Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In the land of zombies

Recently, I watched a movie called ZOMBIELAND staring Woody Harrelson and Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine). It was a fun movie with lots of laughs and clever moments like the “Zombie kill of the week” involving a grand piano, and a guest appearance by Bill Murray who played himself. Sadly, he was accidently shot and killed. Those things tend to happen in zombie movies. I’m not a zombie fan, but I enjoyed this movie.

zl1 I think it takes a lot of guts to write about zombies or vampires or werewolves. That’s because I consider those topics to be “box” stories. I feel that the moment you write the first word of a zombie story, you have placed yourself in a box. It’s hard to make a zombie more disgusting; everyone on the planet already knows how disgusting they are. Just like it’s a challenge to make a vampire more vile or a werewolf more dangerous. It’s sort of like writing about Jeffery Dahmer’s hearty appetite. You’re making the tough job of writing even tougher. The secret to great zombie stories is not the zombies, it’s the characters that must struggle to survive. Characters make the story. After all, George Lucas could have easily changed Luke Skywalker’s name to Frodo Baggins, set the story in a place called The Shire, changed the name from Star Wars to . . .well, you get the point. It would have been the same basic story because what matters are the characters, not the setting.

We don’t get to pick which one-page submissions we critique, our fearless founder Kathryn Lilley hands them out to each of us. So I may not be the best choice to comment on a zombie story simply because I don’t read them. But I can comment on the writing. And my comments follow today’s one-page anonymous submission called RUE.

They say that a person’s first memory shapes its being.

My first memory was of pain. Incredible, unending pain, beyond any possibility of relief. I tried to scream. There was no breath in my lungs to scream with, and besides, there were...things. In my throat, and in my nose. I couldn’t even think, the pain was so bad.

After a moment, or it might have been an eternity, the pain pulled back some, and I was able to grip the things – tubes, like the ones my grandmother had had in her mouth near the end (grandmother? I couldn’t remember the woman’s face, only that she had died in a hospital) and pull them out. That hurt too.

Once I was sitting upright and reasonably awake, I became aware of the hunger. It was terrible, a deep painful gnawing in my gut. I was starving.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” I called. My voice echoed out into the hospital, but there was no other sound. And there it was, the thing that had been bothering me: it was too quiet. I had been in hospitals before, and they were noisy places, polluted with the sounds of blood pressure machines and the many, many other things humans use to keep death at bay for just a little while longer.

So I got out of the bed. My feet hurt, but no more than anything else, and they would carry me. There was nobody in the hospital – or at least, nobody I could find. I kept thinking I could hear voices, just around the next corner, or the next...

I found the cafeteria, though, and helped myself. Eating with my hands like a savage I emptied three huge serving bowls of lasagne that had seen better days. It didn’t really help much. I was still starving.

I went on. It was about then that the first zombie found me. It had been a doctor once, I think. It wasn’t anymore. It was just a mindless...thing, and it was hungry. My first impression of it was confused. Lab-coat, once white, now a sort of greyish brown. Grey skin. Hair falling out in clumps, and eyes that saw nothing. And over it all a deep black chasm of hunger, laced with hopeless screams. That’s one thing the living were fortunate not to know. The walking dead are still aware. Trapped, helpless in their decaying bodies, the soul of each zombie screams endlessly for some kind of release, bound about by the endless consuming hunger of the undead.

This is a pretty good beginning although I was a bit thrown by the first line indicating this was “My first memory”. I immediately pictured an infant with a phenomenal awareness. But reading on made it clear that it was an adult or young adult. The sex is unknown.

There’s conflict right off the bat with the medical impediments and the unnerving isolation in what should be a busy place. I think it’s over-written and just needs a good, swift kick with a red pen. But overall, I’m going to assume a zombie fan would keep reading to find out if this person makes it out of the hospital. In reality, isn’t that the plot of all zombie stories?

One advantage to writing a zombie story is that the basic conflict is built-in and comes with the territory. We know there’s going to be danger around every corner and the protagonist will probably get few moments to take a breather. So overall, I’ll give this submission a B-. Get out the editing pen, clean it up, delete all the unnecessary words, and the author will have a good start here.

What do you zombie and non-zombie fans think? Would you keep reading?

Download FRESH KILLS, Tales from the Kill Zone to your Kindle or PC today.


  1. I'd change the last paragraph from narrative summary to scene. Instead of telling us this is a zombie, etc., show us this moment unfolding beat by beat. Let the reader experience what the narrator experiences.

  2. I had the exact same response to the first sentence, which suggests the author might want to rethink it. Overall, though, I think it's pretty good and a bit unnerving. But I don't think the writer wants to confuse readers with the first two or three sentences.

    As for zombies, I've never understood the appeal. That said, my oldest son and I watched Zombieland and loved it, which surprised me a lot. But it was all about the humor and characters, not the zombies.

  3. I would rather watch a zombie movie than read a book about them. Imho, Zombies wouldn't be interesting protags since they're brain dead creatures and wouldn't have an inner dialog much less a character arc. With apologies to the writer of the excerpt (I had no complaints about your style!) I wouldn't be interested in reading a story like that.

    Although, I've been told that Pride and Prejudice with Zombies was a fairly good book. But then again, the zombies weren't the protags.

  4. I think this piece shows a lot of promise. I love the tension and the sense of place. It's very, very creepy.

    I do think that the author squanders a lot of drama when he says something like, "the first zombie arrived . . ." That's the sort of realization that I think should dawn slowly, and the reader should feel every horrifying step. I'm assuming, because of the protagonist's insatiable hunger, that he is likewise a zombieoid creature, which is another chilling image coming down the line.

    The only line that threw me in this piece was "my feet hurt . . . they would carry me." In my first reading, I took "they" as another person, not as the feet. Just something to think about.

    As to the popularity of zombie literature, a good friend of mine just signed a 7-figure deal for a YA zombie series. I say keep writing!

    John Gilstrap

  5. Good suggestion, Jim. Suspense is the key.

    I’m with you, Mark. But it’s hard to argue with the endless success of the horror genre.

    Michelle, I’m not sure that the protag is a zombie. I think the author might want to make that clearer.

    John, I agree. Seven-figure deals are almost unheard of these days. Let’s hear it for the living dead!!

  6. I have a bias against zombies as a species in literature, but I might be interested in reading about them if they're portrayed in a way that makes them seem fresh (an oxymoron when it comes to zombies, I know), and distinct from bad 50's movies. I think this first page conveys a sense of tension, and I'd keep reading to see what happens next. The narrator doesn't seem surprised to see a zombie, so I'm assuming he'll fill us in with the background on the next page.

  7. Best Zombie novel I read was just released - Dead Beyond the Fence -
    It's so good.

    I'd read more of this one.

  8. Got to see that movie - can't work out why my son doesn't want to. All my zombie reads are books he's recommended to me.

  9. I think the author very cleverly sets up a clue that the POV character is either partly or wholly a zombie already, and doesn't know it, and if so, introduces a new element into the genre (something hard to do)-- how it feels to be a zombie.

    If we knew each of those shambling, hungry messes were in deep pain, felt the hunger the way they felt it, well, it would put me back in Shaun of the Dead or Night of the Living Dead territory (a great thing!).

    If that's not what the author meant, then I'll be disappointed when I realize it was just a throwaway (i.e. he was in the hospital for unrelated-to-zombie reasons).


  10. Anon 10:16. That’s the built-in problem with zombies. They are what they are.

    Anon 4:00. Thanks for the recommendation. I still don’t think I’ll take you up on it, though.

    HBM, I wonder if the new health care program will cover zombie-like symptoms?

  11. "I wonder if the new health care program will cover zombie-like symptoms?"

    If they're union members, yes.

  12. Love the humor, Joe and John~

    My impression of the main character was that s/he was actually a vampire by the description of hunger, loss of memory, etc. It actually reminded me of reading the Twilight series, which are written from Bella's perspective, when she turned into a vampire. Though, of course, zombies are driven by hunger as well.

    So, I have some of the same questions as the rest of you.

    BTW, I know that Vampires and Werewolves often appear in the same works but has anyone ever (successfully) married a Vampire/Zombie or Werewolf/Zombie story?

  13. Daniel -- that's what I thought too, but omitting mention of fangs was a material misstatement if so :)

  14. The protagonist is a Zombie. Now that is original. I'd read a few more pages.

  15. Agreed, John. Whoever does something first or best gets noticed. A zombie protagonist definitely fits that bill.

  16. Hi there everyone! I'm the one who wrote this piece :-)

    @Joe Moore: Thanks for doing the critique even though you don't read the genre - and thanks for the red-pen advice :-D I employ a little sister with a hate for long sentences to help with that.

    @John Gilstrap: Thanks for the positive feedback! The first zombie's appearance has been worrying me and I'm working on it. The feet thing I never noticed. Hmmm.
    And you guessed right! Rue is in fact a zombie, but a whole new kind of zombie. She doesn't know it yet, though.

    @Hard Boiled: You think the setup was clever? Wow, go me!

    @Daniel Smith: Sorry. Nobody here but us zombies... I think the Anita Blake novels have zombies, vampires and werewolves, although the zombies are pretty much only there for about twenty pages in the entire series.

    Thank you all for your incredibly useful feedback (especially thanks to the people who said they would read more). You're all AWESOME!

    Bernice Mills
    South Africa