the cherry tree in our yard when I was growing up. At my wit’s end, I dumped the entire bottle onto the floorboard, figuring if I couldn’t get rid of the stink then maybe I could at least mask it. At first, that old Dodge smelled like an orchard in full bloom; but over time the cherry and sour milk smells merged. As a result of this, I ended up with a vehicle which always smelled like cherry yogurt. 

Outside of my writer’s group, I didn’t have any real friends to hang out with, so I made regular trips to West Virginia to visit my cronies. Some of them would occasionally ride back with me and spend a couple weeks visiting. It was in the middle of one of these visits when an emergency arose and my guest had to return to the Mountain State immediately. I was in the middle of my weekly rotation at the plant and had just gotten home from an 8 AM to 8 PM shift, but we loaded up the car and hit the road anyway.  I made pretty decent time, stopping only when necessary and ended up dropping my friend off around 1:30 in the morning.  As soon as he was out of the car, I turned around and headed south again.

Being a six hour drive, I knew I’d be able to make it home in time to show up for my shift, but I was already extremely tired. If I’d been smart, I would called off sick the next day and got some rest… but if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have this story to tell.  No, what I decided to do was drive straight through the night, stopping only for gas and coffee.  The interstate was pretty much abandoned at this time of the morning and I thought if I took the speed limit signs as a suggestion rather than law I could make it back in time to have a little nap before work.  To help accomplish this goal, I also had a little baggie of yellow jackets.  I popped two or three, washed them down with strong coffee, and stepped on the accelerator.

I’m not exactly sure how fast I was driving, but I knew it was at least 120 miles per hour. I straddled the center line so I could take the curves without letting up on the pedal too much, rolled down the window so I was gusted with the cool night air, and cranked the stereo as loud as it would go. With The Misfits blaring through my speakers, that old Dodge rocketed through the darkness and I ended up passing through the entire state of Virginia in a mere fifteen minutes. Anytime I’d start to feel a little drowsy, I’d pop a few more yellow jackets, drink some more coffee, and slap my own face when straight stretches would allow.  At the rate I was going, I would be able to have more than just a nap when I got home… I would be able to get some honest to God sleep if I played my cards right. So I kept right on taking that speed. I couldn’t even begin to guess exactly how many I took because, in retrospect, it seems like I was popping them like Tic Tacs.

I was still a ways outside of Charlotte when the trip began to take its toll. My heart was hammering so hard it felt like it was about to break my solar plexus and my breathing came in quick, ragged pants. My hands and feet felt numb and tingly and the entire world seemed to flicker rapidly, as if I were going through REM with my eyes open. Despite having the windows rolled down as well as the air conditioner blowing cold on my face, beads of sweat trickled down my forehead and that cherry yogurt scent suddenly seemed overly sweet and nauseating.

I decided to take the next exit, get out of the car, and stretch my legs for a bit, which was probably the best decision I’d made since embarking on this journey. The exit I took lead to a four lane highway with a town about five miles or so from the off-ramp.   The first early morning commuters had just started straggling along and the further I drove, the worse I felt. Knowing I’d never make it to the town, I pulled over onto the berm, removed my seatbelt, and opened the door.

My brain told my legs to stand. My brain was used to being obeyed without question and my legs honestly thought they were capable of carrying out their mission.  Rather than standing, however, I sort of fell out of the car, toppling onto the ground in such a way that half my body was lying on the shoulder of the road and the other half was across the white line.  My brain said to push myself up with my hands, but they had involuntarily pulled in close to my chest so it looked as though I were doing an impression of a dying T-Rex. Furthermore, my legs had also contracted and I was almost in a fetal position. Again and again I tried to get my muscles to cooperate, only managing to wiggle my fingers as I rocked back and forth on the pavement.

By this time, I was really starting to freak out and I kept praying for one of the cars to stop and help me, but they only made wide arcs and continued on their way. I have no way of knowing how long I laid there, completely immobilized and only able to watch the apathetic flow of traffic stream by as if I were nothing more than road kill… but it felt like an eternity.

Finally, I heard a voice from behind me, some distance away, asking if I needed an ambulance. I tried to answer. My brain yelled , Yes! Oh God yes, please, please, PLEASE!  But my tongue felt like it had swollen, like it filled my entire mouth, blocking both sound and air, so I rocked back and forth more rapidly, hoping my Good Samaritan would recognize this as non-verbal agreement.

“I’m going to call you an ambulance, okay?”

At this point, tears began streaming down my face and once I started crying I couldn’t stop. Snot oozed from my nose and slid down my cheeks, road grit sticking to the mucus and tears, and even though I wasn’t cold, I’d begun shivering so badly that the little pebbles and stones poked and scraped at tender flesh.

Eventually the paramedics arrived. They asked me questions to which I could only shake or nod my head by way of reply. They took vitals, repeatedly shined little flashlights in my eyes, and asked me to follow it without moving my head.

Can you stand?, they wanted to know. I shook my head no, so each paramedic hooked their elbows beneath my armpits and hoisted me up. With my arms and legs still drawn up, they carried dead weight to the back of the ambulance and sat me down before wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. One of them cleaned my face while the other took my vitals again. More questions followed.

"Sir, what are you on?”

I was beginning to regain some degree of control, so I attempted an answer.

“Theed.” I could speak again, but my tongue still felt too large for my mouth, making me sound as if I had an extremely bad speech impediment. The paramedics exchanged confused glances and asked the question again.

Theed,” I repeated more emphatically, “mon theed.”

Somehow they correctly translated this into I’m on speed.  After a while, I was able to speak clearly again and my muscles lost that rigor mortis-like stiffness. They asked if I wanted to go to a hospital. I declined. So they told me there was a gas station a couple miles up the road and I should park there and get some sleep. Part of me was incredulous.  Sleep?  Sleep???  I’d eaten yellow jackets like candy, my floorboard was littered with empty coffee cups, and they honestly expected me to sleep?

The moment I laid down in the backseat, however, I knew they were correct. Consciousness was a thing rapidly speeding through a dark tunnel, the pinpoint of light at the end growing progressively smaller as if I were rushing away from the world and into the comforting darkness of my own head.  No dreams. No wavering between the checkpoints of wakefulness and the void. My taxed body simply shut down to give itself time to regain strength and energy.

True story.