Writing best sellers is one thing, meeting the fans is quite another. For George, zombie author extraordinaire, it’s a whole different ball game…
It’s the conventions I struggle with. I can handle sitting at the desk, hell, it’s how I spend my days. But the signing is another matter entirely. I use dictation software when I write. My computer’s learnt my unique brand of slurry speech. But you can’t use it when someone asks for an autograph.
It would be easier if I wasn’t so popular, but my last book sold 20,000 copies in the first month, so the line at my desk is always one of the longest.
So far, no one’s noticed the shaking or the rot, but they will, it’s only a matter of time. One of these days, someone’s going to see the foundation that cakes every visible part of my skin and ask about it. Then I’ll have to say more than my prepared lines and they’ll notice the terrible slurring, like my tongue’s falling apart in my mouth, which it is.
After that, it’s a slippery downhill slope. At least, that’s what I think. Sandra thinks differently. Sandra’s my publicist. We had a chat about it just the other day.
‘Someone’s gonna notice.’ I say, trying my hardest to keep the words clear. She shakes her head.
‘They won’t. But even if they do, it can only help.’
‘They’ll kill me.’
‘They really won’t. Come off it, George, they’ll see a zombie who’s fully integrated. You don’t eat people, you don’t lurch around the streets making life hell. You write really great horror books and people love them. You being a zombie will only make your brand stronger.’
‘Rubbish. They’ll take one look at me without my makeup on and put a bullet through my skull.’
‘I’d stake my entire company that they won’t. After all, what did I do when I found out?’
‘Refused to take my calls for a week then only speak to me via Skype until I sent you a video of me surrounded by children and not eating any of them.’
‘Exactly. So we use the same video. But that was me, most of the fans are lunatics. I bet you’d get much bigger queues at the cons if they knew they were meeting a real live zombie.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t use that expression.’
‘Sorry, a real dead zombie, then. And look at it this way, zombies are huge right now. They’re making little zombie dolls for the kids—’
‘Yeah, what’s up with that? Do you have any idea how hard I’ve worked to keep my hunger at bay? There’s nothing cool, or cute, about eating brains. Zombies are supposed to be scary, not toys for little kids.’
‘Well your books certainly aren’t for little kids, so maybe you can claim back some of the horror. But this conversation’s academic. No one’s going to notice you’re undead, so there’s nothing to worry about.’
That was the conversation. I still don’t believe her, but she went right ahead and booked me another bunch of appearances. I’m on a panel at this one, which scares the living daylights out of me. I’m going to be talking into a microphone, which is bad enough, but the name of the panel is ‘The 21st Century Zombie’, which takes irony to a whole new level.
Maybe we’ll all be zombies. There are four of us,and two of the others are comics writers, so they could well be undead. Maybe this is the convention’s way of outing us to an adoring public. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Perhaps this is what I need. The books are doing well, but I can’t retire yet, and I’d dearly love to retire.
I dream of retirement. I could give up all the vegetables and go back to finding homeless guys for dinner. I could stop the writing, which means I could stop the editing. I hate the editing. I bit my little finger off in frustration the other day, which would have been funny but the taste of flesh after three years without was enough to make my head spin. It’s like I’ve regressed.
Maybe that’s why I’m so stressed about this upcoming convention. I can handle the panel, it’s what I do if I’m stuck in a green room with someone smaller than me that worries me. The fans might be able to handle me being a vegetarian zombie, but if one of the helpers loses an arm or gets found covered in teeth marks, they won’t be so sympathetic.
But if I can hold onto my appetite and say the right things, maybe being a zombie will push my books over the edge. I’ll reach tipping point and become the next Stephen King. Sandra told me I should stop dreaming about being the next Stephen King, to which I responded that every writer worth their salt dreams of being him. Even the soppy romantic ones. She said I need to widen my reading habits which is rubbish.
I read all sorts. Most of the time I listen to audio books, actually, just because my muscles aren’t so good with holding things. I get shaky pretty quick and drop the book onto my face. Then it gets covered in foundation, or I chip bits of my nose off, neither of which are conducive to me being in a good mood.
But I listen to everything, from science fiction to romance to murder mystery, to literary fiction, whatever that means these days. I still want to be the next Stephen King. Who doesn’t?
The hall’s busy. I’ve never been one for hyperbole, so I’m sticking with busy, but I can’t hear myself think and I can’t see ten feet beyond my booth, because of the people. I say people, but it’s a broad term.
That’s the one nice thing about cons. Everyone here is, officially, human, but you really wouldn’t know. Two elves wearing next to nothing and shaped in such a way as to set my heart beating a little, just ambled past. Behind them came Captain America. It’s not the Captain America, because he had handlebars filling the hips of his stretchy costume and hairy ears, but he still looked pretty good. And worryingly tasty.
In fact, everyone I see looks tasty. So I turn my attention to my next vic— visitor. She’s young and has a tattoo on her naked shoulder. And the skin there looks so soft and— she’s saying stuff to me. I take a deep breath, trying not to get a whiff of her perfume and say ‘sorry, I didn’t quite hear that.’
She smiles and nods. ‘It’s loud in here, isn’t it? I said my name’s Deandra and I love your books. Zombies on the Mountain of Doom was the best thing I’ve read in years.’
I manage my own smile, feeling the foundation shift on my cheeks like face paint. ‘Thank you, that’s so kind. Any particular message you’d like?’
She thrusts the paperback of ‘Mountain on the desk and shakes her head. ‘Anything, I don’t mind. It’s just amazing to meet you.’
I blush, which is at least a genuine reaction. Then I open the book, praying my fingertips don’t split open, and turn to the first page.
Lots of love
It’s not exactly imaginative, but it’s the 200th time today and I’ve barely started. She’s very young and getting prettier every second. I hand the book back and she leans in closer, thanking me in a breathless way that has my heart thinking about reaching walking pace. I blush again and wish I was younger, and still alive.
She sashays off and I watch her go. The next person reaches me and puts down Mountain with a grunted ‘sign please.’
I look up at him. My heart dries up and slows back down to nothing. Then it trips and sets off even faster than before. Because I’ve seen something it never occurred to me I’d see. The man in front of me is wearing really thick foundation and, the moment he put the book down, shoved his hands into the large pockets in his hoodie.
I keep staring at him until he stares back at me. I give him long enough to realise, then nod slowly. His mouth opens wide, then splits into a huge smile. His foundation cracks and I wince and gesture to my face. He covers it with one hand, well practiced. I’ve the feeling he doesn’t smile much.
‘Any particular message you’d like?’
‘Um, uh… how long?’ he mutters it and I’m pretty certain I’m the only one who hears.
‘It’s been five years, now, since I got bit. You?’
‘A year, give or take.’
‘How’s it going?’
‘Yeah. It gets easier, if that helps. What are you eating?’
He stares at his feet and shuffles around before replying. ‘Tried rats for a while, but I can’t get on with them.’
‘I don’t blame you. Vegetables?’
He makes a face. ‘I’m a paramedic, so I’m on the scene pretty quick.’
It’s my turn to make a face. I’m not sure whether preying on traffic accidents is any worse than taking homeless guys, so I’m not about to judge, but it does feel like an abuse of trust. Still, not for me to say.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Okay, give me a second.’ I can feel him watching my hands, noticing how they shake as I scrawl his message.
I cross it out and try again.
Stay strong. It gets easier and you aren’t alone.
I read it through, nod, and hand it back. He takes it and reads the inscription, then nods to me, tears wetting his eyes. I’d love to shake hands with him, but we both know that’s a really bad plan. He lumbers away into the crowds and I wonder why he doesn’t come to places like this in the real. This is the one place he could get away without the makeup. Maybe I should try that tomorrow.
The day goes slow. The afternoon is glacial, person after person after person. I keep seeing ewoks wandering past my desk, like they’re checking up on me. Signing at a convention is a little like being in a casino. Time has no meaning and everything gets a little bit spacey.
So when a man with a radio round his neck comes to my booth and announces the end of the signing for the panel, I’m unexpectedly grateful. I leap up, or at least, get up without falling over or breaking any limbs off, and follow him through the crowds.
I’m greeted by someone every step of the way, patted on the shoulders and thanked for what I’ve brought to people’s lives. I’m overwhelmed, in both a nice and a stressful way, so I cling to the compliments until I finally escape into the peace and quiet of the green room.
The other panellists are already there and my hopes of meeting others of my kind are dashed. They’re all very much alive and all younger than me. They crowd around, acting cool but saying the same kinds of things the kids outside were. They love my work, they love what I’ve done for zombies. I don’t know two of them, but the other writer, a guy called Harry, is nice enough and I get him talking so I don’t have to.
A few minutes later, we’re called out onto the stage and sit ourselves behind a long narrow desk with nameplates on. A huge black microphone sits right in front of me, so I embarrass myself by asking the microphone if it’s on. The sound of my voice booming around the hall and the laughter of the packed crowd are my answers.
‘Welcome, gentlemen, to the 21st Century Zombie. First, can I say a huge thank you for agreeing to join us here.’
We all nod and smile and accept the applause from the crowd. The guy speaking, someone with wild red hair and a purple suit, waves the crowd to silence and fixes his eyes on me.
‘George, if we can start with you. In your long running series, I, Zombie, you’ve made the zombies the heroes. It’s an unlikely scenario, but the quality of your writing, combined with some really juicy story lines, has made it a huge hit. Perhaps you could start us off by explaining why you made the zombie the hero?’
I blink at him a couple of times. He’s actually asking me that question. It’s a reasonable question, I suppose, but it implies I thought about it. A ball forms in the pit of my stomach. I can only pray this isn’t one of those panels that feels like an English Literature class. If he asks me about the symbolism of having a zombie with black hair instead of blond in Zombies face the Creature From the Deep, I’m going to scream.
I’m open my mouth, ready to give the pat answer about how everyone, even the bit player, has their own story to tell. It would work. But something stops me. I can’t help myself. Maybe it was meeting Ben earlier, I don’t know. But instead of giving the pat answer, I say, ‘well, it’s funny you should ask that. I became a zombie five years ago and wanted to share my story with the world.’
The audience laughs, my panel mates laugh, and the presenter laughs, then asks me a question. ‘So does that mean you’ve battled the Creature From the Deep?’
‘No, I’ll admit, I haven’t done that one. But then, I doubt Stephen King ever took his family to the Overlook. It still scared the crap out of me.’
More laughter and the presenter moves onto the next guy. I sit and watch the audience. This is alright, actually. Despite my loathing for signing autographs, the people who come to cons are, by and large, lovely. They care passionately about the work you’ve created and they’ve come to celebrate it. That and stare at girls in cosplay.
Up here, away from the noise and the constant signing, it’s good fun.
‘So, George, how would you react to that?’
‘I’m sorry, my zombie ears aren’t what they were. What did you say?’ I ask my panel mate, trying to hide my embarrassment.
He shrugs it off and repeats himself. ‘I said, books like yours and Harry’s have dumbed down zombies. They’re supposed to be a visceral, terrifying part of our world and you’ve humanised them and, in doing so, emasculated them.’
‘Good point.’ I say. There’s a long silence in which I think they want me to argue. I should probably argue. I clear my throat, praying for inspiration. Then, just as when I write, I open my mouth and let my brain get out the way. ‘I think the more frightening things are the most normal. Horror movies used to use scary creatures and stuff. Now, they just use humans doing horrible things. I think making zombies the guy next door makes them so much worse. You can watch guys eating brains all day, but when you find your cat with its head torn off, there’s something far more sickening about it, don’t you think?’
I offer the question to the audience and they answer in the affirmative. My panel mate scowls, but concedes the point. I could really get to enjoy this. The presenter flashes me a smile and clears his throat. ‘Well said, George. The everyday made evil is always the worst. But I think Matt has a point as well. Let me put it this way, what would Nightmare of Elm Street be if Freddy lived next door, hanging out his washing and getting his milk off the step every morning.’
‘That’s ludicrous. Freddy is a particular example, one that doesn’t work within the zombie genre. On top of that, my zombies, and Harry’s for that matter, don’t live next door hanging out washing. They live terrible, secluded lives with no friends and no one who understands them. You have no idea what that’s like. Actually, judging by the suit, maybe you do.’
The audience go wild and I grin at them, revealing teeth that went yellow five years ago and have never gone back. The presenter isn’t smiling, which is a shame, because I’d hoped he could handle a little ribbing.
‘But we don’t care if our zombies have friends. Zombies aren’t supposed to have friends.’
‘Of course not. But if you can see even a bit of yourself in the zombies, then maybe you can sympathise, which makes the things they have to do that much worse.’
‘I don’t want to sympathise with zombies.’
‘In that case, don’t read my books. It’s really simple.’
The presenter flaps his mouth a bit whilst I enjoy the laughter of the crowd. Why haven’t I done this before? This is amazing. I’m really good at it and the crowd are loving it. This is way better than editing. Hell, this is better than writing.
‘Fine, but what about the people who buy your books expecting zombies and—’
‘They get zombies. Please don’t try and tell me they don’t get zombies. My zombies eat people and tear them to shreds. They do disgusting things. What makes them heroes is that they do those things in pursuit of a larger, greater good. The 21st Century zombie is the one that does the things Superman won’t. But I bet if they got Superman to kill someone in the line of work, everyone would still love him. Zombies never get love and that’s why I write these books.’
The audience go wild, cheering and screaming.
‘Zombies deserve love. Zombies deserve a chance to be part of society, to be the heroes. At the very least, they deserve a square meal now and then.’
More cheers. A chant begins somewhere near the back and swells in volume.
‘Eat him, eat him’
‘EAT HIM, EAT HIM.’
They know who I am. They’ve seen me now, in all my glory, and they want me to show them. They love me. I lurch up from my seat and stagger round the edge of the table. The audience burst out cheering and I raise my hands aloft. The presenter is laughing as well. I feel a teensy bit bad cos I’d labelled him as a spoilsport, but he’s enjoying this.
I grab him round the throat and drag him over the front of his little presentation box. I’ve missed the strength as well, that weird burst of power that comes with the promise of blood. He slams into the stage in front of me and I raise another hand aloft. The audience cheers.
I haul the presenter to me and latch my teeth round his face, then tear it off. I’ve got a nose in my mouth, but I’ve never been keen on noses, so I spit it at the front rows, then go back to drag an eyeball out. Then it hits me.
They’ve stopped cheering. I stare at the audience, staring back at me. Someone’s being sick. Most of them are just staring, wide eyed and pale faced, hands covering their mouths or eyes.
This is why I hate cons. This is why I stay indoors and get my food delivered. Still, the presenter tastes amazing, so that’s something.