I recently read and reviewed Nikki Hopeman’s book Habeas Corpse (my review) and it. was. AWESOME. So naturally I poked at the editor of Blood Bound Books and asked very nicely if I could get an interview or guest post from Nikki. A few weeks later, here we are, and I’m doing a happy dance because I got someone to write about zombies FOR Sci-Fi & Scary!
How to Torture Zombies
by Nikki Hopeman
First, thanks to Lilyn for having me stop by for this little chat! I really appreciate the opportunity and all the kind words about my novel. I asked Lilyn what she’d like me to blog about and she told me to just have fun with it (cue the evil laugh).
I can wax poetic about many subjects, but zombies hold a very special place in my heart. Pittsburgh is my adopted city—home of George Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead. Its 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead, was filmed in the Monroeville Mall, about fifteen minutes from my home. In many zombie-loving circles, Pittsburgh is the acknowledged home of the modern horror zombie. We have zombie walks and zombie fests. The Steel City can’t get enough of the
When you’re surrounded by zombies, you can’t help but think about them. The day-to-day struggles of a zombie can be comedic gold. Can’t keep up with friends (“Hey, wait up!”), complexion problems, everyone accuses the zombie of every foul odor. How frustrating must it be to have bits of yourself dropping off at awkward moments? “Bob, it’s good to see you again. Been awhile, hasn’t it? Yeah, I was dead, but now… oh hey, ignore that finger. It’s been hanging on by a thread all week.”
This is an endless source of amusement for me, and my writer brain naturally extended those thoughts into a story. At the time I began writing about zombies, I’d also recently read Richard Matheson’s “The Funeral,” a short story about a vampire who is disappointed he’ll never have a funeral, so he plans one for himself. He invites his friends, who are an interesting mix of supernatural creatures. The vampire really wants his funeral to be a somber, formal event, but his guests just can’t keep it together. It’s a hysterical mash-up of horror tropes and comedy.
Matheson’s story squished around in my imagination with my then-work in progress, which was initially meant to be a more serious mystery/horror about a crime-solving unit made up of vampires, zombies, ghosts, and a werewolf. Pretty soon I had a clear favorite character and the story made the most sense if I just let him lead. I dropped the other monsters and focused on my zombie.
My poor, poor zombie. He’s been undead for twelve years and is trying to understand how to navigate the world now that zombies are a part of society. His name is Theo Walker. He is aware of the irony. In Habeas Corpse, he works for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police as part of their forensics department. He’s also a world-class dork. In his most self-indulgent moments, he mourns the fact that he had no life before he died, and none after, either. He’s a 30-something zombie, still living in his parents’ basement. In his spare time, he likes playing Call of Duty: Black Ops in zombie mode.
One thing I’ve had drilled into my head during my years of learning about writing is that writers should always make things worse for their protagonists. Story is driven by conflict, and conflict only happens when you challenge your characters. Drive that character to the black moment, shake up her life completely, and make him tear his hair out with frustration.
My favorite tormented protagonist is Paul Sheldon from Stephen King’s Misery. The fabulous Annie Wilkes subjects Paul to literal torture. It’s the torture that drives the story and makes Paul go to desperate measures to escape her. If Annie had kept Paul in a comfy recliner and fed him bonbons, the story would have been boring and utterly ineffective. Paul might still have wanted to leave, but the sense of urgency in the story wouldn’t have been so palpable. Hobbling is certainly a good way to create conflict.
I have a special love for torture (I do write horror!). I was determined to make this novel as uncomfortable for my protagonist as I could. I’d already made my character a zombie, which is a challenge. I also made him a socially awkward man in his thirties. The detective he is forced to interact with is handsome, masculine, and popular in the bureau—the antithesis of Theo. His near-daily run-ins with this detective are torment—not only is he reminded of what he is not and never has been, their relationship is something like schoolyard bully and prey. During the course of the story, they are forced to work more and more closely. The situation grates on Theo’s nerves relentlessly.
What else could I do?
In the world of post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh, zombies are reintegrating into society. They’re finding it very difficult to fit into the new social norms, including a taboo on cannibalism and murder (go figure, right?). So we have an entire subset of the population who are unable to fulfill their basest needs at the risk of alienating their entire race. Challenging? I think so.
Zombies in my world have a few other difficulties. Their circulatory systems work at a slower rate than humans. When they get cold, they struggle to function. During the summer, Pittsburgh is hot when you’re outside, but buildings are generally kept at Arctic temperatures. During the winter? Well, it’s Pittsburgh. Left outside long enough, a zombie’s blood will just congeal.
Pretty rough, isn’t it? These poor zombies. They just can’t catch a break.
But it all seemed too ordinary. I needed to give Theo a real challenge. I knew he was up to it. What if Theo had a stronger than normal compulsion to do something really taboo? And what if that taboo act came with something, maybe side effects, that made it even more enticing? What is really more important to Theo—fitting into a society that rejected him even in life or turning his back on that society to benefit both himself and someone close to him?
Theo struggles with those questions for the duration of the novel. I doubt he’ll ever stop struggling. And that’s just how I like it.
I have new and devious ways to torment the poor guy in my follow-up to Habeas Corpse. Edas Corpse is in progress, much to Theo’s chagrin. While Habeas Corpse takes place during the Pittsburgh summer, the events of Edas Corpse occur in November, so the cold is a factor. Conflict is essential across genres. No matter what genre you enjoy reading, next time you pick up a book pay attention to how that author drives conflict and torments your characters. You may appreciate the story in all new ways!
When a series of grisly murders terrorizes the Steel City, Theo-an undead “Riser” working as a forensic technician for the Pittsburgh police-decides to use his dark gift to hunt the killer. He finds a partner in his only friend, Dr. Henry Libitin, but Theo’s unique talent of experiencing the victims’ last moments comes with a shocking price.
Check out Habeas Corpse now on Amazon.