Welcome back, WormholeRiders and Writing Lovers!
We are excited to present this WormholeRiders Roundtable, part of the WHRYouDecide Series, featuring interviews of several Science Fiction and Fantasy writers. Many thanks to BHC Press and Gary Morgenstein for this WormholeRiders’ exclusive interview with William Schlichter!
My first introduction to a “zombie” type of story was in the classic 1936 film The Walking Dead, starring Boris Karloff, whose character, John Ellman, is resurrected from the dead after receiving a mechanical heart. Perhaps it is just because it was Boris Karloff playing the role, but the movie rather reminded me of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Because, like Frankenstein’s monster, Karloff’s character is undoubtedly human, undoubtedly animated, and undoubtedly ought to be dead. Yet there is still a self-awareness possessed by this variety of “un-dead.” This is not what defines a true zombie in usual terms. Zombies don’t possess self-awareness like John Ellman and Frankenstein’s monster do.
My next education about what defines a zombie was in the movie The Serpent and the Rainbow. (I came of age in the 80’s and I was a fan of Wes Craven’s work.) There I learned of the distinctive attributes of a true zombie, born of Haitian voodoo magic, constituting a partially rotted corpse with partial brain activity restored:
- Brain stem function is completely re-ignited, allowing for fundamental pulmonary functions necessary for life.
Breath in, breath out. Moan.
- Temporal, Frontal, and Parietal lobes remain mush. Occipital lobe resumes vision capabilities. Because opaque corneas are a part of general zombie body decomposition, we can assume their vision must be pretty blurry.
- Cerebellum is only marginally functional, which results in the slow, uneven and stumbling gait of that signature zombie walk.
The zombie’s craving for human flesh is somehow unexplained. It can be assumed, however, that the witch doctor’s ritual of biting into live chickens as part of the protocol to resurrect them into their undead state might have inadvertently translated to the zombie’s instinct that human flesh must taste like chicken.
Zombie fiction can be fun. But better than some lone witch doctor creating just a handful of zombies, why not have zombies take over the world in a whole zombie apocalypse? That is where real zombie action really begins.
That’s what I imagine, anyway. But I am not an expert on zombies. Luckily, I know someone who is.
Meet William Schlichter, an award-winning screenwriter and science fiction author. He is a true zombie aficionado, and veteran writer of zombie tales that dish up the dead that refuse to lie down. I had the opportunity of interviewing him to find out more about his zombie-dominated world and what draws him to this horror-happy story line. So pour yourself a passion fruit with rum and get to know this weaver of terrifying tales.
A While earning my master’s degree, I took courses in Scriptwriting, and one of the courses I had to write a spec script from a current television show. I didn’t watch much TV and that new zombie show, The Walking Dead [AMC series], was on the list. So it gave me a motivation to view The Walking Dead. I completed the script and took 3rd Place in the 2013 Broadcast Education Association National Festival of Media Arts. To work on that script, I had to study the show. I also got the comics and read those. It fits into the second most important item a writer can do—you have to read, and I am a firm believer in reading what I am writing. When I work on a zombie book, I am reading zombie books. It keeps me in the mindset as I construct a story.
I wanted to cover a couple of items in my first zombie book, one I’ll expand on later, but it was challenging myself in my writing. I want to leave a finished book being a better writer than I was when the first word hit the page. Second, I want to explore some aspect of the zombie genre that isn’t explored, or I can put a different spin on it. The Good, The Bad and the Undead begins ten months in, as I got tired of day one stories. Every zombie story’s first day: What’s going on? Why are those people eating other people? What do we do? We find a safe place. There is no safe place. Shoot them. They don’t die. OH! Shoot them in the head. We made it through the day alive. Movie ends. Don’t tell the same story as everyone else, and give us characters that we care about. In the latest season of Fear: The Walking Dead, I like that no one died. The show had added a lot of new people, and because there were no deaths for a season, it gave me a chance to grow to like them, and now, if one of them is in danger, I care. The same holds true of books. I need characters I care about. And, yes, some will have to die, but it should be painful. Never kill a character for shock, which is difficult in a zombie story, but helps move the story forward.
I take those characters that I hope I’ve made the reader feel about them the same way I do and I place them in impossible situations. It seems to me that many zombie stories forget about Mother Nature so I wanted to unleash a natural disaster on my survivors. How do they deal with the undead on top of, say, an earthquake?
But always when I sit down to write I focus on how to make my zombie story as different as possible. I give the reader characters to care about. And I have a five-book plan that will give the reader a payoff. It may not be one they like, but it will have an end. When I plot out a book I always write the end first.
Q Stanford literary scholar Angela Becerra Vidergar once opined that the Zombie Apocalypse theme can be traced to the advent of nuclear warfare during World War II, much the same way that “invaders from outer space” stories became a fascination in the 1950’s Cold War escalation. Nuclear warfare is no longer at the forefront of social annihilation fixations, but the subculture of the “Undead-heads” is still thriving. Why do you think so?
A I lived far out in the country as a kid, so we didn’t get cable. It seemed like the majority of Saturday movies were low budget post-apocalyptic versions of Mad Max. The world was devastated by a nuclear war, and growing up in the 1980s, that was still a strong reality. Some versions were caused by pollution, but most were fallout related. I don’t remember a lot of zombie films (maybe they were on later after my bedtime). Then the Berlin Wall fell and Russians were friends. Klingons joined Starfleet. For a few years, the entertainment media lost villains.
It seems to me that the next became the growth of the internal struggle and the bad guy became someone we wanted to understand. Somewhere along the way, characters of Good and Evil became blurred. Even in the Star Wars Universe, the Jedi attempt to overthrow the legitimacy of the elected government. So we need strong, new villains, and the strongest and unbeatable might be a virus. Only so many films can be about a lab creating a cure so the virus must have a manifestation—zombies. So I do agree with George Romeo—who said zombies were political—they also represent our need for change. We seem to seek a reset of the way we currently live. We can’t blow up apartments like Tyler Durden, but if forced to, we would abandon all to escape flesh eating monsters. People are attracted to zombies because they seek change. Vampires don’t give that change as in the last 20 years they have seemed to become super sexy instead of dangerous. You can’t make a zombie sexy. They are always dangerous. And they force people to change their way of life.
In No Room in Hell, the main camp of survivors have one major rule: if you don’t work, you don’t eat. I thought about my grandfather who grew up in The Great Depression. I thought about why his generation didn’t turn to drugs. One could argue they weren’t available, but they were. I felt people didn’t have time to do drugs; they were too busy working. People got up and worked and were too tired at the end of the day. The same idea applies in my novel. People have to work to grow food, tend cattle, and build protective fences. Without idle time and a focus on survival, they don’t have time to inject poison into their bodies.
I’ve moved away from the question a bit, but yeah, I agree with her article. Nuclear war perfected our media after World War II. Interestingly enough, in all those nuclear apocalyptic movies, it always seemed to end with hope. All the Mad Max films always had a message of hope—whether the radiation subsides or people rebuild civilization—they all end in hope. The zombie film does not. They don’t end. The characters may survive, but tomorrow we get up and we fight zombies again. It never ends. The Walking Dead follows survivors some 13 years after the end of the world and zombies are still going strong. The zombie genre strips away hope that there is an end to the danger. It is one element I am moving toward in my own series. There is no happy ending but at the end of book five the reader will be left with hope.
Q Survivalism is at the heart of any good zombie apocalypse. What is your favorite survivalist skill that you bring to bear on your approach to zombie survival?
A One skill that almost every zombie work lacks is intelligent characters. I know I bring that to the table and even make sure to do so with my characters. In my No Room in Hell series, my survivors take over a hydroelectric dam. And no one will ever get into the compound who is bit. Everyone strips down and is checked for infection. But I can’t get over in the hundreds of movies and books I’ve reviewed—people are dumb. I would like to say that was my assessment before the toilet paper shortage. I’ve read some actual plans to deal with zombies. And the run on toilet paper proves we are all doomed. When I was an EMT, the first part of the training, along with scene safety, was to remain calm. The other is to protect your valuable survivors. If you are a doctor on The Walking Dead, and they meet a new doctor, one of you is going to die. In my novel, they have three doctors and they never go outside the fence. The same is true of the blacksmith and farmers. One element is that the main character is the only one to leave the compound and keeps those inside the fence to stay safe, and he won’t hesitate to shoot the undead or anyone that puts the safety of others at risk.
Q Through your writing, how do you hope to impact your readers?
A I hope they find No Room in Hell to be a fun ride. I try and take in a direction most zombie stories don’t explore. I wanted to explore my own way of dealing with the undead with intelligent survivors. I wanted to fix problems I saw in other zombie works. And the biggest was that I wanted to write a story where the main character didn’t have a name. I wrote it to challenge my own skill. But No Room in Hell doesn’t have some secret theme.
Now my new work, Sirgrus Blackmane Demihuman Gumshoe: The Dark-Elf, due out later this year, I follow a detective in 1923. He was a veteran of The Great War and suffers from Shell Shock. I did a lot of research for this book, not only to write in the style of the detective novel, but to also show the problems faced by those with PTSD. In the 1920s, soldiers were expected to just man up and get over it, and not only want to have an interesting mystery but also bring about awareness of those suffering from PTSD.
Q What are your plans for the future?
A I feel like I have so many projects before me. I have a writing plan and books I want to write. Sirgrus Blackmane Demihuman Gumshoe: The Dark-Elf will be released later this year. I’d like to explore his character in another mystery sometime in the future. I just completed a draft of a vampire novel, which I try to take a non-traditional route with my story. I have returned to vampires being the villain and I have a new hero, and we’ll see if she can deal with vampires that are closer to being human than castle dwelling counts. After that, I’ve got a military story in the works and Book Four of No Room in Hell. I have always planned out five novels for this series, and plan to return to some events in Book One that may have felt like throwaway moments. Plus, I want to take the undead into a place few zombie books go and that is into winter. Even if No Room in Hell’s content is anything but campy, but I love campy titles and have used several for the series and book four will be titled: Winter is Coming.
So what draws us inextricably to these story lines as sure as zombies are drawn to a pile of human flesh? What drives us to stick with the protagonists as they endure in this world, which offers no hope, no post-zombie-apocalypse possibility? It might be, perhaps, that zombies represent to us people we know in the real world, people who perpetually frustrate us and make us miserable. Maybe we actually have reason to identify with this Sisyphus-like struggle that zombie apocalypse survivors have against the undead.
IT actually reminds me of a funny joke that went something like this:
“Did you know that 75% of adult wrestle mania fans think that wrestling contests are real? …And, almost 100% of them are able to vote?”
I am not knocking anyone who appreciates the skill and choreography involved in these wrestling exhibitions, but I think that there is a certain degree of truth to the notion that we sometimes feel like we are surrounded by brain-dead people, and consequently, life can sometimes feel like a dirt sandwich and every day is just another bite.
Indeed, when you open up a good zombie apocalypse story like any from Schlichter’s No Room in Hell series, suddenly real life is a delightful Monte Cristo sandwich, dusted with powdered sugar and with raspberry puree on the side, at least insofar as the daily grind of real life compares to a fantasy world that has succumbed to a zombie inferno. Spending some time with the characters surviving in a hopeless hell-on-earth might make the idea of showing up for work and dealing with that obnoxious and incompetent mid-level manager just a little bit more bearable.
So read William Schlichter’s zombie tales. They certainly provide perspective. And, it doesn’t hurt that they include techniques on how to survive the brain-dead among us.
So thank you, William, for letting us conduct this interview with you! We wish you all be best on your many books and scripts that you have in the works. Our thanks also to both Gary Morgenstein for arranging the interview and BHC Press publications for supporting it.
The WormholeRiders News Agency Team and I look forward to sharing more real news with you in the future.
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