David Moody is the critically-acclaimed author of Hater, Dog Blood, Them and Us and the Autumn series. He lives in the UK.
We’re taught from early days that all stories must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Take my genre of choice – post-apocalyptic fiction. You have the beginning – the event – then the middle as our cast of characters inevitably have to fight to survive in what’s left of their world, but what about the end? Sure, there are countless stories which wrap things up with nihilistic ‘we’re all screwed’ finales, and even more with awful and lazy ‘oh, suddenly everything’s okay again’ endings, but I think there are more stories left to be told. What happens when the initial danger has faded and those who remain are left to pick up the pieces?
I’m talking about the post-post-apocalypse, and I think it’s fascinating.
I grew up in the UK at the height of the Cold War, so immediate and total devastation never felt as if it was any more than five minutes away. A BBC TV movie called Threads was the first story I recall which took the viewer beyond the apocalypse. The film showed the effect of a nuclear attack on Sheffield, an industrial city in the north of England. After the initial horror of the blast, it portrayed in graphic detail (for mid-1980’s British TV, anyway) the impact on the population over the next few weeks and months and showed how the battered remains of society unravelled and fell apart. Even now I can still recall my feelings of absolute horror and revulsion when I first saw the film. I re-watched it recently, and it’s still incredibly powerful viewing. The last section of the story is set many years after the bomb and chillingly illustrates the lasting legacy of nuclear war: perpetual winters, dead crops, uneducated kids giving birth to deformed babies… all very unpleasant. For me, this dark coda was the sucker-punch: a glimpse into a long-term future which was perhaps even more frightening than the furious maelstrom of the initial attack.
There have been plenty of books which consider the longer-term effects of Armageddon – Earth Abides in particular springs to mind – but I don’t recall anyone taking the zombie apocalypse through to its natural, decay-filled conclusion. Writing my Autumn series has allowed me to do just that and fulfil a long held ambition to take a post-apocalyptic story beyond the usual end-point.
I get frustrated by the lack of development in much zombie fiction, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why even a mention of the subgenre is enough to illicit groans from many quarters. More often than not, stereotypical survivors battle identikit corpses until one side has destroyed the other. There’s a blatantly obvious issue which usually gets totally overlooked, and that’s that the zombies are rotting. They might be a deadly threat today and tomorrow, but what about in six months time? Surely they’ll have decayed to such an extent by then that they won’t be able to move, much less attack and eat you?
Okay, so I’m being pedantic, and any story which features walking corpses is entitled to take as many liberties as it likes with science and biology, but I want to know what happens after the death of the dead.
Here’s my personal zombie apocalypse survival plan: stock up, hunker down. Stay hidden until the dead are little more than compost and mulch… probably half a year, tops.
Can you imagine what you’d find when you’re finally able to stick your head out of your shelter? A desolate world which is beginning to be reclaimed by nature, streets littered with bones, pavements choked with vegetation, most vehicles useless and much food spoiled, a proliferation of insects… How do you begin to rebuild after that? More to the point, would you want to? Everything you remember is gone. All familiarity lost.
Of course you’d want to survive… wouldn’t you? That’s one of the key questions I’ve been able to tackle in Aftermath – the final Autumn book. Perhaps it’s not as cut and dried a choice as it might seem. Are there enough of you left to make rebuilding society viable? What kind of society do you want, anyway? Do we rebuild in the image of what we’ve lost, or try something new? How much of the ‘old world’ can we salvage? What happens to the children, if we’re able to have children at all? Should we just give up and live off the tins on the supermarket shelves for as long as we can?
Fear and adrenalin will keep people fighting through the initial terrorist attack, zombie uprising, viral pandemic, alien invasion or whatever… but there are equally amazing stories to tell about the quiet after the storm – the post-post-apocalypse.