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.