Monday, May 02, 2016

Character Transformation in the Post-Apocalypse

Fun with tropes in zombie apocalypse fiction.

A scene from Grace Among the Dead,
as rendered by my wife, Cynthia. It’s okay, Grace
has been hacking at undead for a while by this point.
A while back, when I would force myself to read the reviews on Amazon, I saw one for Bleeding Kansas from a reader who complained that my protagonist, Derek Grace, goes from everyday ordinary guy to a zombie-killing “Terminator” too quickly in the book.

I might have dismissed this as one of those troll reviews on behalf of another indie author looking to boost himself by undercutting his perceived competition, but the argument was presented well. My problem, though, is this zero-to-hero-in-nothing-flat trope is an issue with every single zombie novel I’ve ever read.

I read one popular series that started with the usual illness that brings people down, then back up again as cannibal corpses. The hero’s wife is working at the hospital, and she’s bitten by one of the resurrected. She calls our hero, who is watching their baby at home, and thus the audience is informed of the rules of this zombie apocalypse: get sick or get bit, you’ll die, then resurrect, then you’ll bite someone else. The Circle of Unlife.

Even though this sounds boilerplate—which it is—an author still needs to run that boilerplate, in order to affirm the audiences expectations. (For instance, if this was a brain-eating zombie novel, a body with a brain missing might be found, and we the readers will know what we’re up against before our heroes do.) What bothered about that particular scene was everything is going to hell, the hero knows it, and now he learns his wife is dying, and will have to be put down by her colleagues before she resurrects. The hero’s reaction to learning he’s about to become a widower and a single father in the middle of a plague? “Oh, wow, sorry, honey. So that’s what’s happening, and you’re dying, too? Okay, then. I’ll take care of our baby. I love you. Bye.

The hero might have spent a sentence feeling sad immediately after hanging up; I’m not sure. It’s been a while since I read this, and I don’t want to say the sadness wasn’t noted. But it did seem that the hero went right from mild-mannered high school administrator and babysitter to a weapons and tactical expert well within the same page.

If anyone complained about that, I missed it. Not that it matters. Again, this is a common issue. I’m proud to say I did what I could to address that in my own series. If it wasn’t enough for some readers, that’s on me.

Bleeding Kansas begins with the usual sickness that starts the zombie apocalypse. Derek Grace is flying out of town to an interview that promises to break him out of the limbo of unemployment, and his wife is too sick to drive him to the airport. He’s more irritated at this situation than sympathetic towards his wife. (No one knows this is the end of the world yet.) Grace becomes even more irritated when it turns out his cab driver is sick, too. So is every other person at the airport.

Grace can’t afford to get sick. He needs this job, or his house goes into foreclosure. He’s also ambivalent towards his family. Years of professional unemployment and its attendant anxieties have embittered him to the point where he wants to toss over everything associated with his old, impoverished life and start anew, 600 miles away from where his pecuniary miseries began. 

From pp. 8-9:

After the last four years of waking to the terror of the same day, it’s not just a new city I want. Hell, I’ll save the company some money and tell them not to bother flying me home once I have the job. I’ll find a house and buy my furniture one stick at a time. Sybil’s 18; Jack will likely move out with me, so I won’t have to sweat child support.
It’s not that I hate Claire, or that I’m going middle-age stupid for young pussy, or anything like that. Our you-and-me-against-the-world groove has run its course. That’s all. After bumping past each other in the house nearly every day since I got cut from my last position, we’re done. After 22 years I expect she’ll be grateful to see me gone, too. She just doesn’t know it yet.

Later on the same page Grace receives a call from his wife at home. She seems to have recovered from the illness, but she’s consumed with dread that her current well-being is “the eye of the hurricane.” (This sense of dread was common to the mysterious and fatal “sweating sickness” of the 15th and 16th centuries in England.) Claire Grace’s insistence that her husband stay and get that job they need so badly shames Grace into trying to make arrangements to come back home. The supervisor who was supposed to interview Grace is sick, too, after all, and Grace now fully appreciates that his desperation for professional employment has warped his sense of priorities.

By the next morning when Grace tries to make arrangements to travel, it’s apparent that the “Mayday Malaise” is not the summer cold the media has played it up to be. Enough people have called in sick, or called in saying they’re taking care of their sick, that the airlines aren’t running any flights. Not much of anything is open or working. Soon Grace can’t even call home, as the networks that support cell and landline phones are no longer operational.

Derek Grace finds himself under lockdown in a nearly empty luxury hotel as the city goes under martial law and the mass burials begin. His one other companion is a self-described security consultant named Tanner who tries to take charge, but only angers Grace with his passive-aggressive attempts at social dominance.

One of Tanner’s hijinks was leaving Grace to fight an undead woman with no weapons at hand, forcing Grace to finesse a way that would force Tanner to shoot her. Grace realizes he’s pretty much on his own and has to find weapons. In the course of doing so he ends up making his first zombie kills.

These kills do not come without a price. From page 46:

I stand over the stilled bodies, fighting my gag reflex. I’m aware of a terrible shit-and-spoiled-meat odor and it’s not helping my adrenaline hangover. I marvel at how readily I slashed at other humans with sharp blades and swung blunt objects into their skulls.
I barely make it to the sink. The projectile force of my vomit covers the distance for me. I turn on the spigot and work the spray hose to rinse my mouth and clear the sink.

Misanthropy, self-loathing, terror, and rage are a hell of a cocktail. It’s quite all right to puke after your first.

I turn to face the bodies. Of course, they’re not human; this instinct to eat living flesh is nasty, to hell with them! Still. This came so easy. Not that I’m ungrateful for this opportunity to second-guess my own success. Still, rage issues? Was Tanner right?

Characters in zombie apocalypse novels become quickly accustomed to dead bodies lying around, which you’d think would be traumatizing enough without some of those bodies rising up, their wounds bled dry, to come after you and eat you alive. Then you find yourself cutting pieces of them away, and bludgeoning the others, in ways you can’t imagine doing to a living creature.

I’m convinced you’d have to be a little twisted up inside to survive civilization’s fall to mindless, flesh-hungry corpses. You would have to get used to some nasty things in quick order.

I’d rather not look at the bodies in the lobby, let alone manhandle them outside, but they won’t smell any better come morning, and I’m going to want breakfast. I find a luggage dolly and start rolling the bodies two at a time to the dock. Then I find some disinfectant and get the blood and shit up as best I can.
In any event, Tanner doesn’t need to know what I just learned I’m capable of. Not while I’m still trying to make sense of it myself.
God help me, this is actually kind of thrilling.

It’s not difficult to understand why so little, if any, effort is expended explaining our character’s reaction to what we already understand to be happening. As readers, we want to get on with the show. We know what kind of apocalypse we’re in for. We know our hero has to rise to the occasion.

The quicker we get these story components in place, the better. Otherwise, we turn into the famously awful second season of The Walking Dead, when the show nearly bored its fanbase out of existence for all of the “exploration of relationships” or whatever they called all that talking and bickering.

By necessity, there will be some down time in between the action in which our character must bind wounds, take stock, and consider the next move. On page 82, after the mayhem and terror of the first act has passed, our hero takes the opportunity  to reflect on the preposterous reality of his present, which turns out to be only slightly more preposterous than the reality of his past:

I wipe a mirror clear. Aside from the five-days growth of beard, I can’t imagine this was the man taking thousands of dollars in vouchers out on the town in Kansas City, savoring the idea of escaping poverty—and the people he’d lived through it with. Who had bluffed his way past trigger-happy National Guardsmen.
Good Lord, I really did that, didn’t I? Bantered with a cop, then fought that same cop in his undead form. I played and won the alpha-dog game with Tanner, escaped an undead swarm, and flew away from another just in time. That is, after using a pack of crackers to lure a retarded child and his insistent mother away from our plane, to a death as messy as it was certain.
I look at myself. My family is gone. And with them gone I realize I have no idea who I am. What I am. What to do.

Derek Grace was a fake-it-til-you-make-it kind of guy when he was an unemployed professional trying to fake his way back into a living salary. He’ll end up faking it until he inadvertently makes it as the titular Dead Silencer, a slightly overstated celebrity that gets him in as much trouble as it sometimes gets him out. 

His guilt for his failings as a husband and father will haunt him in Grace Among the Dead, requiring a bitter resolution in The Wrong Kind of Dead. My SAGA OF THE DEAD SILENCER series is crammed full of violent and dark set-pieces, but the people who inhabit its world are just that. People. 

Again, the trick is to make sure this doesn’t devolve into melodrama along the lines of Season 2 of The Walking Dead. People who presumably knew what they were doing fumbled that narrative ball. I’m just one man, and I have to be smarter.

Good luck to all of us, then. I’ve said it before; I’ll say it again: this may be a simple zombie apocalypse action series, but that’s my name on the cover, so I’m putting everything I’ve got into it. Here’s hoping you honor your own labors likewise.
Some melodrama is absolutely necessary, of course. Walking corpses eating living flesh handily lend themselves to multiple servings of lurid and morbid tropes driving lurid and morbid scenes.