I don’t suppose there’s an easy way to do this. So I’ll just come right out and say it. I am Will Once and I wrote a zombie novel.
You don’t know how hard it is to admit that. Maybe you do. Maybe you’ve been through it yourself. I know I’m not the only one. Hell, do I know that I’m not the only one!
I suppose the story really starts years ago. At first I thought I could handle it. It was a social thing, a bit of harmless fun. No big deal. The occasional George Romero movie with friends. Dancing along to Michael Jackson’s Thriller at a party, back in the days when he was still black. And when I could still dance. Sort of.
Doesn’t everyone do that sort of thing? It’s normal, right? A little bit of zombying helps the mood. It’s certainly better than the alternatives.
I can tell you the day when everything changed. The exact day and time. How many times in your life can you do that?
It was the night before my first wedding to the woman who was later to become my ex-wife. To give you a flavour of the occasion, one of my friends apologised that he couldn’t get the wedding, but he promised to come to my next one. And he did.
I was staying at a hotel, sharing a twin-bedded room with my best friend and Best Man. We had a few drinks in the bar – to settle the nerves, you understand. Then we decided to be sensible and retire before “a few” became “a session”. As I flicked through the television channels in the hotel room, I came across the classic 1978 “Dawn of the Dead”.
Without realising the irony … or the fact that the movie is more than two hours long … we settled down to watch. Yes, the night before the marriage of the living dead, I watched a film about the dawn of the living dead.
The following morning, the family and friends who were squeezed uncomfortably into their best fwocks and hired mourning suits saw my bleary eyes. No doubt they thought that I had been crying or couldn’t sleep or the best man and I had partied the night away. What they didn’t realise is that we had stayed up until the wrong side of 2 am watching a zombie film.
Don’t they say that first sign of addiction is when you need to hide it from those you love?
Years passed like kidney stones. D.I.V.O.R.C.E. became a little more than a Dolly Parton song. Then the pits of humanity – being a balding single bloke in his thirties in Luton. I satisfied my zombie addiction with the only thing worth doing in Luton … takeway food and video rentals. This was the age of VCR and the video nasty. A very low point indeed.
The new Millennium changed all that. Marriage the second time around proved to be everything that the first one was not. I suppose everything improves with practice. I had everything a man could want – a loving wife, a brilliant son, a home, a career. Okay, so my hairstyle was more Jean-Luc Picard, but that didn’t matter when you’re coated in monogamy.
The addiction was hiding. Biding its time. I don’t know how anything bides anything else. Or if you can bide anything other than time. But that was what it was doing … time-biding.
Then came the Wocking Dead. I know, I know … it’s The Walking Dead. But these British ears hear “wocking” and everyone has a “jarb” to do.
Suddenly, everyone was doing it. Zombying, I mean. Shaun of the Dead. A remake of my beloved Dawn. And in case my wife is reading that, that is a film not a checkout girl at Waitrose.
Then came 28 Days Later, which was swiftly followed by the sequel 28 Weeks Later. I must admit that one had me a bit confused. Did the second 28 weeks include the original 28 days? Or did they reset the clock after the first twenty eight days? Which would mean that the sequel should have been 28 weeks plus the original 28 days, which I make to be 32 weeks later.
Heck, even one half of Brangelina was going to make a zombie movie. That’s what happens when your secret (and slightly naughty) obsession becomes mainstream.
It was at this point that I made a terrible mistake. I fell off the wagon. I decided to write a zombie book. It was going to be fantastic. I would hit the wave just as it was cresting. Fame, fortune, Ferraris and other things beginning with F. It would be my very own Harry Potter and the Stench of Putrescence, my Fifty Shades of Decomposition.
“But won’t this trend blow over in a little while?” asked my long-suffering wife when I told her the news.
I gave her a patronising smile. “Never fear, my queen. This is the new black. Zombies are the new werewolves, the new vampires. This trend is here to stay.”
“But everyone will be writing zombie books,” she said, again misunderstanding the publishing scene and men’s fascination for shotguns.
“Ah, but mine will be different, light of my life, ironer of my undercrackers. Mine will be a comedy, told from the zombie’s perspective. No-one else will think of that.”
“I don’t like gory books.”
“My soft, my lily, this one will not be gory. It will be gentle and sweet. There will be a cat in it.”
“Will the cat get eaten?”
“No, of course not. Well, probably not. Only if the plot demands it.”
As the immortal Johnny Cash once said, “I could see in her eyes that she had her doubts.” But she softly nodded and the decision was made.
Through long nights I toiled. The base stock was made of zombies, seasoned with witches, a vampire, the aforementioned cat, a VW camper van, William Wallace, a power-crazed Prime Minister and a dragon singing Tom Jones classics. Not exactly Dawn of the Dead, but then we had run out of parts of the day to stick “the dead” or “the living dead” to. Once you’ve had dawn and day, and night, there’s not a lot left. Somehow I couldn’t see “lunchtime of the dead” working. Elevenses of the dead? Mid-afternoon of the damned?
Then the awful realisation. While I had been writing my zombie book, so had everyone else. If the internet is 90% porn and ice-cream is 60% air, then the self-publishing world is 70% zombies. Or so it seemed to me.
Promote your book on Goodreads, the experts say. But when you spend some time on Goodreads, you find that there are hundreds of authors promoting their books to each other. And just about every blurb has the word apocalypse or zombie or somesuch in the first few lines. And if I get fed up with other people pimping their zombie books to me, how in hell-on-earth, am I going to push my book on them?
We had all thought that zombie was the new romance, the new erotica. Instead, it just seems to be a graveyard for rotting ambitions. Sometimes a genre can come out of nowhere and be fresh and exciting, like Tolkien creating fantasy or HG Wells finding a way to make living in Woking more bearable.
But sometimes a new genre pops up and almost instantly becomes stale. And, sad to say, zombie fiction has a distinctly unsavoury pong about it. A whiff of gangrene and rotting flesh. And not in a good way.
It was at this point that I realised I was living inside the zombie cliché. To be precise, I was living inside one of two clichés. Trust me, this one will make sense in a minute.
Cliché number 1 – you are trapped inside a building, like a shopping mall. Outside are a thousand starving zombies, all desperate to get inside to snack on your pink bits. Only they aren’t zombies, are they? They are zombie books. The world of the living, the last few survivors, are vastly outnumbered by a moany-shuffle (technical term) of zombie books. You might have friends and family out there, or even a book that you wrote. But they are out there and you are in here, and not-good things happen if the outside mixes with the inside.
Cliché number 2 – you look down at your arm and realise that you are bleeding. In the last fight, one of the undead must have sunk its teeth into you.
You know what happens next. You will try to hide it from your fellow survivors. You’ll hope that it’s just a flesh wound. Or that this particular brand of zombies are the non-infectious type. But deep down you know. You’ve just bought a one-way ticket to the underworld, and there’s no getting off.
That’s when you hand your shotgun to your best buddy and ask him to put a bullet between your eyes. Because you don’t want to turn into a zombie yourself. Or the writer of a zombie story.
My friends, that’s the story of my addiction and my shame. And when those “how to self-publish” books say “don’t write a zombie book”, perhaps you’ll think of me and the many others like me. We bought into a dream, but the dream turned out to be infected. And to have an insatiable appetite for bwains.
I’m doing my best to pick myself up. I haven’t written a zombie story for months now. I have a new book coming out soon with not the slightest hint of moaning or shuffling. Apart from the naughty bits.
At long last I’ve found the strength to say the truth. My name is Will Once, and I have written a zombie book.
Thank you for listening.
And while I’ve got your attention, if you’d like to buy a quite splendid story about witches and vampires and a Welsh dragon singing Tom Jones songs, might I recommend Love, Death and Tea. An end of the world romance …
… which may contain traces of zombie.