Incredible Fiction Blog
Words are important. When I write about a particular subset of the undead in a novel under development, they are zonbies – with an n – and not zombies.
Map of Haiti
Image courtesy OpenStreetMap
Using the word zonbi started because the ritual that animates the dead in the story is put together by someone with roots in Haitian Vodou. Zonbi is the original Haitian Creole word. The word may derive from the Central African Nzambi, a supreme deity seen in the form of a snake. In mid-20th century American pop culture, zombie wound up referring to someone who is a soulless shell of his or her former self due to magical means. By the 21st century, books, movies, comic books and video games portrayed zombies as one of a horde of undead involved in a zombie apocalypse usually due to a mutated virus. Today's pop culture zombie has nothing to do with the zonbi it came from.
In referring to my undead as zonbies, they are linked back to their roots as I rework the tradition for my own fictional purposes.
Another part of my purpose in using the word zonbi is to signal that my zonbies are not today's post-Romero zombies. The zonbies in the story under development do not eat flesh much less brains. There is no zombie apocalypse.
Of course, my fictional ritual also bears no necessary relation to actual Vodou in Haiti. This is partly because the person who is responsible for the ritual is generations removed from Haiti. During those generations, the ritual was reworked. So even if this was historical, it would not be Haiti Vodou.
There is much conflicting information about Vodou. A writer picks and chooses what works and looks for consistency as it is modified for the story. Of course the fiction necessarily reshape concepts including Vodou and zonbies to fit the needs of story. The zonbies in my novel are more than several steps removed from historical ones. They also more than several steps removed from zombies in pop culture, which is why they are referred to as zonbies.
A zonbi apocalypse involves the violent end of human civilization due to the rise of zonbies.
Image courtesy Clker.com
Contagious biological agents are the easiest fictional sources for a zonbi apocalypse. 28 Days Later, a movie from 2002, is about the breakdown of society on the British Isles following the accidental release of a highly contagious virus. Eleven years later, World War Z (in 2013) followed an investigator around the world as he tried to stop a zombie pandemic caused by a virus. Cable Channel AMC's The Walking Dead is about a post-apocalyptic world dominated by virus-infected flesh-eating zombies. Numerous video games with elements of zonbies, post-apocalypse and virus abound.
Zonbi apocalypses are part of a larger phenomenon of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic media today. “An increasing number of books, movies, television shows and graphic novels have portrayed post-apocalyptic worlds over the past century,” writes Stephanie Pappas in Live Science. The zonbi apocalypse is just one example of all those fictional apocalypse.
Many ideas are thrown around as to why zonbies are such popular in media today. Over-the-top apocalypses make for dramatic appeal, lend themselves to B-grade movies that are quickly released to DVD or made available through Netflix, fuel programming for cable networks and may fit into a possible shift in the American zeitgeist post-9-11, where as a group we are temporarily at least unsure in our historical can-do positive belief in the future. In short, we're scared and expressing our fear through zonbi or other apocalypses makes sense.
What I write is not set today but in the past – before DVDs, video games, graphic novels, the first horror comics and World War Two. Zonbies and apocalypses as we know them today did not exist back in those days. My zonbies are classic, pre-Romero zombies – soulless corpses reanimated by mystical or occult means. A subset of the undead. Zonbies were that different during an historical window of four hundred years, from the 1500s through 1967. Although to be fair the relation between Haitian zonbies and my zonbies is about the same as the relation between traditional Christianity and Jehovah’s Witnesses (no offense intended to either group).
Which answers the question posed in the title: a zonbi apocalypse is not a zonbi apocalypse when it happens before 1968.
I have been writing back stories for a new novel – yes, another new story.
A back story is a set of largely fictional events that happened before the story opens – each character's personal history. Good back story helps to create better characters and consistency in the story line. It can keep a writer from having a major oops halfway into writing a story. It also provides already written content for when it is time to reveal important past events to readers.
For an alternate world story set in the past, back story helps keep the fictional branches off our real world clear.
One way I create back story is to sit with a laptop open, reading through files until a connection is made or a new idea appears. Day after day of doing that helps back story to come together.
Then I followed my own advice and used Google Instant. For starters, I typed Native American. The Google algorithm suggested four possibilities:
- Native American names
- Native American tribes
- Native American Indian dog
- Native American music
Out of curiosity, I entered Native American Indian Dog. Dogs may appear in the story, as they seem to be common and were used as work animals to pull travois when horses were not available. Nothing caused an immediate tug in terms of writing the story but I mentally noted to look at those results again if the story called for it.
Music however plays a role in the story. Not a major role but enough of one to matter. I search for Native American music. I saw a Wikipedia article, You Tube videos, Internet radio stations and a host of other sites. When I write I keep a file called Thinking, where go notes about ideas to pursue as I write. As music plays a role in the story, I almost put my note there – but instead put it in the notes section at the end of every chapter where music may matter. This way I do the actual research as necessary.
It seems that this research did not add to the back story but it does help to flesh out the story. Not a bad thing.
Still looking for back story material, I return to Google and type Indian Wars. It produces information for AP History and band camp. Not real helpful for my story at this point.
This time I type just the word Indian. The first result looks promising: Indian food. It produces a lot of results related to the Asian subcontinent and a few possibly promising results: Native American Cuisine in Wikipedia. Native American Food at a website aimed at kids, which may not be too helpful but reminds me that hunting and gathering food will be a daily need of the people in this story – something that also influences the back story as well. Notes are entered into files. Job accomplished.
Alternate worlds, or parallel universes when the canvas of a story is larger than a single planet, has become a staple of science fiction that overlaps with time travel. An alternate world is a fictional world much like ours. Alternate worlds can be radically different or so like ours that differences are too subtle to be noticed.
An alternate world may be reached through fictionalized science, a non-scientific approach or with no entrance from our real world.
If an alternate world is created by or reachable using fictionalized science, it is science fiction.
There is science behind the science fiction. The Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics posits that our choices trigger splits that cause multiple universes. As a result, all possible pasts and futures are real – if that interpretation is correct. In the strictest sense, the Many Worlds Interpretation is not a theory as it is not currently falsifiable.
The TV, movie and book franchise, Star Trek, included alternate worlds since The Original Series. The first alternate worlds episodes were The Alternative Factor and The City on the Edge of Forever. The first story to posit a continuing alternate world that involved the entire Federation was Mirror, Mirror, where a parallel universe bred an evil Captain Kirk. That alternate universe, with mostly the same characters as the usual Federation universe, was ravaged by continual warfare. It was reached through a transporter malfunction. The Mirror universe was reprised and built out in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
More commonly, alternate worlds or parallel universes are alternate or parallel to our real world and not to a fictional world or universe.
Sliders, a TV show, posited a continuum of alternate Earths with a new one visited by the ensemble each episode. The means of travel was a portal accidentally opened by a young scientist. The plot twist was that the ensemble was stranded outside their home universe with a device that allowed them to travel from alternate world to alternate world as they tried to go home.
In The Guns of the South, time travelers with a white supremacy agenda supply modern firearms to the Confederate Army, which wins the Civil War.
Numerous science fictions writers have written more alternate worlds or parallel universe short stories and novels than can possibly be listed in a short article.
If an alternate world is created by or reachable with a non-scientific approach or involves non-scientific elements like magic, it is fantasy.
The Tales of Alvin Maker by Orson Scott Card is a series of novels set in the American frontier of the 19th century. During the series, a young man learns about magical powers to create and shape things.
If an alternate world cannot be reached from this world and a story is set entirely in the alternate world, it is counterfactual fiction.
There is a whole sub-sub-genre of what if stories around alternate endings to World War Two. One of the best known in this grouping is The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
When I create alternate Earths, I look for ones that are enough like ours for readers to sink their teeth into them but different enough to be enjoyed as a separate world. For instance, the topography tends to remain the same as our real world. However, an alternate Earth can draw on traditions that span various cultures, seem to be contradictory and are fictionalized in a self-consistent way to create a theoretical framework within which the story operates. During the back story, I am clear about where the fictional world splits from our real world an attempt to weave that into the story.
The zombie apocalypse happened in 1968. Really. Ever since George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead, zombies have been ravenous flesh-eaters with a particular penchant for brains. Zombies have become a solid sub-genre in the horror genre, with a legion of fans following them in print, TV, the big screen and video games. It wasn't always like that.
Prior to falling comets, radiation, mutated viruses, pandemics and other assorted plot devices, zombies were different.
Zombies are part of a larger grouping, the undead – human beings who have died, returned and seem to be somewhat alive or at least function to some degree as though they are alive. The undead can be corporeal (mummies, vampires, zombies – even the Frankenstein monster) or not (ghosts). While zombies or similar creatures appear in many cultures around the world, the current idea of zombies comes to us today from Africa to Haiti to Hollywood.
In Haiti, a zombie was believed to be a corpse that was reanimated by magic. Not brought back to life. Not having any sentience. Less aware of his surroundings than a cow. But able to move. And under control of a person of power. Too, zombies were unable to gain entrance to heaven.
The concept of the walking undead entered pop culture in the US after 1929, when The Magic Island by William Seabrook was published – although H. P. Lovecraft wrote a short story, Herbert West – Reanimator that was published in 1922 and depicted zombies with an uncontrollable temperament. In 1932, legendary Hollywood horror star Bela Lugosi starred in White Zombie, a story about mindless undead slaves made to work in fields and factories. Other zombie books, movies and comics followed featuring zombies as slow creatures directed to do things by someone who was sometimes a mad scientist. They moved slowly so as not to snap their ankles. There was no eating flesh and certainly no eating brains.
They changed in 1968 with the arrival of Night Of The Living Dead. An excellent movie that I've seen several times. The word zombie was not used in that movie, which gave birth to a different sort of zombie, the one that eats flesh. In the years following, they moved faster and faster.
Regardless, I'm lately interested in pre-Romero zombies. The classics. I think I'll call them zonbies. That's what they call them in Haiti, the home of zonbies in the West.
The Seventeenth House has become a series of interlocked stories that happen sequentially over 150 years in the same Southern plantation house with a fairly limited cast of related characters. There are some story arcs among several chapters but largely the novel jumps between stories. Each one needs to be its own story. A difficult concept to implement. And time-consuming.
Time consuming has become a theme. I do not often have significant free time to devote to this undertaking, which then languishes without forward movement.
What complicates this scenario is that The Seventeenth House has become an alternate worlds story, which I'm having difficulty grappling with in my head and on paper. The alternate worlds aspect is that each of the 17 houses and the worlds they occupy are different than the ones before and after. And only one of them is pretty much our real world.
I have loved alternate worlds stories since reading L. Sprague de Camp's The Wheels of If – a short story that was published in a paperback collection of his stories. They have since become a staple of science fiction in books, TV shows and on the big screen. Perhaps I misled myself into adding an alternate worlds plotline where it was not needed. I'm giving The Seventeenth House a break so I can return to it with a fresh eye.
Keeping a shifting cast of characters alive in my mind while I write The Seventeenth House is huge, time-consuming project that takes a lot of focus as people are born, marry, have children, suffer heartaches, grow old and die. Fight and make up with each other. They change. Children and grandchildren are not flat recreations of their parentage but characters in their own right. Whew.
Rocks thrown into a stream make water flow differently in the future
Part of juggling these characters in my head revolves around plotting. What happened following the Civil War – ahem, following the recent unpleasantness – led to one person's keen interest in spiritualism but another's conversion to Baptist Christianity; one child teasing another following a funeral service turned into lifelong enmity between them; women getting together to discuss things privately caused an avalanche of personal development that influenced later chapters. Metaphorical rocks thrown into a stream years before made the water flow far differently in the future.
Then there is plotting backwards. In life there are surprises; but generally when reading a long story we do not like to be surprised, which means that groundwork must be laid. If money will need to be raised for a certain purpose, then people with money will want to see that purpose accomplished and their reasons for that interest may need to be layered in earlier. For a child to be beaten or avoided by other boys in a town that no one ever moves into or out of means that earlier in the story people who live in the county came to see how weird the haunted plantation house was; and for them to see how weird the place is, at least some of them must have been present for some reason when weirdness happened. For a black man to return to the county where his grandfather was lynched and castrated means the lynch mob had to form at that location for reasons shown in a still-earlier chapter.
All part of writing an ambitious, 150-year-long ghost story.
The Seventeenth House is a ghost story set in the Southern United States that takes 150 years to tell. It begins during the Civil War. I do not yet know how it ends, as I am still developing the storyline.
The story does not feel like a horror story, a story of evil. All the evil things that happened to black people in the South during the century following the close of the Civil War are pushed to the side of the stage. They happen. Some evil happens right on the grounds of a haunted plantation house. They are seen by the ghost. They influence the story. Yet there is a disconnect and this ghost story is not horrifying. Told gently, it is not even dark fantasy although all the elements are right their to write horrific splattergore. Not that choose to write bloody fiction – much preferring plain old darkness in what I write. But to ignore the horrors of what happened in and around this story doed not make sense to me.
Image courtesy Wikipedia
I am taking the time to thoroughly research and develop this novel. Even though the exact placement of the plantation house is ambiguous, I must know the rough outlines of what happened in the Deep South from 1863 until the present – not just the contours of US history but regional history as well: bank panics, card games, Confederate memorial associations, fashion, feminism, gun culture, historical societies, lynchings, modernization, Prohibition, race music, Reconstruction, Red Shirts, religious revivals, sharecroppers, spiritualism, the New Deal, Victorian mores, wars.
With a canvas this big, the story writes large. What makes it unique are two factors – its Southern setting and the ghost. Is the story morally flawed because I downplay unimaginable evil that happened in the Deep South as white people regained and maintained control following Reconstruction? Or is it just that I choose to tell a different story? Or perhaps, as I think this through, it is the story arc of someone who belonged to the landed gentry, died and came to understand over a century and a half just how wrong things were.
Ideas flood like a tsunami and risk washing away plotting, characterization and other elements vital to telling good stories. As a result, I work harder on those issues, to make stories come out right.
A lot of time is spent on characterization – exploring, getting to know and falling in love with my characters. Main characters have their own files that grow more detailed as the story develops. Time is spent letting those characters wander through my mind doing things that reveal who they are. A genealogy tree is developed as I understand how characters got to be who they are; and in turn shows for connections among characters that can fuel plotting – including who may have grown up together, what childhood insults cause sparks among adults many years later or how their parents' foibles, beliefs or neuroses shaped them. This process slows down the writing but improves the final product.
Transhumans in QW were children when soldiers arrived from Earth to kill them. No wonder they are careful about their security as the story opens.
After the invaders were killed, authorities on Earth were assured that only a few transhumans remained alive – but many were hidden away in the zero-gravity center of the space station where they grew forgotten by humans but cared for by the few transhumans who remained in public. No wonder the hidden transhumans are fiercely loyal to each other.
For the most part, these advanced hominids had only each other as they matured at a faster rate than homo sapiens – children raising children and exploring each other. This bred rivalries among transhumans who relied on each other for survival. What a huge cauldron within which the story begins.
These people are not more or less likable than any other sentient beings. But to tell their story they take residence in my head and play out their interactions.
QW has become an intensely metaphysical story. The metaphysical elements are a mix of my beliefs, ideas that have been around for millennia and fantasy elements.
The character whose name inspires the title of the story, QW, is one of the leaders of a new species of hominids. His business acumen has caused vast amounts of money to flow into the space station where they live. He is also a mystic who is in contact with a higher being.
Gender, evil & time are metaphysically meaningless
This higher being existed a long time ago with other higher beings, violated their fundamental rules and was shunned by them. He gathered himself back together and returned, doing evil. Other higher beings cast him out again and withdrew his energy so that he could not again return. The shunned higher being was unable to sustain himself apart from other sentient beings and gradually lost consciousness. In a sense, it was like suspended animation.
Metaphysics is beyond our human comprehension. What we know about things beyond us are nothing more than glimpses seen through our human senses and pieced together through cultural filters. This is why religions have conflicting pictures of the universe.
As a result of the difficulty of metaphysics, the fictional higher being who did evil has a gender, being identified as male even though gender is meaningless. He did evil, a human construct that is meaningless for higher beings. Time is meaningless yet this is written about in time: that he was sent away, returned and was again removed from them implies causality and time. Yet from a human perspective it may have all happened simultaneously.
Image courtesy Open Clip Art
Fast forward to our world, years in the future from now. One transhuman, QW, accidentally contacts the remaining spark of the evil higher being while meditating. That contact feeds just enough energy to the higher being to rouse him. He hungrily seeks contact with QW, feeding on a relationship that is established, rousing himself to his first full consciousness in aeons. QW grows concerned about the nature of this higher being and what contact with him does to himself. QW pushes the higher being away. Being a higher being, he cannot successfully be removed. By his nature, this higher being will do evil. What happens next fuels the story, which becomes a mixture of science fiction and horror.