Lan picked at her dinner, scowling, then put down her fork and said, “You want to know about my mother? Okay. Here’s pretty much everything you need to know about my mother.”
“I’m all attention,” he said, ignoring her to carve into his bird.
“She lost her coat the night she got here.”
She could see him trying not to react to that, but after a few awkward seconds, he looked at her. “There must be more to the tale than that.”
* * *
In every book I write, there are certain characters, background players who barely get a mention now and then, who fascinate me. They aren’t the heroes. They aren’t love interests. They don’t get big musical numbers to explain their motivations. They just tell their part of the story in a whispering background sort of way and fade out, but these are the characters I tend to gravitate towards the most, because they remind me that everyone has a story, but not everyone gets a book. In The Scholomance, it was Horuseps. In Cottonwood, Good Samaritan. In Arcadia, oh gosh, a whole slew of ’em, but especially Lily. And in The Land of the Beautiful Dead, it’s Lan’s mother.
Although her influence on the book is strong, she’s not a major player. I could probably go back through and count the number of scenes she’s in. In fact, let me do that.
Okay, I’m back. She gets roughly 150 mentions, spread out over 35 separate scenes and in most cases, those mentions amount to Lan thinking that her mother once said or did this or that. One line, tossed away, which when picked up and pieced together, create a story–I’m not going to lie–I would almost rather be writing than the one I wrote.
What do we know about Lan’s mother? We know she’s not pretty. When Azrael remarks that all children find their mothers pretty, Lan is quick to reply, “Not mine. She was hard. Scarred.” We know she’s resourceful and tough, having grown up on her own not only in a strange land, but in a strange land overrun with dead people who want to eat you. And we know that, even in a zombie apocalypse, mothers say mother-things:
* * *
If this were Norwood and if her mother were still alive, she would have had Lan out of this room and on about her chores and never mind Mallowton or the garden or killing a kid. There were no excuses good enough to mope the day away. ‘If you can do something, do something,’ she used to say. ‘If you can’t, do something else, but quit sulking or I’ll give you something to sulk about.’
Who would have ever thought she’d miss hearing that? Or miss seeing that face, her head perpetually cocked because her left eye was nothing but a socket full of scars? She missed her mother’s hands—rough and chapped, with a knuckle bitten off on one and two fingers that wouldn’t bend on the other, so she was constantly flicking people the Vs if she didn’t consciously fold them down when she made a fist. She missed the heat of her mother’s body close to hers on the camp bed they shared in the women’s lodge and how she’d wake at the slightest cough or rustle in the dark and sit up, knife in hand, to listen…then lean over and touch Lan’s face, so lightly, never knowing Lan was awake to feel it or to hear her mother’s whisper, “She’s okay. She’s just fine,” as she tried to talk herself into going back to sleep.
* * *
And we know she’s dead. The book begins with Lan making her way to Haven, where Azrael rules, after her mother’s funeral, which is to say after her mother’s walking corpse had her back broken and was burnt, writhing and snapping her teeth, to ashes. Memorial service to follow.
Lan grew up in a comparatively sheltered life. She had strong walls around her to keep the Eaters out. She had food, although subsistence living is a bitch and starvation was a very real possibility. She considers herself a survivor, but not on the same scale. Familiarity breeds familiarity, as someone or another once said (They need to release Probe on DVD. I don’t care if it was just one season, I’d watch it) and those who grew up after the apocalypse just don’t measure up against those who had to live through it. Lan measures herself against her mother constantly and comes up short. Don’t we all, right?
My own mother died three years ago and the wound is still very fresh. It wasn’t a conscious factor when writing LoBD, (see the previous post for how consciously I write anything) but in my read-over, it is impossible for me not to find resonance in Lan’s memories of this vanished person, who she both idolizes and blames, doesn’t always understand, but profoundly misses. All of my books tend to strike along a central theme of Family and never is it more apparent than in this book. It wasn’t deliberate and I can only hope it reads well, because the kinds of family situations that exist in Beautiful Dead’s world are so far removed from my own experience that it was almost like writing for aliens.
Anyway, please enjoy the story of Lan’s mother and how she lost her coat (it’s not my favorite mother snippet, but my favorite will just have to wait until publication because it’s something of a spoiler), and then it’s back to edits. Also, it’s something of a downer, so be prepared.
* * *
“She was a child when she came to this country,” Lan said. “She didn’t remember how old. Maybe seven. Maybe only five or six. She used to live in a big house, painted grey and white. She said from her bedroom window, she could see the sea, but they never went there that she remembered. Not until the Eaters came. No one knew what happened yet. No one knew it was you. There was a whole ocean between you and my mother’s home, but the dead rose up anyway and started eating people.”
Azrael did not flinch or drop his eyes.
“They couldn’t get out of the city. All the cars were stuck on the road and so people were driving crazy, trying to get through anyway and crashing their cars and then they’d raise up and so there were Eaters on the road, going car to car and no one could get away. So they couldn’t get out of the city, but the city was even worse. People were shooting Eaters and shooting each other, which only made more Eaters, and buildings were burning and no one even knew why or what had happened. But somehow, someone over there came up with this plan to put all the kids in town that could get to them on a boat and take them to England. Just until whatever was happening was over, because they didn’t think it was happening in England and England was the only country they could think of that was far away and friendly. This was the plan. What kind of plan was that?” Lan asked him. That wasn’t part of the story. She hadn’t really meant to ask, but it came bubbling out of her all the same. “What kind of ass-headed plan…? She had no one, knew no one. Her parents thought they were saving her. Instead, they put her on a boat and sent her right into your glorious shadow. And she was five or six or seven. And she was all alone.”
Azrael said nothing.
“The ocean was cold. That’s all she remembered of the trip across. It took a long time and she mostly stayed in her room with the other kids. Sometimes, they were let out on the deck, but the wind was so cold and sometimes it snowed, so even if they were let out, she mostly stayed in her room. All she had was what she was wearing: her pajamas, her rubber boots, and her coat. There wasn’t time to pack others or even to really get dressed. And it was so cold that she hardly ever took the coat off, even indoors. It was pink, with white fuzz on the edges like fur, but not really. When the boat came close to the shore, they called all the kids up onto the deck. It was dark and it was snowing. All the kids were trying to stand in the middle of other kids because it was warmer there, but my mom was so little, she got shoved to the outside. She was right next to the rails in the very front of the boat. So she saw everything. She could see fires burning in the city, but no lights on. And the boat was going to dock anyway,” said Lan, shaking her head. “How could anyone see that and just dock anyway? How could they not know?”
“What would you have had them do?” Azrael asked quietly. “Sail the Earth forever? Perhaps they were out of food. Perhaps they thought…at least it would end quickly.”
“Nothing ends. That’s the point, isn’t it? They all but fed those kids to your Eaters and, quick or not, that’s a fucking awful way to go.”
He did not answer that.
“It was dark,” said Lan, after a few calming breaths and a drink of water. “But my mother could see shapes moving on the shore. She thought they were people, their new moms and dads, coming to get them. But they didn’t stop when they reached the end of the pier. They fell into the water, she said, and they kept coming until she could see this white, churning wave coming right at them. The boat never even had the chance to dock. The Eaters hit the side of the boat and kept piling up. It wasn’t quick, but it was…inevitable, she called it. Like the sun setting. They piled up higher and came over the rails and suddenly everyone was screaming. The boat kept going. It broke through the pier and crashed into the whatsis, the docking place. The hull stoved in and the boat started to flip over. The waves came over the side and kids were being washed overboard, right into the Eaters in the water. My mother fell too, but a wave picked her up. She grabbed hands with a boy in the water and the wave took them both to the pier. It put her down on top of the boards. It slammed him into the side and crushed him dead. That was how my mother came to England.”
“She lost her coat in the water, one assumes.”
“No, she still had it then. It was a big, puffy coat. She used to say it was what saved her, actually. It was full of air, like a life-vest. Anyway, there was no one left of the crew on the boat. No one to meet them on shore. Eaters bloody everywhere and no one to help. All she could see of the city was burning buildings and the boat sinking off the pier. All she could hear was sirens and screams. The kids all scattered as soon as they reached shore and most of them got taken down by Eaters pretty much right off. My mother was one of a group that climbed in through the window of a dockside warehouse or something. Understand, this place was in sight of the boat she’d come in on. She could have thrown a rock and hit it. But she thought she was safe, like a child who thinks pulling the blankets up over her head at night will keep the monsters out. She slept that night with her hood pulled up, the hood on her coat, for just that reason. It was a big, puffy coat,” Lan said again. “She couldn’t hear through it very well. She never heard the Eater come in through the window.”
Azrael raked his eyes across the table, then stabbed a small game bird of some sort off a platter and transferred it to his plate. He began to carve it, somewhat forcefully.
“It was only dumb luck it didn’t get her instead of the little girl it did get. It dragged her down and tore her open while she was still screaming and my mom saw her guts coming out. The little girl’s name was Sharon. My mother remembers that because she was wearing a nametag. It said, Hello, my name is Sharon. If I’m alone, please help me find an adult.”
Azrael put down his knife and fork and tore the leg off the bird with his hands.
“All the other kids ran, but my mom grabbed an axe—don’t ask me what an axe was doing lying around, because I don’t know—and hit him in the back. She severed his spine and no, he didn’t die, but he couldn’t get up either. He lay there and writhed instead, snapping his teeth while Mom tried to drag him off of Sharon. And when she finally rolled him over, Sharon got up. The rest of her guts fell out, but she still got up. Mom had to cut her head off to stop her. Would you like to know how my mother lost her coat?”
“She took it off because she couldn’t get the blood out. That’s how young she was—she left behind her only coat just because it got bloody.”
* * *
The Land of the Beautiful Dead
Well, it’s been two weeks since I said I’d make a new post tomorrow so, yeah…right on time.
The Land of the Beautiful Dead is finally into the editing phase and I immediately hit a major continuity problem which is involving massive rewrites in addition to the usual last-minute research crap, which will take extra time because the book is not set in a familiar location. It’s times like these I have to laugh at the popular misconception that writers make stuff up. Okay, so maybe some do, but I don’t. Some time ago, I remarked on the fact that the number one thing my readers ask me is where I get my ideas (closely followed by “Why do you get your ideas, dear God, why?”), and I don’t offhand recall my song-and-dance answer, but it occurs to me as I grind away on these edits that a far better question is, “How do you get your ideas?” because I think that’s a better look inside the writer’s head.
My head is mostly full of horror and porn and dinosaurs (and frequently, sexy killer dinosaurs)…
…and now and then, one of them crawls out of the sea and flops around in the sand until it loses its gills and grows lungs and stands up on all fours and lets out its mighty yawp and I have really efffed up this metaphor. My point is, I get an idea, but I rarely sit down and write it out. I watch it first. I’m a very visual writer; I tend not to think in words, but rather, see pictures and attempt to describe them on paper. This is worth mentioning solely to illustrate that it does no good at all asking me how a new project of mine is going to end, because most of the time, I don’t know. Seriously. No clue. Haven’t seen that part yet. In fact, several extremely vital plot points of various books whooshed right over my head for weeks if not months before plopping out on the page in front of me, and I was just as shocked as I hope you were.
Example: In The Last Hour of Gann (spoiler incoming), the hateful human S’kot attempts to bump Amber off with an overdose of some heavy-duty synthetic opiate. I had no idea this was going to happen. Hilariously, because I write whatever scene is clearest and therefore jump around the timeline (hence my current situation with editing LoBD), I had written several extremely obvious clues that this was indeed what happened. Amber had gone from a fairly tough little cookie in her early scenes to someone who was clearly physically weakened (Meoraq even had a line where he directly referred to her illness: “You have suffered severe illness which makes you tire more easily. You may improve in that regard with rest and time, I don’t know, but for now, you do tire easily, which makes you weak.”); I spent a ridiculous amount of time listing the various items in the medikit, which I then never used, all but shining a spotlight on the drug I ultimately used to bump Amber off, and made a point of saying an overdose would be lethal; I had even written the scene wherein Scott and the other surviving humans are rediscovered and wrote Scott’s extremely weird reaction to hearing that Amber was still alive, but I still thought, like Amber, that she’d been bit by a snake or something, right up until I actually wrote the confrontation scene between Meoraq and Scott and watched as the weaselly little bastard snuck out of his tent and plugged Amber in the arm. I mean, my mind was blown. It’s like I knew it all along, except I didn’t.
I tell you all that to tell you this: I had no idea when I first sat down to write The Land of the Beautiful Dead that it would be set in England. I’m an American. I write books that are at least marginally set in America, not because I’m all flag-waving and crazy patriotic as much as I’m just really, really lazy. I know what America looks like and I know how Americans think and eat and talk. America’s awesome and if I were writing a book about the zombie apocalypse in its purest form, with survivors all surviving and stuff, shooting zombies and driving brand new Ford Focuses (Foci?) through the wasted landscape four flipping years after all the Ford factory workers were, you know, eaten by zombies (it’s nice to know Ford hires the walking dead), then I would definitely set the book in America. But that isn’t the story. The story is about Azrael and it’s entirely possible that Azrael didn’t even know America existed. Sure, we got hit by the zombie-wave too, but it wasn’t personal. Okay, it was very personal, but it was personal on a global scale. When Azrael finally lost it and hulked out, he didn’t pick and choose. He had it in him to scrag the whole human race and he popped his Frozen soundtrack on and let that shit go.
Now, Azrael is old. It’s possible he could have walked to America back when everyone else was doing it, but he didn’t. It’s also possible he could have just, you know, walked. The ocean bottom is a peaceful place and drowning for a few years while he made the trip couldn’t be any worse than all the other horrible ways he passed his time. But again, he didn’t. He went underground somewhere in Eastern Europe (my guess is Romania, probably not too far from the Scholomance, and wouldn’t that be a kick in the ass if only he’d known, because I’m sure they’d have let him in) and when it all went down, he went to England. He had his reasons. And because that was where he was, that was where the story happened, and thusly, that was where Lan had to be too.
Now here’s the funny thing. Lan was born in what was left of England after Azrael moved in, but Lan’s mother was American. Why? Again, not deliberate. It’s just one of those things that came out when I was writing. Lan’s mother was American and she did her best to keep her culture alive in her daughter (and, as with so many things our parents do, it was not always appreciated). And that served me fairly well, because, no offense, but Brits can be cliquish around foreigners at the best of times and a zombie apocalypse is far, far from the best of times. Lan’s mother was ultimately taken in, because despite the impression some people have of me from reading my books, I actually think people are mostly good and will do the right thing given the opportunity, but she was never really assimilated and as a result, neither did Lan. Some people may think this is because I am a lazy writer and would rather stick with what I know, to wit, ‘Murica, and they would have a valid point. But honestly, it’s just where the story happened and who happened to show up in it. Likewise, some will want to point out various landmarks and so forth that I’ve omitted, to which I preemptively reply, there was a war. Even in peacetime, cities can change a lot in thirty years and after a war, places can be almost unrecognizable. Also, some will correctly point out that Azrael’s court is nothing like a real British court of any era, and they are absolutely right. Azrael is not emulating any particular fashion or tradition, he’s just made himself comfortable, adopting certain styles and habits that appealed to him and ignoring others. Which is pretty much my same attitude when writing.
So you’ve all been very patient while I blathered on. Would you like to read a snippet? This one went over really well with my British betas. (I love England, I swear I do.):
* * *
“Do you know why I came here?” Azrael asked suddenly. “Here, of all places on this Earth I might have taken.”
Lan looked around the room.
“Not to this palace,” he said with a dismissive wave. “What is it to me but a stack of brick and a dry roof? No, to this land. This…island.”
“Well, if I had to guess, I’d say you liked it here.”
“Mark the tone in which you suggest it,” he said with a humorless smile. “It is the very voice of doubt. I put it to you: Do you like it here? Did you like the life you had in Norwood? Do you miss it?”
Lan bristled, but could not think of any answer that was both affirmative and honest.
“No. You don’t,” he said for her. “This land is shaped from bitter clay. It is cold. Hard. Men have long since stripped it of whatever natural life it held and then buried it under the choking sprawl of their own cities, which have since fallen. Its watery veins are toxic. Its enclosing seas are always angry. It has the most desolate soil, the most miserable weather, the most loveless and unfriendly landscape. It is a wretched place,” he concluded, thumping a finger on the table to emphasize each word. “Of all my wanderings, it is the most wretched place one can live. Oh, there are lands more barren,” he said as she opened her mouth to protest. “Frozen lands, sere lands, lands infected with more virulent disease and lands teeming with more noisome and lethal beasts…but these are lands that kill. And I am weary unto death, so to speak, of dying, Lan, forever dying. When I ascended, when I had the king’s cut of all Earth had to offer, I thought, ‘I will take this land and set myself within it, for who would ever stay where the Devil dens?’”
“But it was their home!”
“Home? Home is a word, child. Your mother could have told you of a time when humans changed their home simply because they did not like the view from the windows. No, this is not their home. This is a forsaken grey Hell of stony soil set down in the very shadow of the greatest Evil humankind has ever known, and the only reason to root themselves to it is to harry me.”
* * *
Where did The Land of the Beautiful Dead begin? Well now, it began when I was four years old. Bear with me.
When I was four, I taught myself to read out of resentment that my older sisters were learning to read and I was therefore being left out of something fun. I also started kindergarten that year. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Hailstone, and the only way she could have had a more perfect name would be if she was named Mrs. Hellfire or Mrs. Wormwood or maybe Mrs. Killkid. She was a horrible, horrible human being. Used to walk up and down the rows of her kindergarten class and smack our little hands with a wooden ruler, either for talking or sleeping or staring out the window or coloring out of the lines and especially for crying because your hands hurt. One day, I brought my favorite book in for Show and Tell, because if you didn’t bring anything in for Show and Tell, you got the ruler. The sight of that book in my four-year-old hands sent Mrs. Hailstone into a baffling fury and she threatened to take it away forever because I was a liar and liars get punished. What was I lying about? Why, that it was my favorite book. I couldn’t possibly have a favorite book because I couldn’t read. On hearing this, I began to cry, because this was actually my father’s book and I was terrified of losing it. Through my tears, I insisted I could too read, and so, to further humiliate a four-year-old child, Mrs. Hailstone ordered me to open it up and read in front of the entire class. So I slowly crept up to the front of the class, struggled the heavy book open (it was an oversized hardcover), and in my shaky, tearful voice, read, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…”
She snatched the book away, flipped some pages and ordered me to read where she was pointing. I did. And then I did it again. And again. And then she spanked me on my fanny in front of everyone with that ruler for “making a scene” and made me stand in the corner until it was time to go home. Which I did, crying, but with the book clutched in my arms.
It comforts me no end to know this all happened long enough ago that she is probably dead. If not, I hope she’s reading this. Mrs. Hailstone, you are a horrible, horrible person.
I told you that story to tell you this one: After the Show and Tell incident, The Hobbit was no longer my favorite book. My mother, a wise and wonderful woman, noticed but did not know the circumstances of our falling-out, because I was four and did not have enough worldly experience to know that what happened to me was wrong and I should have told someone. All she knew was that I was no longer reading Tolkien. So she went out and bought me a small stack of classic horror stories rendered in comic book format: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, A triple-play of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, The Masque of the Red Death and The Raven, and HP Lovecraft’s The Outsider. These were not gory Vault of Horror type comics, I hasten to add, and I certainly was not traumatized by the black-and-white blood I did see in them. They didn’t give me nightmares and they didn’t turn me into a serial killer. I loved them. My love, sadly, was destructive and they didn’t survive it, but I remember vividly reading them over and over, transfixed by the interplay of words and images, and most especially by the story of Frankenstein.
When I was ten years old, I was already an avid reader, and my mother, bless her, went out again and purchased about two dozen large-print books at a library book fair, called the Classics Collector’s Library. It consisted mostly of adventure stories, like Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and The Count of Monte Cristo, but also had a small selection of horror novels: Dracula and Frankenstein again, and also one of my all-time favorite horror stories, The Picture of Dorian Grey. But Frankenstein again captivated me, particularly with Mary Shelley’s original prose. Her Frankenstein was eloquent as well as horrible and the combination simply thrilled me.
And before I get a shit-ton of comments about how Frankenstein was the doctor, not his monster, I say that the creature referred to the doctor as his father many times, from which one might safely assume he considered himself the doctor’s son, and as there is nothing more natural than for the son to take the name of the father, I say Frankenstein applies equally to creature and creator. So there.
I have seen many of those classic stories brought o brilliant life on the big screen, but in all honesty, I must say I’ve never seen a Frankenstein as perfect as the one from that comic book so many years ago. Boris Karloff’s monster was frightening to look at, but a groaning, shambling beast; De Niro got the dialogue right, but, once his stitches healed up, he was just too human. And I realize that Shelley never says and may never have intended that her monster be anything but human in appearance, but my first Frankenstein had both the face of a monster and the mind of a poet and that, by God, was what I wanted to see.
So when I realized I was about to write what could only be called a zombie apocalypse novel, I wanted two things: First, I wanted the apocalypse part to be over. You will not read about hands punching out of the ground in the graveyard or people screaming through the streets in a blind panic. The war is over. Neither will you read about the stalwart survivors who continue to fight the good fight, buoyed by their own indomitable human spirit; the war is over and they did not win it. This is not a book about the living, but about the dead.
And that brings me to the second thing I wanted, which was to create a monster to equal that comic book creature of my childhood, one that was terrible and yet intelligent and reasonable. Azrael is brutal and cruel and he kills people. He’s horrible to look at and he’s even worse to touch. He is a monster…and he knows it. He is Frankenstein, without a father to pursue or be pursued by him, a creature who doesn’t even have the dubious comfort of being sewed together by pieces of men. He has no “kind”. He has never been human and has been worn down by enough time that he no longer wishes to be, but he still envies them. Unlike the real Frankenstein,, who went out into the world newborn and did at least some of his evils purely in innocence, Azrael is old. His cruelty has been honed to perfection. He has suffered and in doing so, has learned just how to inflict suffering on others to the best effect. He has power no one else possesses and he uses it to set himself even further apart from the rest of the world…and he knows that too. I remember muttering the first speech from Richard III as I drew up his character notes, because I am insufferably pretentious even in the privacy of my own home: “But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks…I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty…I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by this dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world…since I cannot prove a lover…I am determined to prove a villain.”
I like Azrael. I’m proud of him. I found it disturbingly easy to put myself in his head and we did some truly horrible things together. He is unmistakably a devil, but as someone or another famous once pointed out, there can be sympathy for the devil.
You get a feel for these things after twenty years of writing and so I can finally say with confidence that I’m working on the final chapter of The Land of the Beautiful Dead. But don’t get too excited, faithful readers, because there’s still all the editing to do, as well as blurbs and a cover and all that technical jazz. Nevertheless, I do believe this book will go live before my birthday (Halloween). So now that the light is finally at the end of the tunnel, I guess it’s time to start talking it up and since a good way to begin is at the beginning, I’d like to talk a little bit about where the book came from.
In the pantheon of the paranormal, there is a kind of unholy trinity that has been popular in books and movies for as long as books and movies have been around. I am speaking, of course, of the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Corpse. As a reader and a movie-goer, I frequently have some harsh criticisms for books and movies that use one (or all) of the Trinity, but who “bring nothing new to the table”. There are just so many friggin’ vampires and werewolves and zombies out there that even the best story can get lost in the crowd, or worse, come across as derivative, because let’s face it, there are only so many ways to reinvent them. Vampires in the daytime?
Werewolves who don’t need a full moon to shift?
The new standard.
Zombie love interests?
Three cheers for necrophilia.
As someone or another once observed, the first step to slaying our monsters is to mock them. If that’s true, the second step must be dating them. Somewhere along the way, we as a universal consciousness stopped being afraid of the paranormal and started being turned on by it, and thank heavens for that, because otherwise, I couldn’t make a living doing what I do, but what was once a shocking and provocative idea has become so popular and so mainstream that it’s become a joke. Knowing that, I never intended to write a book about vampires or werewolves or zombies, because I knew there was no way to avoid the stigma of chasing the para-rotica bandwagon.
This is where you should be hearing the wah-wah-waaaaah cartoon d’oh music.
I started writing The Land of the Beautiful Dead because I wanted a quick novella to offer up for free on the table I never actually got at the RT Convention this past summer in New Orleans (hell of a fun city, by the way. You should all go. Begneits and café au lait for the win). I figured it would run me about 45k words, which would give me just enough space to have my hero and heroine roll around on a bed made almost entirely of broken zombie tropes and go home happy. Simple, right? (wah-wah-waaaah) Unfortunately, I made the biggest mistake a writer can make: I fell in love with my own story. And when you love something, you can’t do anything by halves.
Ba-bam! My 45k book is now 120k and climbing (not too far, though. This is the last chapter) and I had a great time writing most of it (the ending gave me no end of grief. Like all great love affairs, the break-up is always painful). But again, I never wanted to write a zombie apocalypse book. It just sorta happened and I hope you can all forgive me for doing something so unoriginal. Having said all that, let me tell you, when I let it slip that I was writing a zombie apocalypse book, my e-book publisher (lord, I hope she doesn’t read this) got all excited. She told me she’d been just about to write and ask me for one. She was a huge fan of AMC’s The Walking Dead and she wanted some Walking Dead erotic fanfiction, all names changed of course, to avoid copyright drama, but with the characters themselves clearly identifiable so they could do all that zombie-slaying by day and hardcore sexing by night.
“I hate The Walking Dead,” I said. “I hate that stuff with a passion. The Walking Dead is everything that is wrong with zombie apocalypses. I wouldn’t write in that world if you paid me with a swimming pool full of puppies.”
I think I hurt her feelings. But oh well, that’s my feels and I don’t apologize for them. If you enjoy watching a 4-year long car commercial with zombies popping up every other episode, that’s fine. Takes all kinds. But I like my apocalypses served up with a side of reality. Reality check number one: Gasoline goes flat very, very quickly. None of those pretty, clean, freshly-waxed Hyundais would work. And yes, before you ask, I do have cars in my book, but they don’t run on gasoline. I have a lot of faith in Man’s power of invention, particularly when coupled with necessity and desperation. And zombies. Someone once told me he didn’t understand why people are always driving in zombie wastelands (because no gas, remember) instead of riding bikes (which don’t need it), to which I can only say I would strap a Hyundai onto each foot and skate away before I tried to escape a horde of zombies on a bicycle. Likewise, horses need so much more care than people realize, magnified exponentially by the fact that everyone would need one…no, give me a motorized vehicle for the apocalypse.
So anyway, if not from The Driving Dead, where did I get the idea for the book? Join me next time when I actually answer the question. In the meantime, please enjoy this snippet:
* * *
There had been other names for them in the beginning, back when people thought they knew what the Eaters were, back when people thought they could be stopped with something as simple as a bullet to the brain. No. This was Azrael’s world and nothing died save by his word of release. You could break them, burn them, or just wait them out until they had rotted away to bones and could no longer come after you, but even then, whatever remained of them still retained some kind of horrible life; Lan could remember her mother pulling the teeth from a charred skull after a neighbor’s death and showing them to her, how the teeth had trembled in her mother’s hand, trying to come together and bite. There was no hope then, only the diminishing living, the growing ranks of the dead, and less and less unpoisoned land to share between them.
Surrender was inevitable, no matter how bitterly Lan’s mother spoke of it now, but surrender had not ended the war. Azrael had accepted the leaders of that broken world for his unending retribution, but he did not forgive the people who gave them up. In the years since his ascension, Azrael had harrowed his great Revenant army to a whisper of its former magnitude, but even a handful of Revenants were enough to wipe out whole villages when all they had to do was break down one wall, let the Eaters in, and wait. Everything else they did—the burning, the dismemberments, the impaling poles—served purely as a warning of the fate that awaited all those who took such unwise pride in defiance.
And really, what did Azrael have to fear from them? The world which had once groaned under Man’s weight had been relieved of its burden, reborn under Azrael. Perhaps there were as many as a million humans left, scattered widely over this wasteland of Eaters, but numbers didn’t matter. If Azrael wanted more dead, he could always get them. In the meantime, he allowed the living to build their towns and he did not interfere in the squalor of their stubborn existence provided they stayed away from the tall walls that enclosed Haven, his city, the land of the beautiful dead.
She was close now, so close. This fool’s journey, begun when Lan walked away from her mother’s smoky pyre two months ago, was now only a day from over, if only she could find someone to finish it for her.
Lan dragged her eyes open without any conscious memory of closing them. She was falling asleep and sleep was never safe in a strange town. She got up and dragged her mattress over to the cell door, propping it against the sliding panel so that she could not help but be jostled awake should someone try to come in with her in the night. Then she lay down, pillowing her head on her lumpy, uncomfortable rucksack, and went to sleep.
I really thought I would have this book done by now.
The problem is, I went into it half-blind. Usually, I don’t even start typing notes unless I know two things: how a book starts and where it ends. No matter how clear the middle bits appear to me, if I don’t have that first and last chapter solidly in mind, I don’t get involved. But this book…ugh. I needed something hard and fast for the table at the RT Convention that we never actually got, so I broke my rule and started before I had an ending. How fortunate it is that we never got that stupid table, because my quick and easy 45k word novella has climbed to 117k and I ain’t there yet. I honestly don’t know where it’s going, even though I know I’m in the last chapter. I can feel the end, but I can’t see it, like a tornado right before the funnel drops.
Other than that, I’ve been very productive. Moving is never quick or fun, but it’s going along. Today, I got most of my skulls unpacked and assembled one of those cubby shelf thingies for my massive hat collection. I also assembled the last of six bookshelves for our library and got 14 boxes of books unpacked and in an approximation of order. Still don’t have A/C in my room, because the idiots who owned the house before us disconnected the air ducts on this end of the house and ran cable wires through them. Why? I have no idea. Neither does the duct guy, who says it’s the dumbest thing he’s ever seen in all his years. Especially since the cable wires aren’t connected to anything either. They’re just sitting there, disconnected at both ends and snaking through a third of the house, which is now at a balmy 92 degrees and humid as Swamp Thing’s jockstrap after a particularly aggressive football game.
Assembling and unpacking things has been my daily routine for a month now and that stack of boxes in the basement doesn’t appear to be getting any smaller, like the ending of my book, which I type on every day and yet gets no nearer. Yet, I keep grinding away at it. Here’s a little snippet from the scene I wrote today (subject to changes during the inevitable editing phase), just so you know I really am doing something out here:
* * *
Ahead of them, the road had been blocked with a tall wall, long since knocked in. At regular intervals, signs had been posted, most of them too faded and riddled with bullets to be legible. The rest said things like ROAD CLOSED AHEAD and CONTAMINATED AREA BEYOND THIS POINT, along with pictures of skulls and swooning stickmen and other ominous symbols whose exact meanings were now lost but which still conveyed an undeniable sense of threat. Over the years, graffiti had covered over most of these notices in layer upon layer of apocalyptic murals depicting Azrael and Eaters and demons riding skeletal horses; quasi-religious gibberish spewing angry and fearful rhetoric about broken seals and eating the body of Christ; social commentary that was either meant to be ironic or was just badly spelled, like U can sleep when your DEAD or The End is Nigel. Crowning these madhouse musings, in thick black letters stretching across the full width of the road—all six lanes—someone had written, WHAT HAPPENED. Someone else had painted a T over the W, which Lan thought so perfect an answer that it was a very long time before she noticed Aristides had stopped the van to confer with Serafina.
* * *
The Land of the Beautiful Dead, coming soon, I swear to God.
So in answer to all those who asked, I will be at the hotel tomorrow from 10 am to 11 am, so if you have already made plans to go to the Book Signing event at the RT Convention (3rd floor, Mardi Gras Ballroom, from 11-2) I will be lurking nearby in the foyer, so you can chat without losing your place in line.
At 11, my family and I leave for the French Farmers Market for some last chance shopping, beginning with a café au lait and beignet. If you want to catch up with me there, that’s fine too, but once we leave, we’re gone for good. There’s just so much to see in this city and so little time.
So if you’re in the area tomorrow, swing on by the 3rd floor foyer outside the ballroom. I’ll be on of the thousands of people milling around. I’ll be the one wearing a plushie gator hat (like a professional, right?) Or you can look for my father, who is one of, like, six guys attending the convention. He’ll be the one wearing a jacket (really, Dad?!) but you’ll find him faster if you look for the beard. Put this man in the right clothes and he could be headmaster at Hogwarts.
Hope to see you tomorrow!