My contributor copies of The Last Zombie: Before the After #1 arrived yesterday. Mary read it last night and commented on how grim it was. I told her that was merely the set-up, and that things were about to get very bad for our characters.
In truth, this new story-arc, and the story-arc that will follow, contain what I feel is some of the bleakest and most nihilistic stuff I’ve ever written. Ian’s continuing deterioration and the subsequent catalyst it provides for a final showdown between him and Federman, Russo and Ananti’s flashbacks (which involve everything from spousicide to a zombie chewing its way through a maternity ward), the loneliness expressed by Planters and Fulton in response to Johnson’s new relationship, the madman who now runs Chicago — these are characters and situations with decidedly unhappy endings.
It’s been a long time since I’ve reached down inside myself and dug for ore in the pathos mines. Those mines used to be easy to find and work. The darkness inherent in The Rising, Dark Hollow, Take the Long Way Home, and Ghoul came from personal, autobiographical experiences. I was younger then, so much of the ore was still fresh, barely buried beneath the surface, and therefore easy enough to dig up and expose. Then there were books like City of the Dead, Earthworm Gods, and Dead Sea, where the hopelessness on display was offered with a smile, a wink, and a nudge — “Hey kids, I know this hurts, but remember, it’s just make believe.” But even those wink-nudge novels, when I go back and look at them, had some very real nuggets of personal pathos at their core.
For a while, I thought the mines had gone dry. Nate Southard commented on this to me a few months ago, postulating that from Ghost Walk to A Gathering of Crows, my fiction became less personal, and almost “happier” (or as close to happy as it gets in my mythos). Entombed was a return to the pathos mines, although I personally feel I dug too deep with that one, something readers of the hardcover seem to have so far disagreed with (we’ll see how the rest of you feel when Entombed comes out in paperback and digital next month). Although, as I write this (sitting in my kitchen, drinking coffee, and musing about these things while Jamestown’s acoustic cover of U2′s “Red Hill Mining Town” competes in the background with the sound of crickets outside), I don’t know that digging too deep was the problem I felt with Entombed. I think perhaps it was more, “Okay, this is it, readers. This is all I have left to offer. This shall be our final covenant.”
Yes, I think that’s it exactly. Because after Entombed, I really did think the pathos mines had gone dry, and as a result, the books I’m currently working on (The Lost Level, With Teeth, and Hole In the World) read much more like that happy era that Nate Southard referenced.
So when I began this latest story-arc for The Last Zombie, and realized what was going to happen and where it was going to go, and how I was going to have to invest you, the reader, in it and make you feel it, I returned to the mines and poked around with my shovel until I found some new veins to supply the ore.
Trust me, you will feel it. You will hurt. I certainly have, in the process of writing it. And I also know that when I’m feeling that way while writing, that’s when I’m happiest.
Because that’s where the best stories come from. My happy place…
If you haven’t yet tried The Last Zombie, all of the back issues (as well as the trade paperback collections which reprint those issues) are available for purchase HERE (and are listed in order). Catch up on it now, and you can hurt along with everyone else in the coming months.