Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Hope Spot #9: Zombies Aren't Dead (And Might Never Be)

I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
and will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living.
The Epic of Gilgamesh.

You know, I keep hearing people prophesying the end of the zombie genre and… Honestly? If Moses had this track record then I’m not surprised that it took the Israelites forty years to figure out which way was north.
I’m starting to doubt that it’s ever going to come to a firm close, is what I’m saying.
I say this because it seems like every other week I come across something that does something fresh with the genre. So yeah, is there a bubble to be popped with regard to stories that make use of zombies without any creativity because “hey, zombies are popular so it should sell and whatnot”? Yeah.
And that’s a good thing. Cheap works that are only trying to take advantage of a trend, are really Not A Good Thing.
But it seems to me now that there’s always going to be a sizable market waiting for somebody who can do something new with zombies. And I don’t think that we’re going to be running out of creativity any time soon.
Just my random $0.02.
The first thing that you’ve got to do if you’re going to be serious about the zombie thing? Figure out what you mean to do with them. Some people say that zombies are just hungry corpses with a depressing moan and can never be anything more. They’re wrong, and stories that take that perspective are going to lose out to the folks that have an original take (“zombies that don’t mean anything” can be a legitimate paradigm, but right now it’s a paradigm that’s overdone like an ash-caked Christmas turkey)
Other people understand that zombies can represent something, but think that they’re a one-gig pony— I encountered them for the first time in hearing complaints about fast zombies, and how they missed the “poetry” of zombies. These people are also wrong, and thank Kankri, because if that were true then the doom-and-gloom prophets proclaiming the end of the zombie genre would probably be right.
My zombies can mean something different from your zombies can mean something different from Dave’s zombies. Why, my zombies mean something different from some of my other zombies, alright?
This makes your job a little bit harder, because you can’t go to just one paradigm and call the job good. But it’s good, because this might be what helps your zombies stand out from all the others.
Now, I’m coming at this from a, let’s say a literary kind of viewpoint, which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s been reading the column for all this time (to new readers I say: “Hello!” and “Don’t be surprised if I get literary!”). This doesn’t mean that I think there’s something inferior about stories where zombies are just corpses with the munchies. That can work too.
But I think that having something deeper to your zombies, or to your story in general, can tie some loose ends together and make the package oh-so-tight, more than a list of various traits that you thought were interesting or awesome. I don’t know of a single person in the industry who doesn’t advise that authors build stories out of their own fears, and making stories about zombies that come out of something that’s relevant to you, and speaks from out of your soul— that seems to me like water from the same well.
In fact, your zombies probably do mean something, whether or not you realize it. Even if you think that your zombies are nothing but hungry corpses, it may be that this concept, as defleshed as it may seem to be, strikes you to the core and scares you like, well, like everything did H. P. Lovecraft.
Now that you know you’re scared by zombies, figure out why that’s so. Is it the corpses that are moving around, like corpses aren’t meant to do? The idea of being eaten alive? Is it the endless onslaught, the unstoppable deluge of flesh?
You can’t subvert, deconstruct, or zig-zag a trope until you recognize it as a trope. In the same way, you can’t do anything about the fears and desires that drive you until you recognize that they exist, and dig into the dirty recesses of their machinery. But once you’ve done that you can use this knowledge to build your story and make it intensely personal, a sort of dialogue between yourself and the reader, or a revelation.
Right now, there are as many zombie stories as there are zombies in an apocalypse. You don’t want yours to be mentioned in the credits under the heading “Extras,” five ranks down in the third column. You want yours to be the zombie that everyone remembers.

To help you along, and to prove that zombies can mean different things to different people, I’m going to let grab some other voices next month.

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