I’m not sure where the idea for Husk came from. I was toying with a zombie private detective novel, an alternate reality that would be Romero mixed with Raymond Chandler. But I’m not at the stage of my development lit-wise where I can create a reasonable pastiche of another author’s voice. Everything I write comes out kind of snarky, which is perfectly in keeping with who I am as an individual, but would have destroyed the atmosphere I’d be aiming for.
I have always loved zombies, however, and knew that I wanted to incorporate my favourite monster into a story. Ever since I caught the George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead on late-night television (eyes clenched shut, bowels retracted in fear), I don’t think there’s been a monster that has affected me on such a primal level. I don’t include the shark from Jaws here, as that beast is in a league all its own. Not the sharks of the sequels, though; they were pretty much just painted logs menacing less and less talented actors.
This was a monster I had never encountered before. Creatures devoid of motive, creatures unable to reason with. Just appetite. As the grainy black and white undead lumbered incessantly forward, overwhelming the humans through sheer numbers, I found myself unprepared for my visceral reaction to the low-budget classic. Part of this was from setting; alone, after midnight, watching a scratchy copy on a flickering television in the dark. There is something lost, I believe, in the rush to ‘clean’ up films for DVDs and BluRays. I appreciate a clean image, but movies such as these cry out for dirt and smudged cells and poor transfers. Something this terrifying should never be clean.
From that point on, I was hooked. I forced myself to peek through my fingers at the remarkable terror that is Dawn of the Dead. I sat through the disappointing social commentary of Day of the Dead. I forced myself to watch the unnerving and nauseating works of Lucio Fulci. I goggled in disbelief as they actually ran in the shockingly decent Dawn remake, and threw up my arms as they bounced on trampolines in Steve Miner’s misbegotten rethinking of Day. I discovered the immense low-fi pleasures of The Evil Dead (and Bruce Campbell, of course). I laughed myself silly as a girl I knew in high school did her best to survive being trapped in Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead, one of my top contenders for funniest unintentional comedy ever made, even funnier than Shaun of the Dead or Fido (as well as being a remarkably awful film). I even paid good money to witness the witless Joe Piscopo battle zombie criminals in Dead Heat.
There’s something pure and unspoiled in the classic zombie (‘classic’ here defined by Romero standards). They’re horrifying and yet they gain our sympathy because, on some level, they are still us. You battle a zombie, you battle yourself; just look at NOTLD as the humans battle each other with as much ferocity as the zombies outside the house. They’re the perfect villain on both a physical gut-wrenching horror level and a sub-textual level. Zombies are such empty vessels that they can be made avatars for literally anything. They can represent consumerism, or mob mentality, or political ideology, or sexual repression. A good zombie film will scare and disgust you; a great one will make you think afterward. Sadly, there aren’t many great ones about, with even Romero himself visiting the well a few times too often — Land of the Dead has some great moments, but Diary of and Survival of are pretty poor (Diary especially).
Yet the inherent problem with the zombie from a character standpoint is that they’re ultimately, well, rather boring. There’s no development possible in a brain-dead skin sack that eats anything in its path. They’re great as mass unthinking evil, not so great as riveting character studies. At best, they are shadows of their former selves, locked in routine.
So if you want to make a zombie your protagonist, particularly in book form, you’re by necessity going to have to make a few concessions to classic literary theory and actually bequeath unto your monster a personality. You’ll need to tweak the myth at points, bend it at others, and break it completely apart when need be. Otherwise, the book will be nothing but groaning and lurching and eating and more groaning and more lurching. Horrifying for ten minutes. Deadly dull for the rest.
Up next: how to tweak a zombie