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  • Reinventing the Horde: Problems in Zombie Fiction

    zombiefightnightdrivethruAuthor’s note: This essay originally aired on this blog prior to the file purge of 2014. It is now being rerun for your reading pleasure. Please note Zomtropolis is no longer available as a free on-line serial and will be released in paperback and eBook in the near future.

    Zombies are monsters. At least, that’s the standard definition. Someone dies, rises, has a taste of human flesh and so hunts down the living and, once the prey is caught, chows down and eats their guts. Oh, and they’re ugly, too, slowly rotting away with each passing day.

    That’s the standard version of the zombie and the one most are familiar with.

    It’s the one I knew of when I first discovered them, but as for their main backstory, I didn’t know what that wasy.

    See, I grew up in a household where horror and monsters where off limits. This was a good thing, in that I didn’t have to view creepy faces, see blood and guts, watch people get killed, or be subject to dark forests like other kids I knew. I was probably saved hundreds of hours of nightmares as a result. This absence of horror made for a happier childhood, in that regard. My dad always said, “If you want to watch horror, watch the news.” And he was right, and still is. We live in a sad world with villains in it that outmatch most of what we create in books or on screen.

    At the same time, being so sheltered was a detriment to a well-rounded upbringing because later on, I was naïve about a lot of things, including the darker side of life, both in terms of what humans were capable of and scary images.

    My first exposure to monsters was seeing a ripped-from-a-magazine picture of Freddy Krueger lying in the playground in elementary. The image of a disfigured man with bubbles on his skin was so foreign to me that I had occasional nightmares from that single image for years. I never saw an actual Freddy movie until I was eighteen and living on my own, but I got to tell you: going to the video store to rent one sent up all sorts of red flags and I was scared to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street for the first time.

    But zombies, werewolves or vampires growing up?

    At most I saw the Halloween episode of Highway to Heaven where Michael Landon was a werewolf for part of it. Scared me to death. Same with that other episode with the devil.

    Highway to Heaven. Good show, from what I remember, and it was allowed in the Christian household I grew up in for its message. It was also this growing up in a Christian household and the zero tolerance policy for horror and monsters that shaped my life, not only in terms of what I couldn’t see, but how I reacted when faced with the horrors that pop up in life now and then.

    In fact, I only got into horror because of something painful that happened to me. It was in this place of darkness that I found comfort in other dark things for a long time.

    Later, when I incorporated writing about zombies into my writing career, my view of the undead and fandom of them wasn’t your typical horror fan’s. It wasn’t the blood and guts that excited me or their spooky nature, the whole things-that-go-bump-in-the-night thing.

    Instead, it was rooted in my first love: superheroes.

    And they still are.

    I’ve never viewed zombies as “horror monsters” in terms of how I create and write them. To me, they’ve always been supervillains, and I think it’s this definition of them that is more accurate: they are “super” because they can’t die via conventional means—only by the removal of the head—and are certainly not part of our everyday lives, and they are “villains” because of the evil act of eating others they commit.

    When I set out to write my first zombie book, Blood of the Dead (book one of the Undead World Trilogy,) I didn’t want to write a standard zombie novel about a virus, people dying, people coming back, people surviving. I’ve never been one for formulas in my fiction and have always tried to do something new with each tale. Once the story was done, it immediately birthed unusual plans for the sequel, Possession of the Dead: angels, demons, giant zombies some fifteen stories high, shamblers and sprinters, shape shifting zombies and the consequences of the time travel ending of the first book. The third, Redemption of the Dead, incorporated all these unusual elements, while neatly dealing with the time travel issue and ensuring it was paradox-free, which, as a major time travel fan, was something important to me. But all along, as these books were written, the zombies were supervillains to me, with my main cast—Joe, Billy, August, Des, Tracy—being superheroes in their own right, especially Joe and Tracy. While Joe was an excellent shot with the gun, tough as nails and grim, Tracy was a highly-skilled marksmen and fighter. Likewise, they had the tendency to rescue people versus just letting people die.

    The story certainly would not have been what it was without my love of the superhero genre and my sheltered upbringing. Doing zombie stories this way also enabled me to tackle Zombie Fight Night: Battles of the Dead, with a kind of comic book sensibility, that is, classic characters—ninjas, samurai, robots, Vikings, and more—and pit them up against the undead in Bloodsport-like battles, each fight with a purpose that served the overall story being told between each bout.

    The supervillain angle—I like it. I grew up with it, being a huge fan of Super Friends, the Christopher Reeve Superman flicks, the Tim Burton Batman movies, even the Spider-Man TV show. To be honest, I can’t imagine writing monsters any other way other than as supervillains because that’s what they are to me.

    Any monster is, actually, and I explored this idea in the series of anthologies I edit called Metahumans vs. The first two are Metahumans vs the Undead and Metahumans vs Werewolves. For the uninitiated, metahumans are superheroes are the same thing. The idea with this series was not only to showcase independent superheroes, but also put them up against a new kind of supervillain that isn’t used that often in comics or cartoons: monsters.

    Before you accuse me of this article being a giant commercial for my undead work—for free serial zombie fiction, see my on-line novel, Zomtropolis at www.canisterx.com, wink wink, nudge nudge—there’s a point to all these examples, and that is this: not to let stereotypes and archetypes be a guide for your fiction, in this, we’re talking about undead fiction.

    Why do zombies have to monsters via the standard definition? Why can’t there be something more to them?

    I fully realize we live in a very commercialistic society, where most of what’s produced is made because it’ll make the most money. For me, this is a shallow way of approaching storytelling. It’s selfish, it’s limiting, it’s, frankly, wrong. Art—which includes writing—should be about honest expression, about pushing boundaries and trying something new. Will this new thing always be popular? No, but the fact that it is new is important and shows the artist behind it has put thought into it and expressed something from within versus simply a formula of what would sell.

    Let’s look at the typical zombie formula.

    1) a virus sweeps the world, killing people

    2) these people rise from the dead as flesh-eating machines

    3) a group of people were somehow not infected—which may or may not be explained

    4) this group must survive in a half-destroyed world with limited resources—are our armies really that incompetent that the surviving military couldn’t defeat creatures who are stupid and slow?—and battle amongst themselves and against shambling zombies

    Did I miss anything?

    While this is fine for the skeleton of a story, it doesn’t make much for the meat of it. There needs to be more. Reasons for things need to be given. A new spin on these four main ideas needs to be taken otherwise it’s just the same story being told over and over again, the only difference being the people’s names and locales.

    “Well, that’s what the audience expects?” you say. They expect that because that’s what we’ve been giving them.

    Ever read a book or see a movie and go, “Now that’s a new way to do it?” I have. It’s an amazing realization and elevates the work in question to a whole new level upon seeing it.

    Some possible fixes to the aforementioned zombie formula, off the top of my head:

    1) Why is it always a virus? Why not something supernatural? Or something from space? Something from Earth? Something mechanical that gives the illusion of people back from the dead? I edited an anthology called Dead Science, which challenged the authors to create unique science-gone-wrong-based origins for the undead. The stories they came up with were fun and original.

    2) Shamblers and sprinters seem to be the order of the day. Some have ventured into smart zombie territory. What if they had super strength? What if to kill them it wasn’t cutting off their heads but it was their guts—source of hunger—that needed to be removed? What if they were giants? What if part of the cause of them dying also shrank them and you had zombies so small they were like bugs and could get all over you so quickly like ants that you had no hope of survival?

    3) Seldom is it explained why the group of survivors were immune to the zombie virus. An explanation for their survival needs to be included? Was a vicinity thing? Did the cause of the undead only affect people indoors? Outdoors? Is the whole world taken out or just a part of it?

    4) How come the world is always destroyed within a few weeks of the outbreak? Have you noticed this or is it just me? While I realize people act like animals under panic—we’ve all seen riots on the news—all these cities with broken everything, over-turned cars, bodies everywhere, graffiti, everyone suddenly in torn clothes, etc.—I just don’t get it. What about our military? Wouldn’t the countries’ forces combine to eradicate a common threat like a zombie outbreak? How could even a horde of zombies take out a guy with a machine gun unless they’re oh-so-slow moving bodies somehow got in a sneak attack? What about planes and bombs?

    I won’t admit to having read every zombie book or seen every zombie movie, but it seems to me the element of realism has been taken out. It’s always been my view that a book or comic or movie—whatever—needs to be grounded in reality somehow, the whole “what if this happened tomorrow for real” thing. To add such an element to a book—regardless of how out-of-this-world the circumstance is—suddenly brings that fantastic circumstance into our world and puts the reader right in the middle of the tale because he/she can completely understand why things happen a certain way. Life isn’t full of conveniences, tidy plotlines and clichéd ideas. It’s a mess with tons of twists and turns.

    Shouldn’t our stories reflect life?

    The argument is people want to escape. For me, that’s just an excuse to get out of a life that isn’t the one you wanted. How about turning that on its head and reading stories about lives like yours, that aren’t the way the characters wanted, and you draw strength and encouragement from that? There’s lots to be said about relatability and seeing people in the same boat as you, whether they’re real or not, whether the world they inhabit is yours or not.

    But I realize that trying new things and going against the grain is countercultural, especially in the West. I realize that to propose writing zombie fiction as something other than zombie fiction flies in the face of decades of tradition.

    It just seems, though, that these standard ideas have become so ingrained in us that we’re afraid to move or operate outside them. Afraid to grow. Afraid to step off the beaten path and blaze a new trail.

    Seems we all just go with the flow.

    Just like a pack of zombies.


  • Canister X Book Review #10: My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers

    Click Here to Order from Amazon.com
    Click Here to Order from Amazon.com
    My Utmost for His Highest
    by Oswald Chambers
    5 out of 5

    Man, talk about a wake-up call. Oswald Chambers pulls no punches as he leads you day-by-day through an entire year of Bible-based teaching (with even an extra day thrown in for a leap year), mostly excerpted from his lectures given at the Bible Training College from 1911-1917.

    I’ve never been so blasted with good, solid, Christ-centered teaching in my entire life. Chambers’s point throughout is simple: it’s Jesus or bust, folks. Get with the program or not only will you miss out big time in this life, but also in the life to come.

    His style is direct, his words laced with power. Why? Because he’s preaching the Word, solid and true. Not ever have I been so challenged by a daily devotional as by this one. Most out there are just fluffy thoughts for the day. Sure, some are Christian in nature or even Bible-based, but most just don’t get to the meat of it. My Utmost for His Highest does. This is one of those books that are meant for those who want more, for those who take, or want to take, their Christian walk seriously.

    This book amplifies what it means to be a Christian. A real Christian, first century-style. The kind of Christian God wants.

    If you’re looking for a book to change your life, one that will amplify what the Bible says, then grab a copy of this ASAP. If you’re looking to just sit in the drudgery of the same old, same old, then don’t bother.

    But then you’ll be missing out. Big time.

    Highly recommended reading.


  • Canister X Book Review #9: The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense by John Bevere

    Click Here to Order from Amazon.com
    Click Here to Order from Amazon.com
    The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense
    by John Bevere
    5 out of 5

    The Golden Rule states to do unto others what you would have them do unto you. That message was meant for good things, to treat others well in the hopes you’d be treated well in return. Unfortunately, too many people have used this as a license to treat others poorly just because they’ve been treated poorly themselves.

    The Golden Rule is based on Matthew 7:12, where Jesus says that, in short, you should treat others the way you want to be treated.

    The point of Bevere’s book is offense and how to deal with it. The message is to forgive because the Bible is quite clear that if we don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive us. After all, fair is fair, and God is always fair and is the embodiment of that. It isn’t about how wrong we’ve been treated or how justified we are to be mad at or upset with someone else. Judgment and justice belong to Christ alone so who are we to mete it out? It’s simply not our place and by holding grudges and not forgiving someone, we are passing judgment on them by withholding our love and forgiveness from them.

    Bevere hits the message home with a hard smack, as he’s so good at. His writing style is simple and clear, but very poignant, frequently reminding the reader of what the Bible says about offense and forgiveness without pulling any punches.

    This book is a true gem and a must for the serious Christian’s bookshelf. It is also important reading for the non-Christian because, as it is with truth, truth is universal and applies to everyone.

    This book is important. It is life-changing because it is based on a Word that can divide joints and marrow, and soul and spirit.


  • Take Up Your Pen Daily and Follow Me

    DSCF2971Note: This post was originally published on Jeffrey Allen Davis’s blog

    Take Up Your Pen Daily and Follow Me
    by
    A.P. Fuchs

    There are two kinds of writers when it comes to the Christian camp: those who are Christian authors and those who are authors that are Christian. The former is the writer who deliberately writes Christian fiction, stories with a Christian message and often with Christian characters. The latter is the writer who writes stories from a Christian worldview but doesn’t overtly share their faith via the stories they tell.

    I’m in the latter camp, though I have ventured into the first. The reason I’m in the latter is because—just the way my writing career started and has gone—my story ideas tend to fall in the secular category in terms of concept and execution as opposed to me sitting down and purposefully writing a story with a Christian message.

    Science fiction, fantasy, horror, superheroes—these are my genres. I’m a huge nerd and always have been. And while true there is such a thing as Christian speculative fiction, my characters tend to be your secular every-man instead of hardcore believers. I have written obvious Christian characters in the past, but doing so brings up a problem because if indeed a truly born-again Christian writer is going to write a truly born-again Christian character, he/she knows they need to be accurate in their portrayal of what a Christian really is. Simply writing a religious character, though that can have its merits, is a disservice from the Christian worldview because our aim is to convey truth as it is, not what man has made it out to be.

    In my work, I tend to provide Christian ideals via my secular characters while also showcasing their flaws and even, in some cases, their lack of religious conviction. Things like hope, love, perseverance, self-discipline and so on—items most of humanity agrees are good things, though all have root in Christian-Judeo teaching—are prevalent in my characters. I’ve found that if I make a truly Christian character, it tends to, at this stage in my career, be a stifle on showing a character’s humanity. To clarify, in Christian circles we are well aware that we all have faults big and small, but to the outside world, the image of a Christian is one who is righteous ninety-nine percent of the time. If that person screws up while preaching righteousness, then suddenly they’re a hypocrite and the reader has lost all faith in them. We see this in real life almost daily. I find it’s better given my particular stories to have characters with Christian traits as opposed to being outright religious.

    That’s not to say Christian characters can’t be well done, but on the whole, most of the time the Christian author is preaching to the choir and, well, have fun trying to interest a secular person into reading your stuff. No one likes being preached to, even Christians in some cases.

    However, my personal Christian sensibilities have informed my fiction starting late 2005 and onward. While there were glimpses of it before, in terms of story choices and presentation, there’s a certain code of conduct I have to follow and I believe these fall into three main areas: language, sex and violence.

    On language: Some of my very early work had a lot of cursing. Just where I was at at the time. As I continued writing and my heart changed, choice words were removed from my output and instead I found ways to not use bad words. Sometimes a simple, “He swore,” is enough. Other times I challenged myself to write around cursing as, to me, cussing in writing is lazy writing. I’m sure we can debate this but it seems it takes more creativity to come up with other ways to display disgust instead of four-letter words. I’m not talking about using lame soft words like “darnnit” and “oh fudge.” I’m talking about showing a character’s anger or disgust at a situation via their actions and accompanying phrases via creative writing instead of just throwing in a swear word. True, people in real life cuss all the time and, for the secular reader, such language doesn’t offend them. I get that from a let’s-go-for-realism point-of-view, but I can’t see how an author claiming to be Christian can include choice phrases and then preach righteousness off the page.

    Interestingly, I also have a flipside argument that is pro language in books, even from Christian writers. Before you call me a heretic, here me out. You have to ask yourself, what is a swear word? Why are some words dirtier than others? If you look at cursing over the course of human history, it’s gone through a lot of iterations. Long ago, instead of telling someone to blank-off, you’d tell them things like, “I hope you die a thousand deaths” or “May darkness be upon your family.” That was cursing and/or the swear phrases of the time. Of course, spiritually, such phrases are indeed cursing but walking down the street today, if you said that to someone, they’d probably look at you and go, “What?” So it seems that the reason cursing is a no-no amongst Christians is because it displays the heart-motive behind the words used. Frankly, if I told you to screw off, that’s the same as me telling you to F-off because in my heart I mean it the same way. If I stub my toe and yell out something dumb like “Cow patties” in anger, that’s the same as saying the other word. Again, it’s about the heart.

    For my own conviction, if I’m doing something around the house and tell someone I have a pile of blank to clean up, I don’t mean such a word in a malicious way nor is it directed at anyone, therefore I’m in the clear.

    But, again, there are certain expectations of the Christian from a worldly standpoint and so it’s best to refrain from swearing in fiction.

    On sex: From 2005 onward, there’s been no sex in my books. At most, it is implied (i.e. “They went to the bedroom”), but never graphically detailed. Sex in and of itself is a beautiful thing ordained by God for both procreation and recreation. God is pro sex. However, we humans have twisted and turned it into something else and, worse, have made it a source of entertainment in various mediums. The reason why sex as entertainment is out of bounds is because it incites lust, whether overtly like porn or a little less so via fiction. Is writing about sex wrong in and of itself? No. If someone asked me to give them an idea of what a sex session looked like and wanted me to write it and their motive was purely for education, I’d have no trouble with that. But, if I knew they’d use it as a source of lustful imaginings, then there’s an issue. It’s not so much lusting after fictional characters being wrong—I mean, they’re not real so technically you’ve lusted after nobody thereby haven’t violated Jesus’s command to not look another with lust. But, the danger is it can warp your view of sex and/or sexualize people you see walking down the street thereby putting you in a compromised position. And it’s for that reason I abstain from graphic sex in my books.

    It’s kind of like asking is it appropriate for Christian artists to go to life drawing classes with nude models? My answer is it’s just fine provided lust doesn’t enter the equation. The human body is a beautiful thing and was made in God’s image. It’s a work of art. Having been in life drawing classes myself, I can tell you, lust doesn’t enter the mind because after a couple minutes, the naked person standing in front of you is viewed as no more than a teapot or lamp. That’s not to say I view them as objects, but I’m more focused on getting the curves and anatomy right that I’m not even thinking sexual thoughts. But, once more, if lust entered the picture, then it’s time to pack up my sketchpad and leave.

    On violence: I struggle in this area. I’m not sure how much is too much and how much is not enough, from a fiction standpoint. After all, every book needs conflict and sometimes that conflict gets violent. Should I show it realistically? Should I skimp over the details? I’m torn. Biblically speaking, Scripture is extremely violent but it never delves into detail. It just says what happened. I’ve read Christian books that handled violence the same way. They broke the rule of show-don’t-tell and quickly told the reader so-and-so was in a fight or got shot and that’s it.

    Upon reflection, my stance on violence right now is again rooted in the heart of the issue. Why am I writing it? Is it because I enjoy showing people getting hurt or cut up or whatever? Or am I simply trying to put the reader in the characters’ shoes and take them through the paces so they can feel what the character is feeling? Showing, not telling. Likewise, from the reader’s point-of-view, if I knew some of the more graphic displays of violence in my fiction fueled some sort of weird lust for torture in my readers, then I’d remove that element because I’m feeding something that shouldn’t be fed.

    I will say, writing more or less clean books have been a bonus for me. I feel better about my work and it also serves as a selling point at book signings and conventions. Often people want to buy my stuff for their teenagers. When I assure them the books are language- and sex-free, they’re thrilled to hear it and it helps close the sale. I do warn them, however, that some of my stuff is violent and if showing blood is a put-off for them, then maybe they should pass.

    The hardest part about being an author that’s Christian is that sometimes it puts a stopper on creativity. It would be fun to write a book with no rules and just put in whatever I felt like—follow the art, so to speak. After all, I’m a sinful man with sinful tendencies and art is about expression, whether that expression is all happy rainbows or storm clouds. Of course, this also means that what I put on paper is a reflection of my own heart. I’m paraphrasing, but like Jesus said, what’s in a man is what comes out of him, and it’s what comes out of him that defiles him or not.

    I suppose this is where “Take up your cross daily” applies.

    I think in the end what I write and what I include ultimately shows where I’m at in my spiritual journey and what business has been squared away and what still needs working on. The main point is this: as mentioned above, it’s about the heart. Mine’s not perfect, but it’s getting better.

    Take this as you may.

    Sidenote: if you like writing contemplation and publishing talk, consider signing up for my free weekly newsletter, The Canister X Transmission at www.tinyletter.com/apfuchs You also get a free clown thriller out of the deal.

    The first year of newsletters have been collected and released as The Canister X Transmission: Year One. Details at http://bit.ly/1PqpSNh Thanks.