Author Joshua Gaylord on Writing Zombie Books


Last April, Joshua Gaylord wrote about his genre-wandering tendencies. His first book, Hummingbirdswas a Manhattan prep-school novel, and his second book (published under the pseudonym Alden Ball) is a post-apocalyptic southern gothic—with zombies. The Reapers Are the Angels was released in August 2010. We are excited to have Josh back for another post! (This one much more zombie-oriented, of course.)

Whenever, as a storyteller, you decide to tinker with an existing mythology (vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, Catholic schoolgirls), you have a number of decisions ahead of you—most of them having to do with which elements of the traditional mythology you are keeping in place, and which elements you are jettisoning. For example, maybe your vampires have no trouble with daylight but are still sensitive to garlic and holy water. Maybe your zombies are smart enough to have erudite conversations with each other, but they still want to eat your brains.

6a00e54ff9f2cf883401347fa94a45970c-120wiThere are good reasons for both upholding and overturning these traditions. On the one hand, staying true to the mythology is a kind of narrative shortcut that keeps you from having to explain a lot of mundane things. If you introduce a vampire in your story, there are a number of assumptions that your reader will take for granted: drinking blood, immortality, sensitivity to crosses, etc. However, this shorthand fails when you are dealing with readers who aren’t familiar with the traditional mythology. For example, here’s one early non-genre-reader response to a draft of my zombie novel The Reapers Are the Angels: “So, wait, explain it to me again—how are zombies different from vampires?  Aren’t they both dead?” But this is the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, you can rest assured knowing that readers don’t need an explanation for why that shambling, grunting corpse is trying to eat your hero’s guts: that’s just what zombies do.

On the other hand, there’s some satisfaction to be had in surprising your reader by upsetting their expectations and undermining the traditional mythology. From the world of zombies, 28 Days Later gives us an example: for all of us who were used to the undead lurching along at a snail’s pace, it was startling to see them suddenly sprinting after their prey, even leaping across gaps and climbing over fences. Never had zombies been so spry.

Being a lifelong lover of zombie stories, it was a particular thrill for me to sit down and compose my own variation for The Reapers Are the Angels. There were certain zombie laws that I set for myself, some that maintained tradition and some that abandoned it:

1. No nostalgia. One of the background traditions of zombie stories is a built-in nostalgia for the times befo the zombie apocalypse—a dramatic longing for the once-great but now lost civilized world. But I’ve seen enough of that. And I never really believed it anyway; after all, who wouldn’t feel a little pleased to be one of the last survivors in a blighted world and have all that open landscape to yourself?  So in my book, the zombie apocalypse happened a quarter of a century ago, and my protagonist is fifteen years old. As a result, there’s no way she could be nostalgic for the “real world,” because she never experienced it.

2. Zombies defecate. Why wouldn’t they? I mean, they consume, they digest, and the waste product of that process has to go somewhere. It occurred to me that I had never seen a zombie go #2 before, so I thought I would introduce that notion. A proud moment indeed—I felt like handing out cigars.

3. Zombies move slowly. This was part of the tradition I decided to uphold. I like 28 Days Later, but running zombies aren’t for me. Every other monster I can think of is fast-moving—many of them can even fly. The brutally slow pace of a zombie is what makes it unique among other genre monsters. Why would I want to take that distinction away from them?

4. Zombies eat all your viscera, not just your brains. Some zombies are only interested in brains. My zombies aren’t that discerning. They’ll eat all your gooey parts. Why? I think if zombies are only interested in brains, it gives them some iconic purpose or significance. The body metaphorically consuming the mind; maybe the mass culture’s threat to your creative individuality. I wanted my zombies to be more animalistic. They wouldn’t make distinctions between various kinds of offal in the same way that a jackal wouldn’t.

5. No smart zombies.  A lot of zombie stories (even George Romero’s) are interested in the idea of zombies learning and evolving, figuring out how to use tools, even beginning to communicate. But for my money, humanizing a zombie is bad business. The great thing about most zombie stories is that the zombies themselves are little more than background—which always makes the human story much more compelling by contrast. The more time you spend turning your zombies into characters, the less time you spend turning your characters into characters.

6. Zombies aren’t evil—and they’re not even really that scary. This is something that’s already implied by a lot of traditional zombie stories. Unlike soulless vampires or morally soiled werewolves, I like my zombies sans moral implication. They aren’t coming back from the dead because they’re evil: instead they’re just the result of an unfortunate glitch somewhere in the system. Their violence is like animal violence—you can’t really blame it. And (one of my favorite things about traditional zombie stories), they’re really only a threat in large groups.

So those were my rules. As you can see, my zombies are more traditional than not—which opens me up for criticisms of being derivative. But, then again, one of the reasons I rely so heavily on the existing mythology is that I don’t think the book is actually about zombies. And I don’t think this makes me unique. Most monster stories aren’t about the monsters themselves: they simply use the monsters as vehicles for what the story is really about. Dawn of the Dead is about the pitfalls of consumerism. 28 Days Later is about reckoning with your past. And The Reapers Are the Angels is about faith, sin and redemption.  

Ultimately, the zombies are just decoration, like rotting, corpse-smelling, blood-thirsty Christmas ornaments.



JoshBook1Joshua Gaylord is the author of two novels, Hummingbirds and The Reapers Are the Angelswhich was released in August 2010. Josh graduated from Berkeley with a degree in English and a minor in creative writing. In 2000, he received his Master’s and Ph.D. in English at New York University, specializing in twentieth-century American and British literature. He teaches high school English in NYC.

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  1. I don't for a moment think this is a unique question but ...
    I'm the author of two travel guides and have finished Zombie Angst: Plight of the Living Dread. Any suggestions about finding an agent who likes a genre mix of humor and horror?

  2. Even though 28 days later is widely recognized as a zombie film, it is actually a film about humans being infected with a virus. Hence (SPOILER ALERT) they die after 28 days because of hunger. Meaning, they are not undead.
    A geek remark I know but just thought it had to be said.
    Although, I actually like the fact that zombies are eating other monsters. I am legend's dumb vampires are now zombies :D.


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