Today is the first in a series of columns by David Moody to mark the release of Autumn: Exodus, the final book in his acclaimed Autumn series. Moody has been writing about the end of the world for almost thirty years. His novel, Hater, was optioned for film by Guillermo del Toro.
Zombies are amazing. There you go, I said it. To my mind, they’re the most terrifying and adaptable creatures in all of horror. They are the monsters that are closest to us physically, but perhaps the furthest removed on every other level. They are base, guttural grotesques, incapable of little more than just existing, yet still able to terrify and destroy. They are vacuous shells that somehow bring out complex emotional reactions in us. They are the decaying antagonists of some of the greatest works of horror film and fiction over the last hundred years, and also some of the worst.
That might be the problem, I think. Zombies are all too often seen as an easy option; a lazy fallback for low-budget movie makers and authors alike who prefer violent, blood-soaked stories to psychological, character-driven fiction, where the kill-count is more important than anything else. Be honest, did you groan just now when you read the word ‘zombie’? What clichéd images popped into your head? Which films and books sprang to mind? I wonder how many people are not reading this precisely because they saw the dreaded ‘z’ word and switched off, having already had more than their fill of the walking dead?
I’ve been writing about zombies (and variations thereof) for the last couple of decades. I owe my career to the living dead, and I’ve just released the final book in a new trilogy of novels set in the decaying, corpse-infested world of my Autumn series. Michael and the This is Horror team have been kind enough to give me a few columns on this esteemed site to talk about various aspects of the living dead and their influence on horror. It’s a welcome chance for me to vent my spleen because, on balance, I think the undead have been dealt a poor hand. They don’t always deserve the eye-rolling. There’s a lot more to those hordes of emotionless, stumbling, shambling creatures than meets the eye. Sometimes.
Like many people, my introduction to zombies came courtesy of George Romero and his trilogy of classic movies: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead. These films had a truly transformative effect on me and set me on the path to doing what I do today. After the publication of my first book, Straight to You—a grim apocalyptic love story that initially sank without trace—I set about writing my debut zombie novel. Autumn was published independently in 2002 and it really did the business for me. It eventually spawned a further eight books, a (frankly not good) movie that starred Dexter Fletcher and David Carradine, and a full-cast audio adaptation. The series was picked up by St Martin’s Press in the US and went on to be published in a number of different languages around the world, and, as I just mentioned, I’ve spent the last couple of years writing a new trilogy of Autumn novels. Writing the new books was a whole different experience. It made me realise just how much the living dead—and our relationship with them—has changed over the last twenty or so years.
It’s hard to believe now, but back at the start of 2003, no one was talking about zombies. The dead were all but completely absent from the horror mainstream. It was the calm before the storm, because it wasn’t long before the double-punch of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Zack Synder’s surprisingly decent Dawn of the Dead remake reignited the public interest in the sub-genre. (By the way, let’s not reopen the are they zombies if they’re not dead? debate that surrounded 28 Days just yet … the infected are close enough to zombies for it not to matter.)
From a literary perspective, the playing field was equally sparse. The Walking Dead comic book was still a year or more away and, other than Brian Keene with The Rising and its sequels, David Wellington with his Monster Island trilogy, and me, no one else seemed to be writing zombie fiction. There was, however, a burgeoning underground movement, with websites such as the still active www.homepageofthedead.com providing a gateway to an apocalyptic world of written rot and ruin for fans of the genre. So, whilst a relatively small number of people were actively seeking out zombie-themed entertainment back then, we creators enjoyed a purple patch because the playing field was far less crowded, and the punters were all being funnelled in our direction. Autumn hit the market just at the right time. In a pre-Kindle world where eBooks were barely a thing and giveaways were unheard of, I offered the novel as a free download from my website and saw more than half a million copies snapped up in no time at all.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of books, films, and video games available; a stark contrast to those early, innocent days. I returned to my indie roots to publish the new Autumn books, and the publication has felt very different this time around. Back then, I felt like one of a handful of survivors being hounded by vast crowds of ravenous corpses. This time, it’s as if the situation has been reversed, like I’m one of the flesh-eating ghouls, competing with the rest of the horde for the fresh meat of new readers. It’s a tenuous analogy, but I hope you get the picture. The zombie marketplace is rammed!
The competition apart, I’ve noticed other differences with this new series. I set out to write the original Autumn book as a ‘serious’ zombie story, trying to inject a little believability into a premise which is inherently unbelievable. My zombies differ from Romero et al’s creatures because they’re not hungry. You won’t find any flesh or brain eating in my books. Instead, the dead are just there, existing only to torment the living. The infection that causes all the damage is already all around us, affecting everyone at the same time as if a switch has been flicked. By the end of page one, book one, you’re either a zombie or you’ve survived. This was a conscious approach that I took to avoid repeating the most tiresome clichés of the genre—case in point, a survivor gets bitten but does everything they can to avoid letting any of their co-survivors know what’s happened until it’s too late and they ‘turn’ at the least opportune moment, compromising the group and usually precipitating the death of everyone else … These days I get a lot of feedback from readers thanking me for doing something different with Autumn, but that definitely wasn’t the case back in 2002. I was regularly eviscerated by zombie purists for daring to mess with the rules. Back then, people’s expectations of what a zombie story should be were far more rigid than they are today.
It’s interesting, though, because it’s not just the volume of available zombie stories that has changed in the last couple of decades, nor is it just the tastes and demands of the audience. I’ve noticed other, more subtle changes too. As we’ve become more aware of the living dead as readers, so the uninfected characters that inhabit the stories have also had to change and adapt.
In the early days, the unwritten golden rule of any zombie story was that none of the survivors could have any idea what zombies were. If you don’t believe me, rewatch Night of the Living Dead and watch for the reactions of the people trapped in the farmhouse. There’s a lot of discussion about what ‘those things out there’ are. You could get away with it back then. It made sense. From a storytelling perspective, part of the magic was having characters trying to work out what it was they were dealing with, without them immediately resorting to ‘oh shit, the zombie apocalypse is actually happening, it’s just like Dawn of the Dead/ Shaun of the Dead/ The Walking Dead/ Zombieland/ Z-Nation/ Black Summer etc’. In the first Autumn book, when the dead begin to reanimate, they’re met with curiosity from the uninfected, not concern. The first walking cadaver is bundled into a building by a handful of survivors who attempt to illicit a response from an impossibly mobile dead woman. Can you imagine a similar scene in a zombie story today? Would any survivors schooled on 11 series of The Walking Dead and its various spinoffs do anything other than try to destroy the brain of the decaying creature in their midst?
But you know, it doesn’t matter how much of a zombie expert you might think you are, how many books you’ve read or films you’ve watched, I reckon that come the zombie apocalypse, you’ll likely fall apart as quickly as the rest of us. If the shit really did hit the fan, I don’t think any of us would cope as well as we’d imagine. That’s the thing that keeps me writing zombie fiction, and I’ll talk about it more in my next columns.
DAVID MOODYBuy David Moody’s books