I was at San Diego Comic Con and it was twenty minutes before I was supposed to go on stage and moderate a panel about zombies - a panel featuring Max Brooks and Mira Grant and other luminaries - when my best and oldest friend in the whole world called me and told me he had some "kinda bad news." When I say best and oldest friend, I mean my college roommate, my drummer in many, many bands, and the godfather of my oldest daughter. And when I say bad news, I mean brain cancer. Later, I learned it was a glioblastoma and I was told not to Google it. I did anyway and there hasn't been an hour that has passed since that time that I don't think my friend and how to make the best of the time we have left.
But then standing there in the over-crowded, fantastically costumed crowd of SDCC, I told my friend, immediately, that I loved him and it was all going to be okay, not knowing anything about anything, because that's what I wanted. I wanted it all to be okay so that I could put on my game face and go on stage and moderate a damned panel. The show must go on.
Afterwards, the haze and fantasy of San Diego Comic Con kept me from dealing with the reality of the situation. I was there to pitch a book about nuclear war, and zombies, and, coincidentally had a theme of cancer. And, eventually, it all came crashing in.
THIS DARK EARTH is a zombie novel, yes, but I don't think it's really about zombies. Because zombies in and of themselves are blank slates. They become the perfect metaphor for human existence. Yes, they are undead and they work on a purely MacGuffin level - to drive the plot onward - but if you give them the slightest nudge, zombies will shamble into new metaphorical territory. If you describe zombies inhabiting shopping centers and malls (most famously depicted in Dawn of the Dead) then it's a referendum on consumerism. If you give the zombies rudimentary skills and make them slave labor, it becomes a comment on class and society. If you give them a penchant for clustering in groups of four - two adults clustered with two children - zombies become a stand-in for the American nuclear family.
They are tabula rasa, they are easy to imprint upon because they are us. And that's the crux. They are us and we are them, much to our horror.
Where does the horror come from? Where does this collective madness, this overwhelmingly popular fear and interest of the zombie come from?
Hold on. Bear with me. I know that sounds kinda weird but here's the way I see it.
Yes, there's the obvious and immediate terror of having something in the guise of another human being want to dine upon your flesh. But zombies are more than that. They've gone beyond the rot of death - they've progressed further into death than the natural order allows. They are eaten away from the inside. They are the end result of the disease. Decay and pain and misery and hunger - hunger for life. Beyond usefulness, beyond consciousness. They are the worst case of any glioblastoma, carcinoma, whatever-oma you want to name.
And zombies themselves, in a larger view, are a cancer upon the human race. They are malignant and have metastasized, run rampant through the body politic, the corpus mundi. They are a cancer in the human race.
This is what scares us. This is what scares me. It's an adult fear, the fear of cancer. Children are frightened of bogeymen and clowns (okay, lots of adults there too) and strangers. But adults are frightened of something that debilitates them through a path of pain into uselessness until all hope of a normal life is gone. A long dark hall until death.
I forgot I had this essay due, in all honesty, and it's late now as I come to an end. Been kinda distracted lately, trying to make a living as a freelancer and novelist. Trying to remain a real part of my friend's life. I've just returned from visiting him. I took him to eat pizza and then we went back to his house and watched some episodes of Star Trek: TNG - just like we used to do in college, over twenty years ago. My choice, not his. I'm being nostalgic and he's kind enough to humor me. He's been very very lucky. His wife is a medical doctor so she's is very protective and vigilant. During the operation, they were able to resection at least 90% of the tumor in the right side of his brain. It impaired his left side so that he has trouble walking, despite the physical therapy. He walks with a limp now, though I won't call it a shamble, he does lurch occasionally. He's got his "pimpy cane," or at least that's what we call it while his wife's not around. He's got a tremendous L shaped scar on his noggin and he gets radiation through the cranium but he hasn't lost all his hair yet. His wife's laid out a whole set of rules of engagement and warning signs and I'm taking them very, very seriously. Protein and salad with dinner. No alcohol. Warning signs of fatigue. I had to make sure tonight that he ate before 7:30 because he has to take his chemo pills at 10:30. But goddamn, he's in great spirits. We laughed as hard as we used to, young men in our college dorm. He wants to read THIS DARK EARTH because he's my friend and wants to support me, but I've told him he doesn't need to. I told him that there's cancer all through it. That the fucking book is riddled with that evil shit. And he nods and smiles because he's the best guy I've ever known and says, "That's cool, Jakes. That's cool. But I still want to read it."
I'm more scared than he is.
This Dark Earth
This Dark Earth
Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster, July 3, 2012
Trade Paperback and eBook, 352 pages
The land is contaminated, electronics are defunct, the ravenous undead remain, and life has fallen into a nasty and brutish state of nature.
Welcome to Bridge City, in what was once Arkansas: part medieval fortress, part Western outpost, and the precarious last stand for civilization. A ten-year-old prodigy when the world ended, Gus is now a battle-hardened young man. He designed Bridge City to protect the living few from the shamblers eternally at the gates. Now he’s being groomed by his physician mother, Lucy, and the gentle giant Knock-Out to become the next leader of men. But an army of slavers is on its way, and the war they’ll wage for the city’s resources could mean the end of mankind as we know it.
Can Gus become humanity’s savior? And if so, will it mean becoming a dictator, a martyr . . . or maybe something far worse than even the zombies that plague the land?
For more on This Dark Earth, please head over to John's website here.