Be My Victim: John Skipp – Zombies, A Festival of Decay or a Festival in Decay? Pt. 2
This month I’ll continue my conversation with the estimable John Skipp, as we further discuss the zombie and its current reign of the dark fiction realm. Last time, we examined the rise of the zombie, and took a look at how far this venerable creature had come. Now, we’re going to turn our eyes to the future to see where that shambling mass of rot is heading.
Lee Thomas Zombies have infiltrated every corner of entertainment. As such, it’s a challenge for authors to take this decaying trope and do something interesting with it. Let’s talk about authors rising to that challenge. I mentioned a few pieces in Part 1 of the interview, and I’m breaking a self-imposed gag order on works published in 2010. These were exceptional books with very different vibes. The first was a parody piece called The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten by Harrison Geillor. Cool and funny and gruesome. The second was a much darker, weightier piece called The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell, which used many familiar zombie set pieces but excelled in both characterization and technique.
What (or who) is out there you’d like to shine some light on?
John Skipp When I did the giant 700-page “Greatest Hits” anthology Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead in 2009, I only had a month to pull it together, so the focus was on what I thought were the classics, with as many of the best new stories as could be conjured post-haste. These include stories by Mehitobel Wilson, Adam Golaski, Eric Shapiro, Justine Musk, Carlton Mellick III, and Cody Goodfellow, all excellent writers who wound up delivering extremely fresh takes on the subject matter.
If I were editing it today, there are three stories from Christopher Golden’s The New Dead that I would include: “The Wind Cries Mary” by Brian Keene, “What Maisie Knew” by David Liss, and “Twittering at the Circus of the Dead” by Joe Hill. They’re all extraordinary stories that rank with the very best I’ve read.
And I think that John Joseph Adams’ The Living Dead 2 is full of bold explorations. I much prefer it to his first volume, where I thought most of the best stories were lifted from my previous anthologies. (laughs) Which didn’t bug me at all. I thought it was great. And he did include what I think is the greatest zombie short story of all time, which I originally published in Mondo Zombie: “Dead Like Me” by Adam-Troy Castro. Editor Adams is a really smart guy, and he’s definitely encouraging innovation.
So that’s short stories. As for novels…I’m waaaaaay behind, and don’t plan on catching up any time soon. Most of them are just blips on my radar, only some of which I’ll ever respond to, cuz there’s just too many!
My absolute favorite of the recent crop is Amelia Beamer’s The Loving Dead, which re-imagines the zombie plague as a sexually transmitted disease. It centers around a couple of Trader Joes employees in the greater San Francisco area, and unleashes a continuous stream of horniness, hilarious one-liners, hipster savvy gone totally awry in the face of an actual zombie apocalypse, and some genuine hammer-down moments of horror that rank it amongst the greats.
I thoroughly love this book, because to me, it opens the door to everything that remains to be said about this extremely powerful mythology. And it brings the energy of a phenomenon that isn’t diminishing at all, but MAY ACTUALLY JUST BE HITTING ITS STRIDE. As if the best discoveries are yet to come.
As if zombies – far from being over – are only now getting up to speed.
Once you’ve done the libertarian survivalist wet dream enough times – once you’ve heard the same story, over and over, until that incredibly fresh thing you loved became a tiresome cliché you were starting to hate – there are all the OTHER ways we could steer this ship. Refreshing the vision. Pioneering once again.
Another book I like is by that Adam-Troy Castro again. It’s called Z Is For Zombie, and it’s an illustrated alphabet book that contains short bursts of his brilliant writing style. He has now joined Douglas E. Winter as the other poet laureate of zombie lit. And it has an ending that genuinely pisses me off, cuz it’s just too horrible, and I refuse to accept it. Which, as I think you can gather, is probably a good thing.
For the record, one of my favorite recent everybody’s-got-their-kill-on iterations was Kevin L. Donihe’s Night of the Assholes: a hilarious Bizarro sort-of retelling of Night of the Living Dead, except that instead of zombies, they’re assholes. And if you try to fight them, you’ll probably turn into one. Which I think is completely brilliant.
Speaking of Bizarro, I think a lot of the fun is happening over there. Carlton Mellick III nailed it for me at a World Fantasy Convention panel in 2009, when I asked him, “So what makes you want to write about zombies?”
And he said, “I like to listen to them talk about cars and stuff.” (laughs)
That’s the great thing about Bizarro. It assumes that breaking all the rules is the first order of business. It suggests that you start at the weirdest possible angle, and just see what happens from there. It’s an incredibly liberating stance, and allows you to sneak up on your favorite things in surprising ways that might just shake you up a little. Which, to me, was always the fucking point.
Which brings me to Cody Goodfellow, one of the finest writers and shake-it-up motherfuckers of his generation. Who I have been lucky enough to work with on several projects, including a number of zombie-related ones. And who never stops bringing fresh weirdo meat to the table.
LT: Tell me about Spore, the zombie novel you wrote with Cody Goodfellow. That’s not exactly a run-of-the-mill zombie story.
JS: With Cody, things are rarely normal. Spore is actually the second of three weird zombie novels we’ve done together, all completely insane and entirely unrelated. The first was Jake’s Wake, which took the godly perspective. It involves a corrupt phony TV evangelist who comes back from the dead on Judgment Day. With hilarious results! Although actually, no. It’s pretty goddam grim.
Spore comes at it from the science end, using mind-controlling fungal parasites as the leaping-off point. The sentient fungus gets among us by cagily having itself cut into L.A.’s cocaine supply, so everybody’s snorting this shit directly into their brains.
This results in waves of coked-out zombies blissfully devastating Los Angeles on the night of Thanksgiving. It’s a crazed, kaleidoscopic multicultural disaster novel, with roughly a 160-page car chase, I shit you not. It’s also a love story. It’s got everything, I tell ya! And it’s utterly mayheminous. We had a lot of fun.
Now we’re working on Beacon, a huge-scale global Romero-style pandemic novel, which, like Spore (and The Loving Dead, for that matter) addresses one of the things that most zombie stories either drop or totally throw the ball away on: the idea that civilization will have to rebuild. That the dead getting back up DOESN’T mean the end of the world, but rather just one more horrible thing that we have to adapt to as a species. Most likely in horrible ways.
I don’t wanna give the whole game away. But we published the opening chapter – called “The Price of a Slice” – in The Living Dead 2. Let’s just say that in the last city to keep the lights on, the dead are being put back to work, as soldiers and slaves. But the good news is, 24-Hour-a-day pizza delivery! Not to mention full employment for XBox champs.
And then, of course, there’s Rose: The Bizarro Zombie Musical!
LT Zombies lend themselves very well to comedy. I caught the New York premier of Shaun of the Dead and was absolutely blown away. Even the serious zombie flicks know how to bring humor in, because ultimately they’re elucidating human foibles in comedic ways, using the dead as props. But a musical? What’s that all about?
JS: This is about some of the most fun I’ve ever had, that’s what! (laughs) It’s about me getting to bring all the things that I love most – writing, filmmaking, music, zombies, laughs, horror, mayhem, social commentary, and beautiful women – all together into one little package, and goin’ to town with it, in the kind of low-budget film that is actually my favorite kind of film. It’s a total labor of love, and the project I’m most excited about in the world right now.
Rose is the story of this amazing young woman named Rose, who becomes an unexpected hero of the zombie apocalypse. She’s a hot mental hospital graduate who runs this crazed cable access/internet puppet show out of her shithole loft in downtown Los Angeles. But now it’s 48 hours since the dead got up, and she’s like Radio Free Europe: going round the clock, running rescue stations and putting on wacky musical skits to keep people’s hopes alive…and periodically going downstairs to whack the shit out of the zombies trying to bust down her door and devour her.
So the songs are built into her show, and help move the story along in weird ways, as we bounce back and forth between goofy Bizarro fun and harrowing, violent terror.
What inspires me most about ROSE is the notion that some souls will flare up and ignite into gold under crisis, even as many others simply go out. The notion that being alive can be a beautiful thing worth preserving, and that apocalypse ISN’T an easy way out, where we just wipe the slate clean, and are absolved of all responsibility for being cool, caring, fun-to-be-around people who retain a capacity for joy, even as we competently deal with worst-case scenarios.
Am I getting this across? I hope I am. Because the biggest problem I have with much zombie fiction and film is not its mainstream candyassitude but its resignation: the idea that we finally get to throw our hands up in the air and just start shooting each other. If we lose our humanity, we’ve already lost, whether they eat us or not.
I don’t want the zombie mythos to degenerate into “we deserve this” self-loathing and increasingly pointless kill scenes. I don’t think that’s what Romero had in mind, and it sure as shit isn’t what I have in mind.
Zombies are a mirror, yes. And if we succumb, then we are just shambling, hungry masses with no point or purpose but to shame ourselves into an overflowing Hell on Earth that we earned through our bottomless folly.
But if we wanna live, then it behooves us to do so with not just out bodies, but our hearts and souls intact. As well as our minds. Which – last time I checked – were here to help us figure shit out, in meaningful ways that make us better people, not worse ones. In ways that inspire hope, even through very hard times like these.
That’s what zombie stories mean to me. THANKS FOR ASKIN’, MAN! I really enjoyed this conversation.
LT Back at ya’, Skipp. Thanks for taking the time to chat!
For those who can’t get enough zombies or Skipp – the World Horror Convention 2011 is having a mega-zombie panel, moderated by Joe McKinney. Skipp’s on the panel and he’ll have plenty more to say on the subject! Come on down to Austin and get you some.
Next Time: Since, I am one of the Co-chairs of the aforementioned WHC 2011, I’m keeping next month’s installment a secret (which is to say, I haven’t had time to plan it yet!) For now, let Rose sing you through the wastelands of the undead, much the way Shirley Jones did in “Oklahoma!” See ya!
John Skipp is a New York Times bestselling author, editor, zombie godfather, compulsive collaborator, musical pornographer, black-humored optimist and all-around Renaissance mutant. His early novels from the 1980s and 90s pioneered the graphic, subversive, high-energy form known as splatterpunk. His anthology Book of the Dead was the beginning of modern post-Romero zombie literature. His work ranges from hardcore horror to whacked-out Bizarro to scathing social satire, all brought together with his trademark cinematic pace and intimate, unflinching, unmistakable voice. From young agitator to hilarious elder statesman, Skipp remains one of genre fiction’s most colorful characters.
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