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Tyrant’s Throne by Sebastien de Castell
 

Tyrant’s Throne by Sebastien de Castell

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Keeping the Little Things Undead

We are all familiar with ‘zombies’, right? Senseless, decaying and yet animated corpses that eat juicy live brains’ – as seen in AMC’s The Walking Dead. Well, that’s certainly a popular depiction of them, but there are others too. One of the most fascinating examples that I’ve come across over the last few years are the ‘Walkin’ found in David Towsey’s Your Brother’s Blood. David’s ‘Walkin’ are so unlike your typical ‘zombies’ that he is able to use one as a protagonist, enter its POV and take you on an emotional journey. When we heard David’s next book, Your Servants and Your People, was on the horizon (actually out now!), we invited him to write a guest blog for us on how he went about crafting such a unique narrator and, indeed, narrative.

zombie_brainssss“Brrrrraaaaaaaaaaaainnnnnnsssss.” *

. . . Guest post about writing the zombie perspective done, right? Or maybe I should talk about how I describe the act of gnawing through flesh in a fresh, cliché-free way.

But my zombies are different.

I find myself saying that a lot when describing Your Brother’s Blood and its sequels. In the novels the undead characters go by the label “the Walkin”. To call them zombies doesn’t quite fit and, to the more cynical observer, is perhaps reaching for a sub-genre that – in a marketing sense – is hot right now. Really, it’s an easy shorthand. “People who come back from the dead in a kind of suspended animation with their thoughts, memories, and language skills largely intact but unable to die of natural causes and unable to feel pain” doesn’t roll off the tongue. So The Walkin’ Trilogy is often referred to as a zombie-western. I sit on zombie panels at conventions, and write zombie related articles, all the while apologising for not writing proper zombie fiction. Like the card-playing soldiers in Your Servants and Your People, I play the hand I’m dealt and things are easier if I just go with it.

* Is there a standardised way to write this? For some reason I think ‘i’ should be the letter that gets the least representation.

geek-zombie-iconMy not-quite-zombies inhabit a relatively unique position in their world. As the lengthy description above suggests, these are undead characters that are still capable of thought, of communication, and are self-aware. That means when writing from their perspective – something I do a lot in the trilogy – I face a number of challenges and opportunities that aren’t present in my human characters. And, interestingly enough, wouldn’t be present if I took the more traditional zombie route. I’m certainly not alone in tackling this kind of perspective: novels such as Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion and TV shows such as The Returned and In the Flesh do a great job of examining the undead experience.

First, there are the big issues, like living forever (potentially). It’s fair to say such a thing would change a person in all kinds of ways. Thomas, the father at the centre of the trilogy, spends some time trying to understand his place in the world’s natural order – only to realise he exists outside of it. The physical manifestation of this is his effect on the majority of animals, which blindly flee from the Walkin’. But on a more abstract level, he struggles with the idea that he might outlive everyone he has ever known. If his family are dealt with as they should be in death – as he should have been – and their bodies are burned, they won’t come back as he has. This motivates him to see his family again, a drive that consumes any regard for the danger he might put them in.

131017_CB_Empathy_and_Fiction.jpg.CROP.original-originalWhilst immortality is a challenging concept for us mere mortals, the resulting feelings and actions are all too human – this is how I have approached the Walkin’. It is also why I think characters like Thomas generate reader empathy. It would be much harder to get behind a character that stops, mid-quest, to chew through a poor bystander. Thomas is a guy returning from war that wants to see his kid and wife again. Sure, he has to explain why half his face is missing and deal with the locals who want to burn him at the stake, alongside his daughter just to be safe, but at its core this is a recognisable story. Thomas kicks the issue of living forever into the long grass, deciding to spend what time he can with his family. I think I would do the same.

Then there are the small things, like not eating, or not getting tired, or not having a full covering of skin. If the major motivators of my Walkin’ characters were to be relatable, their physical experience had to be very different. I wanted to defamiliarise that returning soldier trope, to present it in a surprising way so that a reader might get something new from a situation they may have seen before. When a homeward bound Thomas approaches a river, he has to deal with water rushing through his calf muscles and filling his body cavities. Later, he wonders whether or not he should show his young daughter the wound that killed him. And when travelling with her, he forgets that she might need to eat or sleep or pee. It’s those little moments that form a bigger sense of distance between Thomas and the people around him.

YSAYPI also had a lot of fun writing the descriptions of the Walkin’ bodies, both from their own perspective and from the other characters’. I’m one of those strange people that find a kind of pleasure in pulling out fluff from their bellybutton. Thomas and Lieutenant Matthews in Your Servants and Your People are inexplicably drawn to poking and prodding their newly uncovered insides. I get to do the Stephen King-style “gross-out” moments when I feel I’ve lulled a reader into a false security with all the touchy-feely ideas. I try very hard to relate everything back to my main themes, so nothing should come across as gratuitous. But some scenes are not for the squeamish.

Writing an undead perspective has been a balancing act; something I’m coming to appreciate might be true of all writing. If I push the Walkin’ too far towards the zombie I risk losing reader sympathy. If I go the other way I risk losing what makes my novels different. Having written three of them now, I’m starting to understand my process for handling the problem. I keep the big things human, and the little things undead.

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