William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Short Shorts: Of Zombies and Missing Pieces

I have always been a chronic over-writer. In high school, back when dot matrix printers and fanfold paper still reigned, classmates would grab the first page of my English paper, drop the rest out of our second-story window, and let my text blow in the breeze to see how far my latest opus reached. Who knows how many hundreds of thousands of extra words I've written in my life? The thought of all those hours I might have reclaimed if only I were more concise gives me productivity nightmares. Yet I seem powerless to stop this overkill at the keyboard.

Thankfully, the world has editors that impose limits. With the Sci-Guys podcast, the powers that be tell me to keep things under three to four minutes. The first draft of my piece on Scott Nicholson's Missing Pieces came in at almost five and a half minutes on my first reading. Ugh... So I set about slicing and dicing. You can hear the results starting at about 32 minutes and 40 seconds into the new Sci-Guys podcast #105.

Some people have longer attention spans when reading than listening. (Just ask my wife.) I started out with the Sci-Guys crew months ago talking about zombies, and I think there remains a lot to say on the subject. Unfortunately, zombies are the new vampire -- or they were a year ago. I sense that the public's sense of zombie fatigue is growing, and that's to be expected. Fascination with this or that sort of monster is bound to ebb and flow like any fad. When AMC cancels The Walking Dead, we'll know that this zombie wave has run its course. Apparently, the show now has its own Facebook game, so it shouldn't be long.

Anyway. See? I'm doing it again.

Without (much) further ado, I'll only say that below is the original version of my review script rather than the abridged version I sent in for the podcast. (And can anyone tell me how to minimize those hard "s" sounds in Audacity? Please?) Also, I want to emphasize right up front that if you love horror lit and enjoy supporting independent authors, you need to check out Scott Nicholson. Read through his Web site and sign up for his ebook giveaway projects. Try a few. You won't be disappointed. I mean, how can you not love a guy who does his press photo as a vampire in a casket?

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Why do we love zombies?

This is a tricky question once you dig under its flaky, rotting surface. I thought about this a lot as I was writing my Civil War zombie story, “The Followers.” I mean, monster tales and the horror genre in general work on different levels. If we think of slasher flicks, where things suddenly jump and scream and scare the bejeezus out of you, there’s not much depth here, right? It probably has something to do with the fight or flight response and how that little adrenaline pop stimulates our hindbrains. There’s no intellect involved; it’s just primal. And primal is fine. Primal is how we make kids, after all. But a great story demands more.

So...zombies. Let’s recap. What exactly is a zombie? Well, usually, a zombie is a human that has been attacked somehow and rendered into a mindless, devouring corruption of its former self. I’m picking these words carefully: mindless, devouring, and corruption. Mindless is important because we identify ourselves with our minds. The mind defines us and makes us human. It’s the fence around our ego. Without mind, we’re nothing but a sack of meat in an empty universe. Here’s the key to horror: Nothing terrifies us more than loss of identity. We laugh about zombies craving brains, but did you ever wonder why the brain? Why not the heart or something else? Because the brain contains the mind. Zombies are about the destruction of the mind.

Now back to devouring. Zombies aren’t scary because they’re carnivores. I’m all for bacon and baby backs, OK? Zombies are cannibals. Murder is taboo, but it’s ordinary. It happens every day. Cannibalism? That’s something else. It’s not just an offense against an individual, it’s an offense against the species, and that threatens us at a deeper level.

Corruption. I remember reading Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant fantasy series when I was a kid, and the one quotation that’s stuck with me all these years is this: “There's only one way to hurt a man who’s lost everything. Give him back something broken.” In a zombie apocalypse, where we as a world have lost everything, the real horror isn’t the loss of power or food or any other external factor. It’s that we get back our loved ones broken and corrupted. They are mindless, rotting, empty reminders of corrupted love.

Good literature tells the story of ourselves. Through the characters, we see our own faults and dreams. Zombies – the best kind of zombies – appeal to our fear of losing ourselves. Because we all stand on this cliff every day. The ground under our feet feels firm. We have money, food, family, and most of all a sense of who we are, the identity that defines our place in the world. But just one step, one bite, one little crossing into death and back again, and we tumble off that cliff into corruption and lose everything that really matters. We become entirely, terrifyingly alone.

Scott Nicholson has written many stories about zombies, but one of the most haunting is titled “Darker With the Day.” It’s about a man named Lt. John Sorenson, who was one of the first victims of the zombie apocalypse accidentally unleashed by the military. In a really clever twist, Nicholson gives his zombie full recall of who he is and was so long as he has recently fed. The more hungry he gets, the less he remembers. And Lt. Sorenson has only one wish: to get back home to the wife he loves with all his soul.

There are a lot of Christian images and references in “Darker With the Day,” and at first this bothered me. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw how well it fit into the zombie archetype. If religion is one of the ways, maybe the biggest and most profound way, that we as thinking humans cope with the universe’s emptiness, then Nicholson is adding another layer of loss and corruption on his zombie. It’s not only about loss of identity. Lt. Sorenson is battling the loss of his faith and spirit. It’s subtle and clever and really helps sink this story into your subconscious like few other zombie tales I’ve read.

“Darker With the Day” alone is worth buying, but it appears in a collection of ten stories titled Missing Pieces for only 99 cents. Scott Nicholson has written more than 30 books, and he has a very bad habit of giving them away for free. I honestly feel guilty when I download his promos. But he can turn from backwoods hick humor to dark poetry on a dime, and when his stories hit home, they hit hard.

Scott Nicholson, Missing Pieces, 99 cents to download. Don’t miss it.


  1. Thanks, WIlliam, for this great analysis of the zombies within us all. "Darker with the Day" was originally intended for an anthology themed around Nick Cave songs but it never came to life...

  2. Just picked this up -- look forward to reading it!