Meet David Dunwoody, author of EMPIRE and EMPIRE’S END (Permuted Press), a great storyteller in the zombie genre. In EMPIRE, the crippled U.S. government and its military forces are giving up the century-long fight against an undead plague. Born of an otherworldly energy fused with a deadly virus, the ravaging hordes of zombified humans and animals have no natural enemies. But they do have one supernatural enemy: Death himself.
Descending upon the ghost town of Jefferson Harbor, Louisiana, the Grim Reaper embarks on a bloody campaign to put down the legions that have defied his touch for so long. He will find allies in the city’s last survivors, and a nemesis in a man who wants to harness the force driving the zombies—a man who seeks to rebuild America into an empire of the dead.
You can learn more about David and his work at his blog daviddunwoody.com.
Craig: What have you contributed to the genre? What’s your best known work? Tell us about it!
David: My best known would have to be EMPIRE, which concerns the Grim Reaper hunting the dead when they return to life and overrun the planet. I was very lucky to have it re-released as part of a deal between Permuted Press and Simon & Schuster, and the sequel, EMPIRE’S END, was released this past spring.
Craig: What type of storytelling in the genre do you consider your niche?
David: I like to think of my approach as being concerned with subversion – taking an established convention – e.g. zombies – and turning it on its head. Since I love classic horror so much, the idea (and the challenge) is turning said convention on its head without totally deconstructing it. I wouldn’t say my stories evolve or reinvent horror concepts, but my goal is definitely to try and surprise genre addicts with something they haven’t seen yet.
Craig: As writer, do you prefer fast or slow zombies, and living or undead? Building on these basic themes, what do you consider to be your own trademark or unique innovation as an author?
David: I’m for all kinds of zombies, and my personal preference varies from day to day – my favorite zombie movie is a tie between the original DAWN OF THE DEAD and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. In the vein of that latter film, when it comes to my zombies I think the trademark is variety. The EMPIRE universe is inhabited by zombies whose physical constitution and abilities depend on a number of factors. The more they eat, the more tissue they can regenerate, and a few even develop learning capabilities. It’s unnatural selection – at the head of an undead horde you’ll see strong, fast zombies with a pack mentality, and lagging behind them are the decaying shamblers who get to pick at the leftovers. There are also zombies with a more supernatural bent which become a particularly painful thorn in the Reaper’s side.
Craig: What makes zombies so interesting to write about?
David: With the zombie archetype, Romero gave us a monster which is both universally relatable – “they’re us, we’re them” – and brilliant in its simplicity. You can drop them into any setting at any time and can even build upon GAR’s basic design if need be. They can serve as metaphors for just about any condition or issue you’re setting out to address, or they can just be scary as hell, a force of nature tearing through your world. Their potential is truly limitless. This is a relatively new monster (compared to the vampire, werewolf, etc.) and it’s great fun to see just how many different things you can do with it.
Craig: Which writers do you particularly admire, and what did each teach you about the craft or profession of writing?
David: Lovecraft taught me that fear knows no boundaries, be they those of our planet or of a genre. Barker taught me that horror can be beautiful. King has helped me appreciate the people as much as I do the monsters. And, though known as a filmmaker, Cronenberg taught me that horror is about confrontation.
Craig: Which of the following appeals to you most about the genre—zombies, survival horror, apocalypse—and why?
David: Apocalypse, the great equalizer. The idea of people from all walks of life and all perceived classes being brought down to sea level and pitted against something greater than all of us – it has always fascinated me no matter what my worldview. I’m pretty sure this is why I gravitated towards religion in my youth, despite being raised in a secular home where faith was neither promoted nor disparaged. Mormonism held a special appeal since the Church teaches that we are, in fact, in the Latter Days. In the religious apocalypse there’s the appeal of being at the precipice of Armageddon and deciding your direction, your purpose, defining yourself in stark terms. I guess there’s a childlike ideal in that, being able to cast the world’s problems in black and white and simply pick the good side. I became disillusioned with religion later on because of that same black-and-white reasoning, and I think my apocalyptic stories reflect my current sense of nihilism and spiritual ambiguity. God usually isn’t around and people are forced to deal with the aftermath of an End that wasn’t truly an end. I haven’t excised the metaphysical entirely, though. I recently read an essay arguing that nihilism and spirituality aren’t mutually exclusive and I think that’s true. Hopefully that comes across in my stories, where people who seem to have been abandoned by God look for meaning in themselves and their imperfect world.
Craig: Which is your favorite type of story—apocalyptic (we’re seeing the collapse), or post-apocalyptic (the collapse has already happened)—and why?
David: Post-apocalyptic – I like envisioning a world transformed where new values are born (or where people stubbornly cling to the remnants of the world before). I’m interested both in anarchy and in people trying to build new communities from the ashes. Here, in the rebuilding rather than the collapse, I think we find uniquely compelling case studies on human nature. While I often write about the expected pettiness and small-mindedness of people –history having shown this to be the norm – it’s just as interesting (maybe more so) to explore those possessed of altruism and nobility in a wasteland.
Craig: What are the key elements to a great story, and how do you approach them?
David: I try to think about the stories I most enjoy reading. They’re stories where I find myself personally invested in the hero’s struggle, and especially when a character’s nature is challenged by what needs to be done (or when a morally-ambiguous character is forced to decide what’s right). Premises that make me say, “Are you kidding?” and then envy the author for charging down a path I might have shied from. A sense that things will never be the same for those who survive the arc – that scars will run deep, and answers will raise the sort of questions that intrigue rather than frustrate ne. From that last point comes a sense that when I close the book, the world within continues, and I think that’s a sign of a brilliant story.
Craig: What makes a great character?
David: A great character is someone who’s always interesting to follow, whether they’re taking out the trash or slaughtering monsters. Something in their basic makeup makes them compelling by nature, and makes whatever path they take into a journey.
Craig: What are you working on? What can we expect next from you?
David: Right now I’m working on short stories for various markets, but there is a novel in the hopper called THE HARVEST CYCLE that will be released by Permuted. It’s a post-apocalyptic horror story with elements of sci-fi and the weird – if Lewis Carroll and H.P. Lovecraft mind-melded, then chased down Isaac Asimov and beat him with a tire iron (with all due respect of course), you’d have THE HARVEST CYCLE. Humans are on the run from both alien ghouls and genocidal robots as they try to take down a psychotic, godlike entity.
Craig: Thanks for joining us today, David!
David: Thanks for this opportunity and some thought-provoking topics!