Thought experiment

Recently while doing a rather repetitive task, my mind began to wander and I thought of how uninteresting the story of the hour spent doing this activity would be. My imagination began running away with itself, and I began to wonder the following.

What if you spent an entire year specifically eschewing anything boring? In fact, what if you took that a step further and were determined to only doing things that–when told later–would make for truly the most exciting stories? When you then look back on your life in that one year, how different from your present life would it be twelve months later?

I feel on one hand like this would be a very dangerous experiment, of course, but it would make for a truly fascinating short-term memoir. It also perhaps smacks of the “I want it now” mentality of the times we live in. We expect excitement or at least an alleviation from boredom every minute of every day, and that’s neither realistic nor practical. Still, I have to admit liking a culture where waiting in line is no longer interminable, so long as you have a fully-charged cell phone, and where many of the most time- and labor-consuming clerical tasks are automated or simpler.

More broadly, I’m usually quite fascinated with books about people taking on challenges like this, whether it be committing to optimism or walking across a continent or making all of Julia Child’s recipes or what have you. The common ground with all such writing and doing is twofold. First, it’s the actual act of wanting to do something strange and different, to shake up your life and use it as some sort of example for others of how you, too, can be crazy in a confined, usually safe, way. And two, it’s the further act of then memorializing the experience as a memoir. Not of your life, not an organic work looking back on a specific time, but a constructed one, wherein you seek to document that which you also create. As a memoir subgenre, it’s kind of fascinating, and if also used as an act of activism (as with something like Super Size Me, for example) it can also say larger and broader things about society and culture and be an agent of change.

Am I brave enough to ever take something like this on? I don’t know. Perhaps with a safe experiment like that pursued for a shorter amount of time, I could embark on my constructed memoir idea with essays covering weeks instead of months. A journey of a thousand miles, as they say, begins with a single step.

Big Publishing Milestone

The House on Concordia DriveMy urban fantasy novel The Red Eye and its prequel novelette The House on Concordia Drive (both 2014, Alliteration Ink) mark the publication of my 49th and 50th pieces of writing.

I didn’t actually realize I hit the big five-oh until I started working on some bio/promo things for querying something else. Suddenly I saw that my list had grown, and I decided to add number bullets.

The Red EyeThere it was. 49. 50. FIFTY.

For someone who used to write nonsensical (yet somehow endless) Dickensian soap operas every summer growing up, for someone who’s never quite felt “good enough” as any sort of artist (see my failed attempts as musician and painter), this is kind of huge. So even though I demur a bit and really don’t always feel like the most confident writer, I have to kind of say, “Good for me” for once.

I’ve had help. Every English teacher, from high school, college, and my M.A. program, and my colleagues in several arenas of my life certainly inspired this love of words and forcing them together into sentences and stories. I’ve had more specific help from the members of my writing group, my M.F.A. program classmates and mentors, spouse, and various helpful editors and publishers, some of whom even helped in their rejections.

Every day, I encounter something that makes me a better writer, whether it’s formal notes and edits on a story or something I read in which the author makes a particularly deft turn of phrase (or a not-so-deft one, one I then take pains not to emulate). I’ve learned from others’ success and failures, learned from others’ reactions and support and very occasionally the lack thereof, truth be told. But it’s both the acceptances and the rejections that make a piece of writing better, and I think sometimes in life it’s acceptances and rejections on a larger scale that make us better people, stronger people, more resilient people.

I was excited to figure out that I’d hit 50. A few years ago, I had a goal of trying to get 35 before I turned 36 (which I did do, but just barely). Once I stopped counting, something interesting happened. With this arbitrary goal gone, I just kept going, without real target in mind other than to keep writing and then sending things out. Once I stopped counting, I racked up more credits than when I was counting. Kind of funny how that works, huh?

The love of the craft is the goal, of course. That’s the real lesson. If I were only in this game for any reason other than the need to write stories, no matter the outcome, I would have either never started in the first place or kind of petered out after meeting that magic number. Instead, I just kept chugging away. The placement of a piece now is secondary to the thrill of really, finally getting a story into tip-top shape. Getting a full-length novel into truly tip-top shape is also paramount, which explains why The Red Eye was first due last fall but delayed a bit—I wanted it to be as perfect as I could make it more than I wanted to actually hold the thing in my hands.

When you do something for the love of it, some of the other stuff will come, too. Maybe not the way you think, the amount you think, the timing you think, but something will, and it’ll often be all the lovelier because you didn’t crave it quite so desperately but instead cherished it enough to wait until it was really meant to be.

Not gonna lie, though. Now I’m wondering if I can’t hit 60 in the not-too-distant future.

Women in Horror Month

February is Women in Horror Month. Even though I don’t only write horror, it is one of the genres I read widely and write frequently. I always consider myself a “speculative fiction generalist,” but to many folks that primarily means science fiction. Horror was the first genre I was widely published in, however, and horror novels were the first pieces of adult contemporary fiction I read without a school assignment involved.

As part of WIHM, Mocha Memoirs Press has released a collection of women in horror, entitled The Grotesquerie, edited by Eden Royce. My short story “Dharma” appears in this anthology, alongside pieces by Michele Garber, Chantal Boudreau, M. Von Schussler, Kris Freestone, Marianne Halbert, Nicole DeGennaro, Rie Sheridan Rose, Lisamarie Lamb, M.J. Pack, Marcia Colette, Nicky Peabody, Caryn Studham Sartorus, Violet Tempest, Jessica Housand-Weaver, Selah Janel, Evelyn Deshane, Kierce Sevren, Carrie Martin, Lilliana Rose, Ekaterina Tikhoniouk, and Vivian Caethe. I’m honored to be a part of this collection, which is available in both paperback and ebook.

There are more women writing horror than you think, but in this post-Anne Rice/Stephenie Meyer world we think more of paranormal romance or quasi-literary horror, or they’ve been mostly writing for the YA market. But I think there’s a need for more women writing adult horror, and doing so in particular ways that perhaps speak to either a feminist mindset or at least a mindset that acknowledges that gender itself can be fodder for some reason interesting discussions of identity and terror. Some of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever read are by women.

My own horror mostly involves themes of transmogrification. Not shape-shifting usually, not often a voluntary or magical transformation, but the sheer body horror of physical nature altered in terrifying, painful, and often permanent ways. While certainly male horror authors deal with similar subjects, I see this theme less frequently in their work, and when I do there isn’t quite as much focus on the sensations associated with such changes. Is this because women are uniquely suited to writing about this concept, due to a deeper connection to the body? Obviously everyone’s body goes through transformations over time due to normal things like puberty and aging, but only women’s bodies also go through monthly changes and the potential change of pregnancy. Women’s bodies, too, are judged more harshly in the broader cultural landscape for undergoing changes, as our bodies are co-opted as being more an object than an identity or functional container/conveyer owned by individual women. Do we own ourselves, or do governments and photographs and media outlets own us? Are we the sum of how we choose to present ourselves to the world or are we merely things? The idea of no longer being in control of our physicality is terrifying, and it’s something that I think is a uniquely female experience.

As the month goes on, I’ll be discussing a few female horror authors’ work and talking more about The Grotesquerie collection.

Minor Short-Term Illness and Working from Home

While I do have a day job, writing is still part of my professional endeavors. A recent battle with a nasty flu had me thinking about whether or not I should be trying to write while sick, which led me to ponder those who are about to write full-time or work from a home office in any other field.

For independent contractors who don’t get a non-hourly salary, working when you’re sick may be a necessity. But I can tell you that in the midst of the worst of my fever dreams, congested head, and muddled brain, I would absolutely not have been able to write a single coherent word. Novelists and those who teach long-form fiction writing will all agree that a first draft is garbage anyway and the real writing comes in revision, but do you really want to have to slog through a medicine-fogged first draft? Why make this even more of an uphill battle if you don’t want to?

Certain kinds of illness can still be fought through, of course, and if writing actually helps you take your mind off the pain, go for it. What I’m advocating here is simply not beating yourself up over not working while sick. I didn’t get to do a lot of the things I love while I had the flu, including totally non-writing-related activities, but I knew I’d be able to resume them once I felt better.

The write-every-day advice (which I think is still vital to a healthy output of work and maintenance of your skills) is only good if you allow for the same kinds of things you would if you worked a 9-to-5 gig, such as sick leave and vacation days. Give yourself a break. The blank page will be there when you feel better.

Literary vs. Popular Fiction

A good friend of mine asked me this week to clarify the difference between literary and popular fiction. Ah, the eternal question! I decided to take a very informal Twitter poll and crowdsource the answer. Got some great replies from authors, editors, friends, and followers.

Some other choice responses included “popular fiction is Twitter, literary fiction is Livejournal,” “Literary is what they make you read in school. Popular is what you read instead and then have to fake the book report,” “Literary focuses on the internal and pop on the external,” “Pop fiction is rock music, and literary fiction is the opera.” I love all of these replies, partly because they seem to skew “yay popular fiction!” but also because it all goes to show that there is no consistent response (other than that I know a lot of really funny people).

Personally, I don’t make a ton of distinction other than that “realistic” or “non-genre” fiction is probably meant to be considered “literary,” or perhaps that popular fiction is the movies that win technical Academy Awards, whereas literary fiction is the movies that win for acting and directing. Literary is important, fancy, thinky, whatever any of that means. Popular or genre fiction is popcorn, fluff, unimportant, bubblegum, unintellectual and whatnot.

Except we can all think of examples of bad literary fiction and we can all think of examples of popular novels that are just as experimental and thought-chewy as literary fiction. Is the distinction the academy? Libraries? Things that are classics rather than just flashes in the pan? Is it akin to musicians with 50-year careers of selling out arenas versus one-hit wonders? Is it the distinction between PBS and Lifetime? Vincent Van Gogh versus Andy Warhol?

Even if I polled literature scholars, I would get different answers. Most people who are avid consumers of fiction would still be able to take ten books and sort them into the two piles, even if they hadn’t read them. As the saying goes, “you know it when you see it.” But is seeing it a matter of snobbery? Bestseller lists? Contemporary versus classic status?

What about The Catcher in the Rye? Literary, I suppose, but if we had this discussion in 1951, it would probably be considered popular, as it was controversial, profane, and a runaway bestseller. What about China Miéville? Popular, we might say, but he eschews genre pigeonholing and has a doctorate in International Relations and thus is hardly the generator of your average pulp sci fi.

I’ve heard people joke that to write literary fiction you should write a popular novel and cut the first and last chapter. I’ve also heard that literary fiction is about big themes, big truths, and everything inside is just used as hollow symbolism. Yet truly great speculative fiction is all about positing possibilities, proposing ideas and themes and truths. Is speculative fiction automatically non-literary?

Perhaps it’s the author’s intention of “art versus craft” or “write to tell a story versus write to produce art.” I would argue that you can do both. Is Downton Abbey high art or a soap opera? Should we ignore Joyce Carol Oates’ forays into gothic horror because she also writes things with “themes”?

I guess my point here is that the distinction often boils down to the tastes of the reader or scholar. Telling a story with a good plot or telling a story with a compelling theme, purpose, or character study is still all about telling a story, and ultimately I want to be the sort of author who can grow, stretch, change, and experiment.

Write the story you want to read. Read the story that draws you in. Labels? In 2014? That’s so last century.

Low-Residency MFA Programs

I’ve written a little bit before about my experience in Seton Hill University’s MFA program. A low-residency degree is a good fit for me, due to my job and mortgage and family, but it’s not for everyone. If you like working independently, online learning, and intermittent travel, then a low-residency degree is a great option. However, if you need face-to-face contact and constant encouragement from classmates and faculty, a low-res design may be a poor fit. MFA programs—particularly in fiction—are uniquely well-suited to a low-residency model, but other types of degrees wouldn’t work this way. I’m extremely happy with my choice of SHU’s program. I’ve learned so much and worked with fabulous people, both faculty and students, and my graduating cohort is a tight-knit bunch full of encouragement and creativity. SHU’s degree specifically focuses on Writing Popular Fiction, which is perfect for the types of writing I do. Literary fiction or poetry writers should look elsewhere, but if it’s a sideline (and I do write a fair bit of literary fiction as well) this is still a good program. I can track the improvement of my writing over the course of the first half of the program, and my rate of publication acceptance has increased .5%.

If you’re considering a graduate degree in creative writing, decide whether you want to attend school traditionally or not. Furthermore, a low-residency MFA is not the same as an online degree program but should be seen more as a mixed-mode learning option with face-to-face class time compressed into several shorter blocks of time rather than spread out over an entire term. SHU’s MFA involves attending six week-long residencies, where you may wind up doing coursework or attending events that relate to your studies for up to sixty hours for each of those weeks. Thus to call it just an “online” program is super misleading, in my estimation.

Reflections on Horror Literature: Snow

The first snow of the season was falling as I began reading Ronald Malfi’s Snow. As local radio stations started transitioning to their holiday playlists, Todd Curry strove to get to his son in time for Christmas. Blizzards, zombies, explosions, and shootings followed, not to mention the novel’s most upsetting element:

Children with no faces.

Can we let that sink in for a moment? Malfi crafted a really action-packed and entertaining narrative, and the concept of semi-sentient zombies created by snow-bodied aliens invading human bodies is, by itself, pretty rad. But the added side element of faceless children really sent this into terror territory for me.

I’m a nervous winter driver. I hate snow-slick streets, black ice, blowing snow, all of it. I’ve had a few scary slide-offs over the years living in a midwestern city that gets just enough snow to be annoying but not enough that we’ve ever quite learned to cope with it properly. The scariest winter driving situation I ever had was getting a tire blow-out during a snowstorm that left me stranded on the side of a highway at night for several hours, freezing and stressed, waiting for the cavalry. I’ve written several stories of my own where characters die in winter-driving accidents. And so pretty much everything about Todd’s harrowing trip–particularly early on, as he and the strangers with whom he rents a car get into an accident and encounter the first of the quasi-zombies–made me flash back to sitting in the cold watching the snow fall around me. I was so terribly vulnerable, which is something interesting and terrifying about winter. Unlike the dangers associated with other seasons, winter conditions can turn a normal moment into a deadly one with just one tire skid, one foot put in the wrong place. Malfi has done wonderfully at expanding upon this idea and making the threat even more tangible.

It’s no mistake that the towns affected by the phenomenon are scattered throughout the midwest and are somewhat isolated. Blizzards–even ones without zombifying aliens swirling around amidst the normal snowflakes–cut people off. While I was barely too young to quite remember the epic blizzard of 1978, I’ve heard plenty of stories of its effects and seen the pictures of snow packed up to the tops of front doors and the tunnels people dug just to walk to the store. A blizzard combined with a zombie apocalypse is pretty much the craziest combination of fear and isolation that it absolutely worked for me on every page.

The monsters themselves–going through every stage of traditional and non-traditional zombieness–are pretty scary. But as I hinted earlier, the real horror for me were the kids. As many characters theorize throughout the book, the snow alien things can’t quite get a good hold on children when they attempt to take them over, and thus they come out “wrong,” with the tangible evidence of this wrongness erasing their facial features. Late in the book, Todd’s traveling companion Kate Jansen goes to the sheriff station garage to find Cody and Charlie, a young brother and sister hiding out with them. The kids turn to her, kids she has mere minutes and hours ago been tending to and playing board games with…and their faces are gone, turned into masks of smooth, featureless flesh. She tries to shoot them but can’t, instead deadbolting the garage up and leaving them to some other fate, which we never learn.

The idea of these children, faceless, wandering around without sight or breath in this dark and freezing garage made me both afraid and sad, and I think that’s Malfi’s strength as a writer. He makes us care about characters over and over again over the course of just a few pages, then breaks our hearts as circumstances unravel and they die–or at least suffer–horribly. Good monster fiction, as I’ve learned in the readings and films for this class, destabilize our expectations of normalcy and leave quivering, damaged people to make a new life out of ruins. A monster’s job in horror is to be the chaotic element that brings forth such emotion that we see what people are really made of in a crisis situation. I loved that in this book we saw the full range of reaction to crisis, from the relatively capable and strong (Todd, Kate, Shawna, and others) to the nobly sacrificial (Bruce), to the crazy and spiteful (Molly and others). But what also struck me is how much most people really tried to help each other rather than exploit the situation and how even strangers can come together to solve a problem when necessary.

But somebody please invent a flying car so I never have to drive in the snow again.

Reflections on Horror Literature: The Wolfman

The Wolfman, by Jonathan Maberry, is not your typical horror novel. It’s actually a novelization of the 2010 remake of the 1941 Lon Chaney, Jr. vehicle The Wolf Man. Having seen neither film (yes, yes, I know), I was interested in taking this novelization on its own merits. However, the cinematic source material is fairly obvious in the novel’s focus on describing things very visually, as well as having occasionally-awkward scene and chapter breaks, which I believe is the result of needing to shift a point of view or do a dissolve between locations. Still, even with this small amount of clunkiness, the novel does work on its own as a decent example of the werewolf genre in horror fiction.

Werewolves have never been as iconic as vampires, perhaps because their “curse” seems fairly easy to circumvent—lock yourself in an impenetrable cell once a month and you should be able to avoid eating the villagers. However, the titular wolfman here—Lawrence Talbot, a prodigal son returning to his family’s English estate from a tenure as a traveling actor—is prevented from exercising this option. Unbeknownst to him until late in the story, Talbot’s own father is the werewolf who bestows the curse upon his son, after killing Talbot’s mother and brother while in his furry form. It is Sir John Talbot’s belief that the beast within is a benefit, not a curse, a kind of letting loose one’s id, in a way. Talbot the Elder thwarts Lawrence’s attempts to lock himself up, cure himself, or even kill himself to end the rampages he commits while wolfed out, which I suppose is the only way to make a werewolf story really compelling.

The werewolf-as-sexual-metaphor is fairly common, but The Wolfman really seems bent on hitting this point home, equating Lawrence’s lycanthropy with his burgeoning desire for his dead brother’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe. Even while still human, Lawrence’s senses are heightened due to the curse, and he begins to experience his desire for Gwen in terms of hunger and animalistic need:

He saw her pupils dilate, the blush on her cheeks fade; he could hear each of her breaths as if her mouth were an inch from his ear. He could hear and separate the rustle of every bit of cloth that covered her body. It came at him in a rush, maddening, overwhelming […] Her eyes met his and the moment slammed to a stop, frozen in an impossibility of sensory inrush. He looked into her eyes and for a moment he felt as if he was falling forward and she toward him. Colliding with her, engulfing her, devouring her… (333-334)

This desire, described as hunger and a prevailing set of “appetites” (334) is a motif Maberry returns to again and again, and Lawrence is shown to be as equally repulsed by his murderous hungers (and his more overt sexual hungers) as John is fulfilled by them. The conflict, then, is not only between man-versus-himself but arguably man-versus-man or man-versus-nature, if we take John as fully animal.

And yet there are more psychological symbols at work here, too. The moon, which causes the change to wolf, is constantly referred to as feminine, specifically as “the Goddess of the Hunt” (15 and throughout), and that it is this Goddess who manifests the lupine desires:

[S]he comes again, bright, shining and newly hungry, to hunt among [the stars].

Eternally hungry.

Eternally hunting. (15)

In mythology, the goddess of hunting was alternately Diana or Artemis (Roman and Greek respectively), and this equating of the moon and therefore feminine desire thus eliciting lust, passion, and bestial nature in men continues the theme of sexuality. In the psychology of Carl Jung, the inner desires of men are described as the “anima,” or the inner feminine-oriented or desiring self, whereas the inner desires of women are described as the “animus,” or the inner masculine-oriented or desiring self. Linguistically, the terms originate from the classical Latin term for “soul” (OED), but the word’s root came to also generate the word “animal” (OED). That the soul, desire, and animals are conflated here is more evidence for the werewolf-as-expression-of-sexuality concept, and I contend that Maberry runs with this metaphor further in his prose than was likely explicit in either film. In the text, we get much of Lawrence’s feelings of guilt and shame over his desire for Gwen, which would be difficult to specifically translate to a purely visual medium. I believe this is a careful choice on the novelist’s part, and it helps entrench the notion of human feelings as being monstrous as the novel’s ultimate theme.

Maberry, Jonathan. The Wolfman. New York: TOR, 2010.

anima, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 25 October 2013.

animal, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 25 October 2013.

Reflections on Horror Literature: Alien

Full disclosure: I’ve never seen Alien before this week.

Yes, I know, I know. I’m a member of Gen X, a Sigourney Weaver fan, and an afficianado of both science fiction and horror (not to mention the artwork of H.R. Giger) and I’ve never seen this movie until now.

Take a deep breath and let’s get over this travesty together, shall we?

This is not the time or place to discuss how much this film was built up to me and what I ultimately thought of its effectiveness when I finally watched it. What I want to discuss instead is a reading of the work that even one of its screenwriters acknowledges was one of his purposes.

The monster in Alien is the anxiety of threatened sexual assault.

In a documentary on the film, Dan O’Bannon stated explicitly that his goal with writing Alien was to write sexual horror, but with a twist:

I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number. (Dietle)

There’s a lot to support this, of course, in the story of what happens to Officer Kane (John Hurt). He’s the first to awake from his sleep pod, he’s the first to encounter the alien’s first victim, first to try to assess and make contact with the living creature inside the alien egg, and the first to then be killed by the alien. However, he’s also the only victim to die from the reproductive process, and his death is the most horrific of any of Alien’s many death scenes (arguably the second most brutal is that of Science Officer Ash, but as he’s revealed to be a liquid-filled android instead of a human, it’s not really “death” and it’s not at the hand of the alien).

But it’s important to mark Kane as the first to encounter the species because he’s then the one to, essentially, get raped. Kane is an explorer, then, a kind of curious visionary who seeks more knowledge than is advisable to have. Like his (differently spelled) Biblical namesake, he is among the first humans. But the Biblical Cain, having been born after his parents’ expulsion from Eden for the acquisition of verboten knowledge, also commits the first murder. Various mythologies have sprung up about Cain over the centuries, from his literary use as the first vampire to the source of boogeyman folklore. Officer Kane doesn’t appear to have been a bad guy before his attack, but if he’s to be taken as a symbol more than a flesh-and-blood character, we have him being raped, impregnated, and murdered—perhaps as symbolic retaliation for both Adam and Eve’s over-curious nature as well as Cain’s murder of his own brother.

Because it isn’t just rape. It’s rape in the pursuit of knowledge, knowledge that man (or human) is better off not having. It is Officer Ripley (Weaver) who first advises the returning crew from the planet’s surface to stay in quarantine. If the film is about men’s sexual anxiety, it’s important that the only correct directives continue to come from the female characters, particularly Ripley. Though she is overridden by Ash (male), Ash is also inhuman, so the problem isn’t merely men-versus-women but women-versus-inhuman. The only other female character (Lambert, played by Veronica Cartwright) is the only other human character to live nearly as long as Ripley. The only other survivor of the carnage is the ship’s cat, Jones, and though Jones’ sex is not revealed, cats are often taken as feminine symbols due to their temperament and physiological traits.

Ripley avoids being consumed by the alien due to her sheer determination and intelligence. When female characters in the film pursue knowledge, they are rewarded by getting to live longer or ultimately triumphing. When male characters pursue knowledge (Kane, Dallas, Brett, and Parker), each one of them is systematically killed by the creature. Lambert’s death only comes becomes she was following Parker’s orders, and Dallas’ death comes when he fails to heed Lambert’s warnings to him about the creature’s location.

What makes the alien ultimately so terrifying, however, is its ability to deal death in multiple ways. Its embryo killed through rape and impregnation. Its infant form killed through a sort of “childbirth,” and its adult form killed presumably through hunting and consumption of its prey, yet each victim is found (or not found) in a slightly different state. This unpredictability makes it particularly difficult for the humans to locate and kill, and yet again it’s Ripley’s role as a woman masterful in human-based science and technology usage who is ultimately able to outwit and destroy it. The film’s argument here could be that women are the ones who typically must be more mindful of danger than men, due to the threat of violence from more sectors than merely the inhuman. This vigilance, when inherent in someone with Ripley’s intelligence, makes her the most able to adapt to the creature’s unpredictability without (much) panic.

Dietle, Dan. “Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape.” Cracked. 02 Jan 2011: n. page. Web. 18 Oct. 2013.

Scott, Ridley, dir. Alien. 20th Century Fox, 1979. DVD.

Reflections on Horror Literature: World War Z

Reading World War Z, by Max Brooks, comes at an interesting time for me. I’m taking a course in qualitative research and learning how to conduct interviews for projects much like what the fictional interviewer does in this novel. I almost hesitate to call it that—a novel implies the work has a plot, even an episodic one, running through it, and WWZ does not. Still, it has much in common with composite novels (novels with short stories tied loosely together by common characters and setting), particularly Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a work about a real war (Vietnam). Though O’Brien’s book isn’t told in the form of interviews, it still has thematic and structural commonalities with what Brooks has done.

But to go back to my qualitative research, what World War Z has done is to fictionalize something like a series of testimonies, and on that front the book is extremely powerful. We learn of the war the same way citizens living long after its destruction would, through the voices of the people who lived it. Amazing stuff, almost as affecting as reading real testimonies of victims of war or genocide (which I have done as part of this other class). Some subjects’ interviews moved me to tears, others bored me, but the effect of the entire book is to feel as if the reader has been through this war through the lived experiences of people from many countries and cultures. The diversity of the book’s cast is to be commended as well; it’s refreshing to see both western and non-western perspectives on a zombie apocalypse, as so much zombie fiction we’re exposed to as American audiences focuses solely on the American experience. (I feel in particular this is what is lacking in The Walking Dead—there isn’t even any evidence of military control or news broadcasting anywhere, which seems sorely unrealistic given the smaller scope of that universe’s zombie outbreak.)

This non-western inclusion is what brings me to highlight what I feel is the actual monster of World War Z: not zombies (a.k.a. “Zacks” and a host of other colorful nicknames speaking to the tendencies of soldiers to give enemy combatants pithy labels), not humans or humanity broadly, and not necessarily even war itself, although it certainly portrays it with realistic gravitas and unpleasantness. The monster in World War Z is something subtle but present and, frighteningly, something all too real in the non-fictional world: political and cultural divisiveness.

Political divisiveness is everywhere throughout the book. Nations have trouble coming to consensus about how to tackle the threat, regimes rise and fall within nations, and individuals fight each other without logical reason to. The story of Australian astronaut Terry Knox, in the chapter “Around the World, and Above,” demonstrates this very well. Had his space station been able to confer and connect with the Chinese station, more of both groups might have survived. But political differences created a very different outcome.

We’d been trying to contact them for months. We weren’t even sure if there was a crew. All we got was a recorded message in perfect Hong Kong English to keep our distance lest we invite a response of “deadly force.” What an insane waste! We could have worked together, traded supplies, technical expertise. Who knows what we could have accomplished if we had only chucked the politics and come together as human bloody beings. (235)

I find it interesting that the British English profanity “bloody” can be interpreted quite literally in this passage. At essence, all the living humans on Earth have one thing in common that isn’t true of the zombies—they all still bleed red blood, and that unifying fact seems like it ought to be enough to keep the human infighting to a minimum. Unfortunately, it’s not sufficient.

In the interview with Ernesto Olguin, who had been a Chilean delegate to the UN, Olguin describes how talks between nations got ugly.

One of the delegates from a pre-war “developing” country suggested, rather hotly, that maybe [the outbreak] was their [the “First World”] punishment for raping and pillaging “the victim nations of the south.” Maybe, he said, by keeping the “white hegemony” distracted with their own problems, the undead invasion might allow the rest of the world to develop “without imperialist intervention.” (239)

War itself isn’t really the problem, it’s the symptom and the tool used to beat one another up. As General D’Ambrosia tells the interviewer, this isn’t a new problem, just a new enemy, and that “[t]he book of war” is one “we’ve been writing since one ape slapped another.” (242)

It’s humanity’s tendency to fail to understand one another, and though this problem is ubiquitous its consequences are borne out in situation after situation depicted in the book wherein lack of empathy exacerbates the warfare. Disabled warriors aren’t given their due by their ableist peers. Some humans go insane and begin to believe they’re zombies, which leads to debates and abuse of power. And nation after nation fails to unite to fight a common enemy until it’s too late. Nukes are set off. Fires rage across continents. And what’s left behind is a ravaged Earth bearing little resemblance to its pre-war self.

While World War Z is the grimmest book I’ve read this term, it does fill me with something like hope to know that authors like Brooks are at least using creative means to point out real problems. Still, I think if the zombie apocalypse were on us today, we would all be hard-pressed to behave much differently than this fictional world.