Zombie Fear Factor: Dumb Beasts or Something More?
It’s the season for that of-the-moment homegrown tradition, the zombie parade. Seems every town, large and small, has one; everyone from tots to retirees seem to enjoy dressing up as the undead and shambling down Main Street.
I’m all for it, but it got me thinking about the first time I sat down to write about a zombie horde in my AFTERTIME series, and how I set my guys apart from all their pop culture peers. After all, once you’ve seen one nice suburban soccer mom tricked out in oozing gashes and exposed eye sockets – faux ones anyway – you’ve kinda seen them all…
(This is probably a good time to point out that my creatures aren’t, technically, zombies; they are humans infected with a virus that leaves them feverish, insensible, and craving the flesh of the living.)
I decided to come at the problem from what I didn’t like – specifically, what bored me about zombies I’d come across in books and movies. The biggest problem is that they’re one-dimensional. They lack personality – collective personality, that is; I accept the notion that individualism is not advised when creating a zombie herd. The nature of their threat is that they are a known terror. You never have to wonder what they’re going to do next, because you already know – they are driven by their taste for bra-a-a-i-i-n-s and will shamble (or lope, given the advent of the “fast zombie”) mindlessly and relentlessly until they get them.
But wait. What if they weren’t an entirely known threat? In other words, what if you didn’t always know what to expect when they came after you? This is the question that got my attention, as I sat with my notebook in the early days of conceptualizing AFTERTIME.
I knew I didn’t want my Beaters (the name of my zombies in the books) to be intelligent. There are a few examples of talking zombies in the canon, and they leave me cold. Those aren’t zombies, they’re just bloodied human foes with an unusual diet. But what if they could inch along the continuum? What if, in other words, they started out as mindless flesh-lumps, but either retained traces of humanity, or regained them as time went on?
As I started to write, I kept both of these possibilities in mind. Beaters start out like dementia patients, uttering random syllables from time to time, and pantomiming distantly remembered tasks, like opening the fridge door or combing their hair. What makes that horrifying is that they retain the silhouette of human actions without intent or comprehension. Readers have often commented that those scenes – where a Beater dresses a doll or puts rags on a clothesline – as among the most chilling.
The other thing I did, starting late in the first book of the trilogy, is give them the capacity to learn. Not to regain individualism, but to develop collective, cooperative techniques to get what they wanted, which was live victims. So, they discover that they can stand on each other to scale a wall, or surround a victim to take away exit routes. This was particularly effective in the final book, HORIZON, when citizens have taken shelter on an island, because Beaters can’t swim.
Until the day that they start to learn.
Hell, that scared even me. And that’s the sign that you’re on the right track, if you’re a zombie writer.
Sophie Littlefield writes the award-winning post-apocalyptic AFTERTIME series for Harlequin Luna. She also writes paranormal fiction for young adults. Her first novel, A Bad Day for Sorry, won an Anthony Award for Best First Novel and an RT Book Award for Best First Mystery.
Sophie grew up in rural Missouri and makes her home in northern California. (Photo © Gigi Pandian)
Awakening in a bleak landscape as scarred as her body, Cass Dollar vaguely recalls surviving something terrible. Having no idea how many weeks have passed, she slowly realizes the horrifying truth: Ruthie has vanished. And with her, nearly all of civilization. Where once-lush hills carried cars and commerce, the roads today see only cannibalistic Beaters—people turned hungry for human flesh by a government experiment gone wrong.
In a broken, barren California, Cass will undergo a harrowing quest to get Ruthie back. Few people trust an outsider, let alone a woman who became a zombie and somehow turned back, but she finds help from an enigmatic outlaw, Smoke. Smoke is her savior, and her safety. For the Beaters are out there. And the humans grip at survival with their trigger fingers. Especially when they learn that she and Ruthie have become the most feared, and desired, of weapons in a brave new world…
Sophie is kindly giving away a set of all 3 books in the series (Aftertime, Rebirth, Horizon). Please Note: The above book cover is the UK edition of Aftertime - however, Sophie will be sending the US editions.
For entry into the giveaway please answer the following question then fill out the form below: If you were creating a zombie herd, what skill or capability would you give them to make them super terrifying?
This giveaway is US/UK/Canada only and ends 12:00am GMT 30th November 2012
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