Sunday, July 21, 2013

Chapter 106: Story genesis--Graveyard Shift

Confession time: I'm not crazy about zombies. They just don't interest me. I've always had a passing interest in their relation to the Afro-American voudoun religion, but never enough to do any real research. I like horror movies, but not ones with zombies. They always seemed so limited. They chase people around and kill. Big whoop.

Then, at some point, zombies became big business. 28 Days Later happened. Max Brooks happened. Left and right, authors were putting out zombie books. Zombies never went away. There's been a steady stream of films since Night of the Living Dead decades ago. But now they were big money.

Nope. Not interested. How cool can a monster be if all he does is grunt? Then again, I loved Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror, which I saw opening night as part of the Grindhouse double bill. I loved Shaun of the Dead. In these movies, as with the best stories, the premise was only window dressing. Neither are about zombies. Shaun is about family. Planet Terror is about the consequences of war.

Even those movies had the same rote narrative. People die. They come back to life. They kill others. Infestation, apocalypse, rinse, repeat. So I was a bit stumped when Leo Svirsky, of Baby Killer Estelle, commissioned me to write a zombie story for his album.

Leo and I were both students at the University of Maryland. This was during an ill-fated attempt at graduate school, so I was a bit older than him. Leo was a a piano prodigy. Good guy. Baby Killer Estelle was a great duo; I'd seen them perform a few times at DC shows, and their piano-punk always took things to another level.

Leo and I frequented the same open mic, where he saw my first feature, in which I read an early version of "Safe Space." Afterward, Leo informed me the story had melted his brain, and the lightbulb went off over his head that I should write the liner notes for his second album. He asked me to write a short story for the notes. needless to say, I jumped at the chance to be Neil Gaiman to his Tori Amos.

His caveat: it must be about the conflict between anarchy and capitalism, and feature zombies.

My thought: "Well, shit."

A challenge. At first I thought to do some kind of voodoo narrative. Something in Haiti having to do with globalization.  A virus. Corrupt UN aid workers. Yeah, I know. I'm sure they used that plot in some Resident Evil game. It was hard for me to even think about zombies without slipping into cliche.

Funnily enough, what I came up with was also kind of inspired by Leo. Maybe, in a subconscious way. We were at a show watching this group called Chugga Chugga. They had a song about how they were afraid of the zombie apocalypse. After which, Leo said how awesome it would be if we were all zombies, and we could just eat each other's brains and live in harmony.

Other guy: "Anarcho-zombieism?"

And I ended up writing a story about zombies who fight The Man. Ultimately, I don't think I avoided cliche. Zombies as laborers. Seems a pretty textbook metaphor. Zombies are symbols of the working-class. There's a billion of them who fight as one, they're dirty, they stink, they don't show much education, and have nothing resembling organization or finesse. Zombie apocalypse narratives are stories of upper-class fear.

Which of course, makes it interesting to juxtapose them with the other popular post-millennial monster: vampires. Vamps are symbols of the high-class. Every one of them gorgeous, sophisticated, privileged, descended from a Romanian count. Anybody who tells you class isn't the major issue of our times has not looked at the bestseller list.

So, anyway, a textbook metaphor. But that provided a springboard for the story to grow. First I had the zombies, then I had the conflict between capital and human desire, then I had the retail store, then I had the zombies breaking script by living (un)life to the fullest. Before I knew it I had a novella in which I kill everyone who ever pissed me off.

It was fun writing this self-indulgent revenge fantasy. The zombie genre allowed me to write the J-horror levels of violence I could not put into my more, you might say, normal stories. It was a brutal and bloody homage to the anime I watched as a kid. The writing was kind of sloppy, as I viewed it as a fun thing I was doing as a favor to a friend. A fun thing that people have since told me is their favorite story of mine, and became the centerpiece of my next book. It's become one of my favorites too.

The album (later called Awaken Necropolis) went on hiatus, but Dan McCloskey liked the story. So I ended up trimming my long tale into a much shorter one for the Cyberpunk Apocalypse zine. The major casualty was the love story with Christine, whose whole character was shrank to one scene. Then the album was put out. The result was that, in 2010, a story I never expected to see the light of day ended up being published twice. First as a short, then months later as a novella with illustrations from someone who I believe Leo met while studying at The Hague.

My favorite memory of the genesis of "Graveyard Shift" was my 26th birthday. I wanted to get together a group of my friends and read a story to them. Being able to read a whole piece, not just a snippet, was my gift to myself.

Artnoose baked some brownies and I grabbed some PBR. A friend of mine ended up bringing a cake. They sat in a circle and I read "Graveyard Shift" for an hour, with Dan on the computer playing music cues I pulled up on Youtube. He played Kelly Clarkson. He played "Magic Man" by Heart. He played the anime soundtrack music I'd been gorging on at the time. The story was made to be read out loud, and we all had a great time. It was altogether very cozy and familial, which is strange when speaking about a story where jugulars get ripped and intestines spill pink blood.

We all hung out afterward and danced to some New Jack Swing. Since a bunch of people were home, we took a house photo. That's the power of zombies: bringing people together.

So a story that I was initially not very jazzed to write became the novella it is now. Let us give thanks for anarchy, and zombies, and all combinations of the two.

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