By Bracken MacLeod
The first time I met Jonathan Maberry I was very apprehensive. I’d read his zombie thriller, PATIENT ZERO, and was familiar with his considerable resume both as a New York Times bestselling author and as an eighth degree black belt in Shinowara-ryu Jujutsu. He’s a physically imposing man with a list of accomplishments as a Bram Stoker Award winning writer and a martial artist that defy any fair abridgment. Walking up to him, I was pretty certain that I was going to get a second to introduce myself, thank him for the enjoyable read, and get the quick brush off as he moved on to more important people in the room. I could not have been more wrong. Jonathan is a cheerful, affable man whose friendliness, unaffected humility, and honest interest in conversation is infectious and enthralling. Just like the zombie plagues he writes about, you can’t help but walk away from a meeting with Jonathan Maberry without feeling like you’ve had an encounter that’s left you with something. And now I’ve been fortunate enough to get the chance to ask him some tough questions about his work. Again, he surprised me by laying bare more of his personal insight than I had any right to expect.
BRACKEN MacLEOD: Thank you, Jonathan, for agreeing to talk to me about your work. Your latest novel, Dead of Night, is a stand-alone zombie tale following other books you’ve written dealing with similar subject matter (e.g., Rot and Ruin, Dust and Decay, Patient Zero). Clearly, you love the hungry dead in a profound way that keeps you coming back. What is it about the zombie that is so compelling to you?
JONATHAN MABERRY: Because zombies don’t have a personality they don’t intrude into the story except to pose a threat. That allows the writer to concentrate on the human characters and their experiences during a crisis. This is the core of drama. We don’t write novels about happy people having a good day. We write about people whose lives are warped and distorted by some large events. That event could be a big football game, a first kiss, a murder, the quest to find a magic ring, or a global pandemic. A crisis tends to strip away the affected elements of our personality –the false fronts—and reveal who we are.
Zombie also lend themselves to metaphor, which allows for us to tell all kinds of stories while giving us a simplistic monster we can easily understand. There’s not much of a learning curve, which means we can get right into the heart of the tale.
And…zombies are so tragic. They were once real people. Often people we knew, which is heartbreaking.
BRACKEN MacLEOD: I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard someone describe zombies as “heartbreaking,” but you’re absolutely right. In the vein of lending themselves to metaphor, Zombie narratives often end up as not-so-subtle observations of larger issues like unchecked consumption, xenophobia, or the tenuous line between civility and barbarism. From your perspective as both a fiction and non-fiction writer, why do you think it is that zombies so often end up bearing the burden of illuminating society’s shortcomings?
JONATHAN MABERRY: The underlying metaphor is the point of the zombie story. Let’s face it, there’s only so much actual mileage you’re going to get out of a story about ghouls. They eat people; they die if you shoot them in the head. That level of pointless violence may please a niche market, but it’s not what made the genre popular in the first place, and none –not ONE—of the best zombie books, movies and comics is dedicated purely to zombie violence. This genre has always been about something larger and something deeper. It’s not the burden of the genre; it’s what makes it so strong and so enduring.
Unlike vampires, zombies are not the central figures of their own genre. In vampire fiction the vamps have become the story. They’ve been humanized and romanticized until they are tragic demigods who we are supposed to worship instead of fear. They’ve crowded out the ordinary humans. In zombie fiction, on the other hand, the zoms have no personality. They are blank slates personality-wise. The horror, and the tragedy, is all about what they represent, and that tragedy is layers deep. On the surface, each zombie is a victim of a horrible disease and they carry around evidence of the violent and terrifying way in which they died. They are gravestones, in a way, marking where a person died. All that’s left is something cold and lifeless. That’s horrible. If you stop for a moment and detach from the special effects and the body-counts and think about it, that is deeply disturbing. These were people once, and now they are something else. Something less, because they have no personality; and something more because they now pose a terrible threat to everyone they knew and loved.
Go a level deeper and we begin to explore how desensitized we humans get during catastrophic events. When a single person you know dies, it leaves a hole in your life. You react to it. You go through the stages of grief. But when the catastrophe claims the lives of dozens or hundreds or thousands, then we switch our focus from the individual human loss and concentrate instead on the tally. That’s like a video game. We ghoulishly watch for news updates to see what the body count has risen to. I know people who were visibly annoyed that the body count in Japan wasn’t higher and disappointed that the reactors at Fukashima didn’t create a bigger problem. They won’t admit their disappointment, but you can see it in their faces, hear it in their voices. That’s so deeply disturbing. Romeo and other writers in the zombie genre recognize that, and they work it into their stories.
Go another layer down and you see horror at the presence of zombies transform into a kind of redneck fun when the zombies are dispatched in interesting ways. We look for the next method of killing: a sword, a baseball bat, a pitchfork, and the fan favorite the head shot. We enjoy those kills because we’ve lost our connection to the tragic fact that each of these zombies was very recently a human being. Someone who died alone and terrified; someone who was a victim.
Go one more layer down and we spin the zombie story into a bigger metaphor. The story ceases to be about individual loss and instead focuses on issues that frighten us as a people. War, xenophobia, bigotry, the misuse of technology, Communism, the religious right, the radical left, the faceless mob, the loss of identity in a technological age, the failure of the government during times of crisis, the very real danger of a mismanaged opposition to a global pandemic. And so on…
Metaphor? Allegory? Absolutely. Without it, no one would ever have talked about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. WORLD WAR Z would never have been a major bestseller. And I wouldn’t have written DEAD OF NIGHT, ROT & RUIN, PATIENT ZERO and other stories. The funny thing is…I don’t tell stories about monsters. That’s not the point. I tell stories about people who fight monsters.
BRACKEN MacLEOD: Speaking of your work in a broader context, right now the Kindle edition of Patient Zero is ranked number 1 on Amazon’s list of Technothrillers, but all of your work that I’ve read has had a consistent horror bass line thumping in the background. What’s your take on genre in general and on horror in particular? Do you like being thought of as a horror writer?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I’m a horror writer. Always have been, always will be. Even when I write a technothriller like PATIENT ZERO or the newest in the series, ASSASSIN’S CODE, I never stray far from horror elements. Granted, I don’t always write about supernatural creatures, but horror as a genre is bigger than that. Horror is one of the few truly undefinable genres. It includes subtle psychological stories (THE HAUNTING by Shirley Jackson), ghost stories, psychological horror (PSYCHO by Robert Bloch, AMERICAN PSYCHO by Bret Easton Elis), supernatural romance (DRACULA by Bram Stoker, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE by Anne Rice), historical thriller (PATH OF THE ECLIPSE by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro), supernatural drama (ROSEMARY’S BABY by Ira Levin, THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James, THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty, GHOST STORY by Peter Straub, ‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King), science fiction (FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelly, I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson, PHANTOMS by Dean R. Koontz), fantasy (AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS by H. P. Lovecraft, THE MIST by Stephen King, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury), thriller (JAWS by Peter Benchley, RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris, THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS by John Wyndham), Steampunk (BONEHSAKER by Cherie Priest), police procedural (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS by Thomas Harris, EVERY DEAD THING by John Connolly), social commentary (THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE by Robert Louis Stevenson, BREATHERS by S.G. Browne, LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding), comedy (PLAY DEAD by Ryan Brown), epic fantasy (THE DARK TOWER by Stephen King), mystery (MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE by Edgar Allen Poe, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES by Arthur Conan Doyle), and on and on.
You can put horror almost anywhere because everyone –every single person—is afraid of something.
My first novels, The Pine Deep Trilogy (GHOST ROAD BLUES, DEAD MAN’S SONG and BAD MOON RISING) are my most directly supernatural in that they deal with vampires, werewolves and ghosts in a haunted rural American town. But my Joe Ledger thriller series (PATIENT ZERO, THE DRAGON FACTORY, THE KING OF PLAGUES, ASSASSIN’S CODE and next year’s EXTINCTION MACHINE), all have horrific elements in them, even if the horrors come from terroristic misuse of advanced technologies.
My teen series, ROT & RUIN, DUST & DECAY, September’s FLESH & BONE and next year’s FIRE & ASH, are post-apocalyptic zombie thrillers. Lots of monsters, lots of horror.
I’ve also done a monster movie novelization, THE WOLFMAN; and a standalone zombie novel, DEAD OF NIGHT. A big dose of scary in each one of them.
BRACKEN MacLEOD: You’ve said elsewhere that you love research and it definitely shows. In several of your books the threat to humanity has been engineered in a lab and you give plausible scientific explanations for what most writers would play off as inexplicable or supernatural. How do you go about doing the research for your work? Is there a point where you have to force yourself to say, “Enough,” and stop?
JONATHAN MABERRY: I have a network of experts that I tap for the latest in weird science. A lot of them are already fans of the series, which is always fun to learn. And I often have scientists reach out to me because they’ve heard about my love of real science in my novels. I have Nobel laureates, top physicians, geneticists, molecular biologists, political advisors to the State Department, military experts and more. They love sharing info (always stuff that’s cleared to be shared, of course), and sometimes my best ideas come from an email from one of these experts who write to me to say: “Man, this is really going to creep you out.” It usually does, and if it’s truly disturbing, then I put it in the next book.
But, novels aren’t textbooks. I add only as much science as necessary to establish the reality of my story and provide a foundation on which I build the story. 99% of the science never makes it onto the page. I have reams of it for every novel, sometimes hundreds and hundreds of pages of research even though I only need a total of ten pages of science in a five hundred page book. Until I’ve done the research I won’t know what needs to go in or what should stay out. But…I’m a knowledge junkie, so the research phase is always a blast for me.
BRACKEN MacLEOD: The last book of yours I read was DEAD OF NIGHT. What made you want to take a break from Joe Ledger (PATIENT ZERO) and Benny Imura (ROT & RUIN)?
JONATHAN MABERRY: DEAD OF NIGHT is my fourth zombie novel (following PATIENT ZERO, ROT & RUIN and DUST & DECAY), but it’s my first standalone entry in the genre. (I have at least two more zombie novels to come, FLESH & BONE in September and FIRE & ASH in 2013, which are the last two books of my post-apocalyptic zombie quadrilogy for teens). My intention had been to write a novel that was, in part, an unabashed homage to George Romero, while also allowing me to make my own mark on the genre. I had a wicked amount of fun writing the story. Unlike PATIENT ZERO, this book doesn’t have a top-of-the-line action hero. The characters in this book are all deeply flawed and very human. That amped up the suspense for me while I was writing it because I didn’t really know who –if anyone—was going to make it out alive. In a series you always know…in a standalone, all bets are off.
In DEAD OF NIGHT, a prison scientist concocts a way to make a convicted serial killer suffer after he’s been executed by causing his consciousness to linger even after he’s been buried. Of course, things go wrong and the prisoner isn’t buried…instead he wakes up –insane, angry and very hungry. That kicks off an outbreak that spreads like wildfire through rural Pennsylvania.
The book is a deliberate homage to George Romero and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but I brought a lot of hard science to the game. The scientific explanation for how zombies are created in DEAD OF NIGHT is so close to possible that it’s really scary as hell. It actually creeped me out while I was writing it.
BRACKEN MacLEOD: You definitely got me to squirm a little at the idea–and I’ve been into this stuff my whole life.
JONATHAN MABERRY: But the main focus of the story isn’t the plague or the zombies –it’s the people caught up in the catastrophe, and that’s what all good zombie stories deal with. It’s always about the human experience during a terrible crisis. The zombies in DEAD OF NIGHT appear to be classic Romero zombies, however one of the twists is that the consciousness of each victim is still there, trapped inside the body of each zombie. We see this from the point of view of the first victim, a character we return to periodically throughout the story. He is fully aware –and can hear, see, smell, taste and feel everything, but has no control over his body. He is a horrified witness to the monstrous things his body does.
Also some of the zombies are a little faster, but that’s explained, too. The process of rigor mortis affects speed and coordination; and the amount of damage to muscles, tendons, and nerves impacts the way each zombie moves.
However, fans of the classic slow, shuffling zombie will be on familiar (if blood-splattered) ground.
[*Editor's note - Part 2 of this interview, where John Maberry discusses the writing life, will be posted later this month.]
Jonathan Maberry is a NY Times bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, and Marvel Comics writer. He’s the author of many novels including Assassin’s Code, Dead of Night, Patient Zero and Rot & Ruin. His nonfiction books on topics ranging from martial arts to zombie pop-culture. Since 1978 he has sold more than 1200 magazine feature articles, 3000 columns, two plays, greeting cards, song lyrics, poetry, and textbooks. Jonathan continues to teach the celebrated Experimental Writing for Teens class, which he created. He founded the Writers Coffeehouse and co-founded The Liars Club; and is a frequent speaker at schools and libraries, as well as a keynote speaker and guest of honor at major writers and genre conferences. Jonathan lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania with his wife, Sara and their son, Sam. Visit him online at www.jonathanmaberry.com and on Twitter (@jonathanmaberry) and Facebook.
Bracken MacLeod is a negligible literary figure living in the Boston area. You can visit him at https://luxferre.wordpress.com and on Twitter (@an_adversary) and Facebook as well.