Jonathan Maberry on 'Nights of the Living Dead' and zombie fiction
(Editorial Note: this article has been revised since it was posted on June 27.)
We recently spoke with writer Jonathan Maberry about his work in zombie fiction and the upcoming anthology 'Nights of the Living Dead,' which is due out in July and includes a piece by the Don of the Dead himself -- George A. Romero.
GEEKS-A-GOGO: What sparked your interest in the living dead? They same to run the gamut of your work to various degrees.
JONATHAN MABERRY: When I was ten years old my buddy and I snuck into a big old crumbling Art Deco movie theater in Philadelphia to see the world premiere of Night of the Living Dead. He was so freaked out by it that he fled halfway through and had bed-wetting issues for a long time. I was dazzled; and I stayed to see it twice.
From that point –at the very beginning of what would become the zombie craze—I was already thinking about how I might survive if the dead rose. I began working out my survival game plan on the way home from the theater. I’m a very practical person, with a great deal of knowledge about science and about survival (I’ve been a student and then teacher of jujutsu for over fifty years).
Roll forward to 2008 and I wrote a nonfiction book for Citadel Press called Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead, in which I interview hundreds of experts in all kinds of field to get a sense of how we would react, research and respond if zombies were real. It was released to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead. I talked to scientists of all kinds, EMTs and first responders, law enforcement officers, pathologists, the military, the clergy, psychologists, journalists and more. The book is seriously grounded in the real-world.
While I was researching that, I came up with the idea for a novel that would pit Special Ops shooters against terrorists who used cutting edge science to develop a prion-based zombie bioweapon. That book, Patient Zero, launched the ‘Joe Ledger thriller’ series, and has become very popular.
In 2009 I began writing for Marvel Comics, and one of the projects I did was a collaboration limited series, Marvel Zombies Return, which I co-wrote with Seth Graeme-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), David Wellington (Monster Island) and Fred Van Lente (Cowboys and Aliens).
Because of Zombie CSU and Patient Zero, I was invited to contribute short stories to various anthologies, and about one in five of my short stories have dealt with some aspect of zombies. One of those stories, “Family Business”, for Christopher Golden’s excellent The New Dead, became the seed for my first young adult novels, the Rot & Ruin series. I did four Rot & Ruin novels as well as a graphic novel for IDW and a collection of short stories. Next summer I’ll launch Broken Lands, the first of a new Rot & Ruin series.
In 2011 I published Dead of Night, which was my real homage to George A. Romero. I wanted to tell a story that explained how the zombie apocalypse might start, and I worked with top scientists to come up with a frighteningly plausible cause based on parasites that exist in nature. I told the story from the first zombie, the first bite, and I dedicated the book to George Romero.
GEEKS-A-GOGO: You, Carrie Ryan and others seem to have brought the genre into the Young Adult book arena. Any thoughts on what zombie stories can offer to younger readers?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I believe Carrie had the first major zombie novels for teens with her wonderful The Forest of Hands and Teeth, which is now in production as a feature film starring Maisie Williams (Arya Stark). Then Alden Bell came out with the criminally under-appreciated The Reapers are the Angels. My Rot & Ruin was the third major zombie novel for the young adult market. Now there are mountains of them. Kids –pardon the pun—devour these books. The stories are never about how many zombies they can kill. They’re not like video games where there is a big disconnect between the enemy and that enemy’s humanity. In our stories we focus on the tragedy of it, the loss of safety, the horrors of seeing people become something terrifying.
Understand, these generations of teens have always known war. Nearly all of them were born after 9/11, and certainly all of them learned to read after that, even the high school seniors who would have been infants when the towers fell. They’ve seen parents, cousins, uncles and aunts, neighbors, the parents of their friends go off to war. They’ve been to funerals for those who fell; and they’ve seen the people they love come back changed from what they’d experienced. Zombie stories have always been about metaphor and allegory. We are having conversations with teens about life and death; about war and its costs; about how crisis, trauma and experience change people.
Also, in the young adult zombie stories it’s the kids who are tasked with surviving more so than any adult supporting characters. And that’s fitting, since these are apocalyptic tales and it will be the next generation who will have to rebuild a destroyed world. How like our current world that is. We are handing them a world torn by the worst kind of political games-playing, by wars, by cyber hacking, by climate change, and by a terrifying rebirth of racial, religious and gender-based intolerance. We adults are doing a pretty good job of wrecking the world, and our kids will inherit that mess. They’ll have to come up with solutions we can’t even imagine; and they’ll be forced by circumstance to work together toward a shared goal of survival. The only thing they won’t have to deal with are zombies, and right now I wouldn’t bet a shiny nickel on that.
GEEKS-A-GOGO: How, in your opinion, can the zombie genre avoid stagnation?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Funny thing is that every now and then some jaded reviewer will declare that ‘zombies are dead’. If the pun was intended I would at least be amused. However comments like that show a remarkable lack of insight into what’s made the genre so popular and what keeps it moving along decade after decade. You see, zombie stories aren’t about zombies. Nope. The good ones. Not the successful ones. From the very beginning, stories in this genre have been able people trapped in suddenly untenable and unknown circumstances. Think about it, in most zombie movies, short stories and novels the zombies are introduced to create a massive, shared catastrophe that destroys the infrastructure of their lives. The things they rely on are gone –health care, emergency response, police, the government. Bang. Gone. An event like that strips away the affect with which all people construct fictional versions of themselves. We all do it. We edit ourselves to present a certain face at work, a different one at home, a different one still with strangers, and so on. None of these are our true selves. We live those roles, which are often warped by circumstances of our birth, our family histories and family dynamics, the structure of our work environments, our income level, and on and on.
Then, when all that is taken away and we have to solve problems for ourselves and fend for ourselves and form alliances with other survivors, it comes down to who we really are, what we can offer, what our liabilities are, and what are strengths are. It may be the CEO of a multinational corporation, whose income is in the low seven figures may be ill-suited to surviving a single day in the absence of money and supporters. And, at the same time, the Pakistani guy running a hot dog cart on the street may have spent so much of his life being self-reliant that he not only survives but can help other people. In crisis, when we are desperate and afraid, we can turn savage because humans are a predator species and we’re not really all that far from the cave. Don’t believe that? Put five people in a lifeboat with minimal food and water and see what happens. Ask the Donner party.
Once the zombie apocalypse has been established we ‘get’ it. We understand the rules. The zombies are often shunted to one side and the majority of the story focuses on real people in extreme crisis. That’s basically the definition of drama, and there is no end to the number of stories you can tell about people dealing with crisis.
GEEKS-A-GOGO: How did your recent literary collaboration with George Romero begin?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Around that time I was writing Dead of Night, I started thinking about how much fun it would be to do an anthology of stories that explored the very beginnings of the rise of the living dead. The idea cooked for a while and then I said, what the heck, let me pitch it. My editor at St. Martin’s Griffin, Michael Homler, loved the idea, especially when I said that I would try to get George Romero involved in some way. So, I reached out to Romero through his agent and bam, we were on the phone together! He was familiar with my writing and said that he considered Dead of Night to be the official prequel to Night of the Living Dead. Talk about a jaw-dropping thing for him to say!
We talked it out for a while I asked if he would give his blessing to the anthology. He said he would, but on three conditions. The first was that he wanted to co-edit it. That was an easy and enthusiastic yes. The second was that he wanted to write a story for it. Um…yeah. That would work. And the third blew me away. He said that he wanted me to write a story that officially connected Dead of Night to Night of the Living Dead. That was one of the most exciting and generous things anyone in the entertainment biz has ever said to me. George is one of my heroes and now he’s a friend. The ten year old kid who snuck in to see Night of the Living Dead back in 1968 is jumping for joy. And the 59 year old writer he grew could not be happier.
The Goon™ RPG
We recently had a chat with Matthew Cutter, an RPG author at Pinnacle Entertainment Group about the company's new pen-and-paper roleplaying game based of the Goon comic book that is currently published by Dark Horse Comics.
Geeksagogo.com: Can you tell us about the development of The Goon™ RPG and its setting? Who was involved in its production?
Cutter: Eric Powell has written some things here and there about developing the comic setting for The Goon™. For the game, development involved reading through the entire series a few times (in my case, re-reading the series for a second and third time) and taking notes on every character, location, magic spell, creature, turn of phrase, and possible Edge/Hindrance I could find. So I ended up with about 20 pages of tiny, crabbed handwriting to use when writing the book. That was a huge help. For the game's storyline, I wanted to bring back a few villains from the comic who were compelling but didn't have a huge role to play. I think using characters Powell created gives the RPG adventure a "Goon-feel" I couldn't have hit on my own.
I wrote the game (doing my very best Eric Powell impression); the unparalleled Alida Saxon did the design, layout and stunning cartography; our Pinnacle teammates Jodi Black, Clint Black, Shane Hensley, Aaron Acevedo et al chipped in with helpful advice and superb typo-catches; and most of all our Kickstarter backers ably ferreted out all our mistakes before we sent the book to the printer. (Thank you, friends!) Geeksagogo.com: Although I notice that zombies play a large part in the setting, the premise of The Goon™ RPG seems to expand beyond that.
Cutter: It goes waaay beyond zombies. At the macro-level, creator Eric Powell has said "ANYTHING fits in The Goon™!" Aliens, other dimensions, slimy swamp monsters, robots, mad scientists ... it's all good, and a lot of fun. In the game, a hideous curse afflicts the Town and all its residents. Figuring out exactly what the curse is and how to dispel it can be the characters' overriding goal, as it is in the comic book. Geeksagogo.com: Do you have any expansions planned?
Cutter: Not yet, but our license from Dark Horse Comics™ doesn't specifically rule them out. We'll have to see how the game does and reassess in a few months. Geeksagogo.com Has the Goon character appeared in media besides comics?
Cutter: Also not yet, but the effort to get a Goon movie [https://www.thegoonmovie.com] off the ground has been ongoing for a few years. At one point, David Fincher was attached to direct, with Clancy Brown as Goon and Paul Giamatti as Franky. I'm still hoping to see that one day! Right now, you can buy a whole series of noir-ish short story collections featuring the Goon from Dark Horse Books.