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My zombie story

The zombie plague was a dud. When the first cases emerged, scattered around the globe, everyone knew exactly how to put them down: destroy the brain. The world had been so saturated with zombie comic books, zombie TV shows, zombie novels, and zombie movies in the greatest, if unplanned, public health information program ever, that the responses to the outbreaks was always swift and thorough. In fact, most civilian casualties were caused not by the zombies themselves, but by the way everyone had been conditioned by the media to respond to lumbering, moaning, disheveled humanoid forms with instant and brutal violence.

The death of a few homeless or mentally ill people, or others who just weren’t perky morning people, was considered a small price to pay for the ruthless efficiency with which the zombie problem was eradicated. There was talk of giving George Romero a Nobel peace prize; Time Magazine ran an issue with “Heroic Humanity” featured on the cover; the public acquired a cocky attitude and brain-smashing weapons of destruction became the hot new fashion accessory. The horror of the worst catastrophe we could imagine, the emergence of an evil twin of our species, corrupt and mindlessly destructive, had been met and dismissed with arrogant ease.

An important lesson was not learned. Zombies were our mirror image, big animals that were short-sighted and heedlessly destructive, and we had easily wiped them out…because big animals are delicate, fragile things with a limited population size, requiring immense amounts of cooperation to survive. Our pride was undeserved. We had discovered how easy it was to kill small groups of bipedal primates. Nature laughed at our trivial accomplishment.

The same plague had been burning through rat populations. Every city, every small town garbage dump, every ship, had been boiling with upheaval in the darkness as the zombie rats spread the infection everywhere. The rats were numerous, and it took three months for the disease to consume them…and then the undead rodents slithered upwards, looking for a new food source. They were ubiquitous and silent and sneaky, and found ways into bedrooms at night, where the smug humans lay with shotguns and pistols and hammers for demolishing large-skulled stupid targets, their doors safely (they thought) barred against 70 kilogram intruders. The little, mindless zombie rats scurried forward, and gnawed.

Homo sapiens was extinct within a year.

(I had this idea for a great and accurate zombie novel that would reveal the true message of the zombie fad — come on, look at yourselves, it’s all about rapacious humans with no restraint — and would also make me millions of dollars. I got up this morning all excited and rushed to start writing it, and then I discovered that I could tell the whole story in five paragraphs. Oops. Is there much of a market for one-page novels? With a totally depressing conclusion?)

Comments

  1. jand says

    Borges would be proud of you. He said (free translation from memory) “What’s the point of devoting three hundred pages to telling a story that can be told to perfection in a couple of pages?”

  2. says

    Well, you know, the way it works is you have to think up some specific characters — presumably a small town sheriff, a young mother who’s husband becomes zombified, desperately trying to protect her children, a heroic sergeant and an 18-year-old private who loses his nerve and shits his pants, a religious cult leader who declares it’s the apocalypse and killing zombies is against God’s will who ends up recruiting one of the sheriff’s deputies, all that sort of thing — and put them through the whole thing while interacting with each other and undergoing specific perils, personal revelations, and character development. Places, times, characters, events. If you have time for all that, go for it.

  3. Snoof says

    And then all these carefully crafted characters have to die horrible, futile deaths.

    Ah, I see you’re familiar with zombie literature!

  4. hexidecima says

    damn, Cervantes beat me to it. The only trope he/she missed is the divorced couple who still love each other and who have a brat that does everything stupid possible.

    The one good thing is that, yes, they do have to die horrible futile deaths. That’s the only satisfaction one gets from the usual disaster movie.

  5. thisisausername says

    “The world had been so saturated with zombie comic books, zombie TV shows, zombie novels, and zombie movies in the greatest, if unplanned, public health information program ever, that the responses to the outbreaks was always swift and thorough.”

    I love it.

  6. says

    You forgot the conniving politician, who – when warned (by the passionate but discredited biologist) about the potential for the zombie rat disaster – suppresses the information so that it won’t impact tourism.

  7. says

    And then all these carefully crafted characters have to die horrible, futile deaths.

    That’s almost certainly the plot of Walking Dead, or as I think of it, “They’re Going to be Eaten By Zombies, the Show.”

  8. says

    PZ:

    And then all these carefully crafted characters have to die horrible, futile deaths.

    Yes, but you could create a small band of hero rats!

  9. Cuttlefish says

    The Birds was a short story–hell, it was practically this short story–so I think you could get a decent script treatment out of this.

    All we need is an undead Alfred Hitchcock.

  10. Gorogh, Lounging Peacromancer says

    Incidentally, Steve Benen from the Maddow blog reports a zombie angle in his weekly take on organized religion:

    Ignite Church, in Joplin, is catching serious heat for giving away two Black Rain AR-15s on Father’s Day in a bid to connect with 18 to 35-year-olds in the area.

    … the pastor posted a YouTube video promoting the raffle, in which he promised that “you can kill a weak zombie with that thing”

    So I guess it’s settled. Killing human zombies really is not the issue here.

    Oh an I love the story, PZ. My wife told me that rats develop quite the character, too… might make for some novel narrative style.

  11. Becca Stareyes says

    As others have noted, killing characters is a staple of zombie fiction. Especially if you let them figure out they needed to pay more attention to non-human animals in their environment, right before they’re eaten.

  12. playonwords says

    Wasn’t the rapacious humans line the real message of Matheson’s “I am Legend”?

    @ 9 Inaji: Maurice and His Educated Rodents but in a darker, more gritty leg of the trousers of time

  13. lakitha tolbert says

    Actually someone did write this story. Brian Keene wrote a short book of related stories in which the entire human race gets eaten by everything that coud possibly be zombified includng birds, rats, and insects.

    Yes, it was very depressing.

  14. says

    Dang, Owlmirror, I did forget about that cracking great novel I had started. I should finish it, and make myself rich.

  15. Kevin Kehres says

    PZ: You didn’t write a novel…you wrote a movie pitch. Copyright it quick, because someone is going to steal that sucker and make a million or so just on the concept.

  16. twas brillig (stevem) says

    [tangent, warning] Michael {Boom}Bay’s latest attempt to show how all mankind will {boom} die, is to take the non-zombie road and take us down the pandemic route with a deadly virus that has a 99% mortality rate after only a few days, and spreads like wildfire (100% contagious), worldwide. Completely ignoring the epistemology of a virus that kills so quickly and thoroughly, cannot spread so far. Nevertheless, the savior of the world will be a single scientist [a female, at least] on a single [Navy]ship, the Last Ship[boom].
    … though I wanted that sinopsis to sound snarky; it seems to be a fairly good story; despite the faulty premise. I only bring this up here, ’cause I too am thoroughly disgusted at the zombie-mania in the entertainment medias. I still cannot see what the entertainment is in seeing dead people kill living people and vice-verse.
    Pandemics are a real, actual, threat and if [boom]Bay exaggerates it a little for a compelling story, meh, okay.
    (maybe zombies are getting old. I hope).

    [snark]I blame zombie Jesus, with all those stories of z.J. raising the dead Lazarus, and coming back himself after he died to spook his friends[/snark]

  17. rogerfirth says

    The zombie plague was a dud. When the first cases emerged, scattered around the globe, everyone knew exactly how to put them down: destroy the brain.

    Then how do you take out a creationist zombie? The brain’s already been destroyed.

  18. loopyj says

    Brian Keene’s zombie novels (The Rising, City of the Dead) are by far the worst fiction I have ever read, and that includes the V.C. Andrews I read as young teenager. They were lent to me by a friend and I actually read both of them, and their putrescence will stay with me always. Poorly written, even more poorly edited (replete with typos and flat-out wrong word choice), and not actually about ‘zombies’, but rather dead bodies re-animated by the spirits of angry demons from another dimension who are possessing the dead, bent on destroying the world specifically to piss off God.

    PZ – Your story assumes that the zombie plague is cross-species. A strictly human plague allows for endless storytelling. But honestly, with just a few interesting characters thrown in for the reading audience to identify with, you could turn your premise into an awesome, punchy short story about humanity’s extinction along the lines of Ellison’s ‘How’s the Nightlife on Cissalda?’ (the brilliance of which has stuck with me always).

  19. says

    I was once given a writing prompt of “You’re surrounded by zombies. The following objects are near you. What do you do?” My response was to write a short story about a group therapy session for ‘zombies’ in which, once the initial panic of the zombie apocalypse died down, zombies were treated as humans with a medical condition, i.e. with compassion, and reintegrated into society to the extent possible. In other words, zombies were people.

  20. Nemo says

    @PZ: It’s not a novel, but you could probably get it into Analog.

    @danielsutton #25: Sounds like the current TV show “In the Flesh”.

  21. says

    PZ, have you considered flash fiction? A complete story in exactly 55 words, including title:

    Apocalypse

    Martial law and the vaccine had been successful, and the remnant of humanity danced in the street at the destruction of the last monster. But beneath their feet, the virus had found a new host. The city’s vast population of rats began to die and wake again, hungry for human brains. Oh, so hungry.

  22. Nick Gotts says

    The only novel I’ve ever completed runs as follows:

    Just as I was sitting down to begin my new novel, I was interrupted by

  23. abusedbypenguins says

    In the end, the mice (The highest life form that survived) then commissioned the computer that could answer the question; “What is the purpose of life, the universe and everything”. As we all know the answer is “42”.

  24. abelundercity says

    And then all these carefully crafted characters have to die horrible, futile deaths.

    Well… yes. Welcome to the horror genre.

  25. edmond says

    The only problem with this story is, who is the narrator? If this story is being told in the past tense, and humanity has gone extinct…

  26. busterggi says

    Thank Cthulhu,
    I though this would be a repeat of when you nailed a zombie cracker.

  27. says

    Gregory in Seattle @ 28:

    Martial law and the vaccine had been successful, and the remnant of humanity danced in the street at the destruction of the last monster. But beneath their feet, the virus had found a new host. The city’s vast population of rats began to die and wake again, hungry for human brains. Oh, so hungry.

    I like.

  28. brett says

    That was actually in that 2007 Will Smith movie I Am Legend, although they didn’t really touch on the implications of having a bunch of infected rage-zombie rats running around biting people (dogs, though . . .).

    Scary stuff. If the rats went All Zombie on us, we’d be in serious trouble.

    @danielsutton

    My response was to write a short story about a group therapy session for ‘zombies’ in which, once the initial panic of the zombie apocalypse died down, zombies were treated as humans with a medical condition, i.e. with compassion, and reintegrated into society to the extent possible. In other words, zombies were people.

    For the whole “infected” zombies, that’s definitely true. You’d want to try and corral them into holding areas until you can find out a cure or treatment (if possible), only shooting them if it was a last resort.

    One idea I liked for a zombie story that I don’t really have the writing talent to get around was to have a whole bunch of “infected zombies” who go on a rampage for a few months . . . until their immune systems adapt and fight off the infection, causing them to return back to their normal “selves”. And they remember everything they did during the “infected period”, and have to deal with that along with the non-infected having to deal with all the shootings of zombies they committed in that period of time.

  29. says

    @Inaji #36 – When quoting flash fiction, remember to include the title: it is included in the 55 word limit and is as much a part of the story as the rest.

  30. Callinectes says

    There’s a wonderful series on BBC3 called In the Flesh, about a small English village after the zombie uprising, in which the risen have been rounded up and treated with a serum that has restored their minds. They’re still dead, and they wear makeup and contact lenses to fit in better, and have been reintegrated into a community that does not welcome them at all. Some of them remember what they did, other do not. But the living all do.

    The smarter of the living would realise that, needing no food or water, their only requirement being the daily medication that they get free from the government, pose an important economic issue. But there are no smart living in this village. They’d rather hate the undead for being undead.

  31. loopyj says

    @30 – The real question to which the answer is ’42’ has long been established: How old was Elvis when he died? I hope this brings you peace of mind, and may the spirit of Elvis fill you with tranquility and swaggering sexiness.

  32. aleph says

    Hahaha. Oh wow. This is the best. This is my new response to anyone who tries to pitch zombie films to me from now on.

  33. Pete Newell says

    Would work better if you had some reason for the rats to focus on only the rats until there were no more non-zombified rats.

    Possibly there’s a hand-wavium reason for species self-predation exclusivity in zombies, but if the plague isn’t species-specific, there should have been all kinds of cross-species attacks going on throughout so you.

    Wait, sorry. Raining on parade.

    (Also it’s a pitch for a zombie novel, so plot holes you can drive through are expected as long as the premise and execution are cool. Zombie film? Much more so. Michael Bay film? What is this “plot” of which you speak?)

    It was an entertaining screed. Had a rhythm, and you could dance to it, as you’d expect to see from people being eaten by zombie rats.

  34. says

    zombie movies are the the big thing right now because they are the only “sort of people” group left that we can gun down in mass without being accused of racism.

  35. hexidecima says

    I’m all for “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH eat humans”. After a hard day at a retail job, it seems the best idea yet.

  36. hexidecima says

    “They injected some human glial cells into the brains of newborn mice. The mice grew up, and so did the human glial cells. The cells spread through the mouse brain, integrating perfectly with mouse neurons and, in some areas, outnumbering their mouse counterparts. All the while Goldman says the glial cells maintained their human characteristics.”
    NPR “To Make Mice Smarter, Add A Few Human Brain Cells”

  37. T.H. Huxley says

    I, too, have the curse of brevity. I tried to write a novel but I said all I had to say in 6 pages. The curse is useful for science and technical work, but not good for storytelling.

  38. says

    I’d always rather read a brief, well written précis than a bloated novel. I love the twist.

    Small zombie rodents would indeed be a nemesis to a swaggering, stationary ape that slumbers for hours. Until the humans woke up and started using flame throwers and building adequate protective shields.

  39. cicely says

    PZ:

    And then all these carefully crafted characters have to die horrible, futile deaths.

    Inaji:

    Yes, but you could create a small band of hero rats!

    Or, the camera p-o-v then pulls back showing that this is all a movie made by and for rats, and

    being screened in a rat theater!

    Possibly the bipedal descendants of the rats of today. CGI could do it, easy-peasy.
     
    I guess that may be too derivative of the Planet of the Apes, though.
    -

  40. knowknot says

    @40 loopyj
     
    You have uncovered the great secret, by being here at this time…
     
    – Using a direct correspndence alpha>numeral code (a=1, b=2),
    the numerical equivalents of the letters PZ, added equals 42.
    – Elvis died at age 42.
    – In 1970, Elvis met Richard Nixon AND recorded “I Goy My Mojo Working.”
    – In 1987 Mojo Nixon, famous musical redneck, recorded “Elvis is Everywhere. This was the same year the theatrical masterpiece “Redneck Zombies” was released.
    – The primary and prophetic warning in “Elvis is Everywhere” is as follows:
    “Man o man / What I want you to see / Is that the big E’s / Inside of you and me.”
    – Prophetic references to a “Zombie Elvis” can be found, well, everywhere. Not least in another theatrical masterpiece, “Bubba Ho-Tep.”
     
    Coincidences? I think not.
     
    Beware the coming Elvis plague.

  41. Anton Mates says

    If we’re doing unstoppable zombie critters, I’d go with insects. What animals are more likely to contract a zombie virus from humans, than carrion flies and dermestids? And they’re even harder to exclude from a human residence than rats are. (Lovecraft co-wrote a fairly entertaining story about a killer fly once.)

    They might not even be undead themselves; maybe the zombie virus is just a symbiotic that helps them convert more humans into walking maggot farms.

  42. Lofty says

    davidmc

    PZ’s true nightmare, cats would save the day.

    Dismembered zombie rats left in untidy piles on every front porch.

  43. davidmc says

    Lofty, or the pillow, after they had scurried under the bedroom door.
    Don’t get to say this about PZ, but he hasn’t thought it through. Should be an enormous Hollywood Blockbuster.

  44. cubist says

    I think this would be a novel worth writing, PZ. You could give readers a highly accurate picture of How Biology Is Done, and slip some nuggets of education in there as well.

    The “zombie plague” pathogen: Make it a virus that was engineered for neurological research. A dangerous beast, sure, so go into some detail regarding the safeguards that are built into every P4 lab, including the P4 lab that was doing the work on this virus… until the damn Animal Rights terrorists (Negotiation Is Over, perhaps?) blew out a wall with dynamite to gain entry so they could ‘save’ the lab animals.

    Once the virus is out in the open biosphere, well, it mutates, as viruses are wont to do. It was originally created to affect a specialized breed of lab rats with human neurons, the better for them to serve as animal models for the relevant research. Designedly limited range of potential hosts. But thanks to those lovely lovely mutations that happen to any virus, it affects human brains, and it affects them in a horrible new way that was never intended nor foreseen by any of the virus’ creators. And only then does it become the ‘zombie plague’ pathogen. You might want to chat with Carl “Parasite Rex” Zimmer for ideas on what sort of creepy things the virus could do; there could be various distinct subspecies of the virus in various restricted locales, thanks to the luck of the draw as regards mutations showing up in environments that are or aren’t favorable for them.

    Epidemiology, definitely. How the hell does a nation respond to this sort of pandemic? How do you damp down a raging plague before it hits the proverbial Point Of No Return? Researchers worry about what happens if the virus crosses species barriers, rats being the obvious candidate for a non-human host of the virus. Discussion of the consequences, so the reader gets that zombie animals could be extremely bad news, up to and including extinction-level.

    The actual ‘zombies’ really aren’t all that dangerous, for reasons you point out in the OP; but the reaction to the zombies, that’s worrisome. News media hype the HORRIBLE ZOMBIE THREAT out of all rational proportion, and stupid people with guns may well be a greater danger to the public than are the zombies.

    Because the virus’ lab-bred precursors are known quantities, the people fighting to stomp on it have a nontrivial leg up on finding a cure for the ‘zombie plague’… and what the hell, they succeed. Satisfying resolution to the primary problem around which the novel is built.

    And in a one-page epilogue, a dead rat carcass twitches… then shambles off to infect more rats…

  45. voidhawk says

    If the virus has already been cured in humans, then what’s the difference between zombie rats and non-zombie rats, apart from becoming less of a threat as they don’t reproduce? Feral rats are already vicious little omivores who, in numbers, can kill humans.

    http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/german-man-frank-herrmann-dies-eaten-alive-466227

    Unless all the zombie rats kept their heads down until they attacked en masse, why would humanity be extinct? As the rats became a threat, we’d start developing defenses against the little blighters. Sure, they could get a few hundred or thousand of us but we’ve been developing rat-killing weapons for the last five thousand years or so.

  46. Tony! The Queer Shoop says

    davidmc:

    Lofty, or the pillow, after they had scurried under the bedroom door.
    Don’t get to say this about PZ, but he hasn’t thought it through. Should be an enormous Hollywood Blockbuster.

    At least on par with any of the Transformers films.

  47. says

    That was actually in that 2007 Will Smith movie I Am Legend, although they didn’t really touch on the implications of having a bunch of infected rage-zombie rats running around biting people (dogs, though . . .).

    They also botched the ending (although there was an alternative ending that more or less matched the book), preferring an explosion to the original idea that the zombies (or CGI vampires, or whatever) were actually sentient and that, to them, Will Smith’s character was the monster. Hence the title.

    Anyone remember how truly awful these were?

    Yes. I saw both in the theater during their original runs. Of course a 12-year old boy thinks differently about stuff like that. I think Willard was considerably less awful, though, with fewer scenes of rats licking peanut butter off people, and of course the presence of Ernest Borgnine helps.

    zombies were treated as humans with a medical condition, i.e. with compassion, and reintegrated into society to the extent possible. In other words, zombies were people.

    They just want us to be like them. Is that so bad? Maybe it’s better. Maybe we should change.
    Oh, never mind. Carol just shot me in the head.

  48. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Yeah, it’s the ‘civilian’ casualties that would probably be the biggest issue in a zombie outbreak.

    For evidence, I submit Bill Murray in Zombieland.

  49. forestdragon says

    The Newsflesh series by Mira Grant featured a world 20 years after the zombie plague – not apocalypse – which showed all sorts of interesting innovations people had started using. (Blood tests for entering and leaving buildings; elevators will not open if someone inside “amplifies” – sucks to be anyone else stuck in there with them.)

    In this setting, the plague was caused by the combination and subsequent mutation of two different genetically altered viruses. One cured (IIRC) the common cold, the other cancer. This new virus also affected nonhuman mammals over 40 lbs (no large pets allowed any more – cats are fine, small dogs okay, you want a Great Dane – forget it.).

    The story was pretty much a political+conspiracy thriller with zombies and I highly recommend it.

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