Bestselling writer Darren Shan gave this talk at the American Library Association Midwinter conference earlier this year. Today, with the release of the latest book in his ZOM-B series, ZOM-B City, we’re sharing Shan’s talk, which reveals the origins of his fascination with zombies (hint: it wasn’t zombies!).
I want to talk about my new series, Zom-B, today, but before I get around to it, I want to go back to some of my early influences, to give you an idea of why I write the sorts of books that I do, and why there’s more to them than just the gore and shocks that we publicise quite clearly on the covers.
Three horror movies and a serious film about losers provided the earliest direct influences on what would eventually become my published work. While I always loved reading, it wasn’t until I hit my teens that I started devouring books. First came movies to stimulate my imagination and nudge me towards the path where I felt most at home.
The first of the movies to make my jaw drop was Dracula A.D. 1972. It’s a pretty bad Hammer entry, where Christopher Lee mixed with lots of colourfully dressed, flares-wearing youths, a case of the undead clashing with the uncool. Even the fact that it’s set in the year that I was born can’t help me warm to it as an adult viewer — it’s BAD!
But when I first saw it as a child, I was mesmerised, by one scene in particular. In the movie, Dracula is brought back to life by some Satanic rite or other, and a goblet of blood is poured into the earth in a cemetery. The earth starts to ripple and shake, before the Count’s hand comes shooting up out of the depths. I dreamt about that scene later, and it’s one of the few nightmares I’ve ever had that forced me to bolt awake in a legendary cold sweat. As I lay in bed, shivering, replaying the scene over and over, I smiled, closed my eyes and tried to dream it again, so that I could have another nightmare.
That’s when I knew — I wanted to write books that gave people a serious dose of the heebie-jeebies.
The second movie was the far more polished Theatre Of Blood. This is the film where Vincent Price plays a classical actor who decides to wreak revenge on the critics who have mocked his performances, killing them off in all sorts of over-the-top Shakespearean ways. The film’s most infamous scene involves the mad actor mashing up one of the critic’s cute poodles, then force-feeding the remains to him until he chokes to death. It’s a delightfully gross scene, Price at his hammiest best, so ludicrously cruel that you can only laugh.
But when I saw it as a six year old (yes, I was something of a twisted child!) I took it at face value. I didn’t realise at that tender age that the extremely grisly could also be extremely funny. To my young mind, this was as cold and straight a scene as any Act from Hamlet (not that I knew about Shakespeare then — I was twisted, not precocious). A man had been forced to eat his pets, and had choked to death on them. That was shocking and stomach-churning and… amazing!That’s when I knew — I wanted to write books that made people feel sick.
The third film is the 1970s TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. This was my introduction to King’s world, a world I’ve dipped into many times since.
The adaptation was in two parts. It builds slowly but steadily, racking up the tension over the course of the first half, before exploding into grisly life in the second part. There are many creepy scenes, but one in particular stood out for me, and still does. The window scene.
In the film, a child gets turned into a vampire, and comes looking to feed on his friend. The friend, Mark, wakes in the middle of the night to find his dead buddy floating in the air, tapping on Mark’s bedroom window, pleading to be let inside. It’s an incredibly eerie scene that stayed with me long after the end credits had rolled. I spent a lot of time over the coming months thinking about it and re-living it and playing out different scenarios that were based on what might happen if I was ever visited by a reanimated friend or family member.
That’s when I knew — I wanted to write books that got under people’s skin and haunted their thoughts for years to come.
The fourth and last movie that I’ll talk about is Bless The Beasts And Children. This was a somber film based on a book by Glendon Swarthout, about a group of teenagers who are bullied and mocked at a summer camp. Each one of them is a social misfit, but together they find companionship, and set off on a mission to free a herd of buffalo that will otherwise be executed.
I’d never seen a film like this before, where stronger children viciously picked on those who were vulnerable, where the weak or different were treated like scum, where there was no dramatic turning of the tables. The bad guys (the normal people) didn’t get their comeuppance. The good guys (the losers) had small moments of triumph and growth, but they didn’t change the world or enjoy a memorable victory. In fact, without wishing to spoil things too much for those who have not seen the film, their mission fails and one of them perishes along the way.
I watched the film with a sinking feeling in my stomach — this is what the world is really like, and it isn’t pretty. But at the same time I was ecstatic that the film had dared present the truth, that there was more to fiction than the simplistic, good-always-wins plots that I was already growing tired of in my youth. I craved stories that would move me emotionally, that would focus on kids who weren’t cleancut and boringly good, where death was a real threat and not just something that only happened to the villains. I wept a little at the end of Bless The Beasts And Children, but I didn’t regret the tears one tiny, single bit.
That’s when I knew — I wanted to write books about outsiders, that would draw readers into their world, which wouldn’t just scare and unnerve people, but would hopefully allow them to relate to the characters and be moved by what happens to them, books that would make them think, and books that would maybe, just maybe, every so often make them cry.
Fast forward 30 or so years, and I’ve just started a twelve book series about zombies, and despite the first couple of books being gory, action-packed, brain-munching affairs, they’ve attracted a lot of critical praise and sparked some very heated discussions. Because they’re also about racism, and xenophobia, and paranoia, and the abuse of power by those who wish to exploit the masses.
I’ve got to be honest — I’m not a huge zombie fan. I grew up on a diet of horror, and while I enjoyed some of the better zombie efforts, they never got me buzzing the way a really great vampire story could. I just saw them as too much of a one-dimensional threat. Sure, it was fun to watch or read about characters who were cornered by a pack of the living dead, but for me it seemed like a limited form of entertainment. Once it had been done well, I couldn’t see how zombies could be reinvented, and as a writer I’m only attracted to stories where I can put my own stamp on proceedings. So how come I’m writing not just one book about zombies, but a twelve book series? Well, simply put, I was wrong — they can be reinvented, and to my surprise I found a way to do it.
Zom-B began as my attempt to write an anti-racist book. The world has changed a lot post 9/11 in America and 7/7 in London. Although I’m Irish, I was born in London and still spend a lot of time there.I’d been visiting a couple of days before the bombings in 2005, and my flat in the East End was close to where one of the bombs was set off. In the months afterwards, you couldn’t miss the tension in the air. People were angry and scared, and that showed in the way they reacted to outsiders. There were other people who cashed in on that, who stoked the fires of fear and gathered supporters for their own, brutal causes.
I felt compelled to write about this, to encourage young readers to challenge anyone who told them to hate indiscriminately, to question everything, to listen to their hearts and not just the preachings of their elders. I wanted to write a story that would warn them of the dangers of following blindly, of standing by passively and not doing whatever they can to change the world for the better. The story would be a warning — if you don’t act now, honestly and bravely and selflessly, this is the shape of things to come.
But I didn’t want to approach such meaty issues directly. I prefer to explore the political landscape through the use of horror or fantasy. In this book I would focus strongly on matters like racial unrest and the abuse of power, but I still wanted to tell a fast, action-packed story that could be read for entertainment. That’s what I love about horror — if it’s done well, the excitement of the story will draw you in, but you can then use it as a springboard to go off in all sorts of other directions.
As I tried to find a way to start, I happened to remember the first real zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, and how it had commented on the race situation of 1960s America by casting a black actor in the lead role. I wondered if I could follow in its footsteps and use zombies to make my own cutting observations about life in the early 21st century, in effect to use the undead as a hook to draw readers into my hopefully thought-provoking story of racism and the savage manipulation of truth and power.
While I knew going in that I would have no problem writing horrific action scenes about brain-eating zombies, I was worried that I might not be able to get into the mindset of a racist, but to my surprise it proved troublingly easy. I found that racism is an attractive proposition if you embrace it freely. You have a clear enemy, a clear sense of righteousness and superiority. It doesn’t surprise me that racist organisations find favour in difficult times, because they offer apparently simple explanations and solutions – it’s all their fault, and if we get rid of them, we will be fine.
What I want to do in my Zom-B series is disprove such theories, to show that there is no we or them, that we’re all in this life together, and that we have to accept all people and embrace all faiths if we are to move forward positively and make progress. That isn’t always the easiest road to travel down, but then again, the easy road isn’t always the right road to take, and that’s something I think we need to impress on our children again and again. The right way is often hard. The right decisions sometimes cost us dearly. But if we don’t make them… if we don’t fight for what we truly believe to be just and right and good… then we will become monsters far worse and far more harmful than any cannibalistic, fully paid-up member of the walking dead.
That all sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? And, in truth, Zom-B is a dark, disturbing book. This is a very dark, disturbing series. It has its lighter moments. I think it’s important, if you’re tackling big, broad themes like this, to pepper your stories with action and excitement and humour, otherwise it becomes a drag, and any points you might want to make will be lost, as who wants to read a book that isn’t any fun? But overall it’s tackling some mountainous, thorny issues, and asking readers to think about corruption and degradation, that sometimes we can’t trust the people we love most, that we live in a world where death is a certainty for us all, and that sometimes it finds us sooner than we would like.
Should I be writing such books for young readers? Is it healthy for children and teenagers to be reading about zombies and despots and bigots? Should kids be encouraged to reflect on their own mortality? I think the answer to all those questions is… yes. No surprise there!
Going back to the early influences that I was talking about at the start of this, I only really recall one picture book that I read as a child. It was about pirates who sailed the seven seas, looting and pillaging, and it ended with them all dying — the last picture was of them lying dead on board their ship, little x’s where their eyes should be.
The book has stuck with me because it was one of the first times I got to face death directly, and I think it’s important that we do that as children. Death is a natural part of life, something we all have to face, and I think it’s less scary when we learn to accept and deal with it from an early age.
Children’s literature has traditionally tackled mortality head-on, in the re-telling of ancient myths such as those of Spartacus or Achilles, Arthurian legends, the Grimm fairy tales, through to the likes of Oliver Twist and The Secret Garden. In those stories, children are confronted with the reality of death and forced to think about the dangers of the world and the fragility of their own existence.
Some might argue that a child’s emotional education should be left to its parents, that the thorny issue of death should be approached only by those closest to the developing individuals. But I think that undervalues the power of stories. I believe humans realised from a very early stage that children are more inclined to absorb information if it is encoded within a spellbinding, bloodthirsty piece about gods, monsters or whatever. If you want a child to remember the names of Roman senators, weave them into tales of wickedness and treachery. If you want to warn your young not to wander from the marked path in a forest, tell them a story about wolves or witches operating in the leafen depths.
To pass on our wisdom to a child, we must first get them to interact with us, and a good horror story (or one with a dark underbelly) can draw in even the most reluctant of students. Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War is a hard-hitting tale about bullying, but it teaches us to be wary of systems that channel us in one direction, and which grind down those who try to be different. Roald Dahl’s The Witches is creepy and hilarious, but it also teaches us to be more concerned about the quality of our lives rather than the length of them.
In my Zom-B series I am using the allure of brain-munching zombies to write about racism and extremists. On the one hand it will hopefully involve readers in a twisting, exciting story about a teenager’s adventures in a post-apocalyptic city of the undead. On the other it will hopefully urge them to think long and hard about prejudice and the politics of fear, about warmongers and the need to take responsibility for our actions. I see Zom-B as being part of a long and thriving tradition, going back to the dawn of children’s literature. Children’s writers and story-tellers have explored the darkness of the human condition for as far back as we can remember, and I hope that we continue to do so for as far into the future as we can dream.
Darren Shan is the New York Times bestselling author of the Cirque Du Freak, The Demonata, the Saga of Larten Crepsley and the ZOM-B series. He lives in Ireland; his books have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide.