I recently enjoyed interviewing Scott M. Baker, author of THE VAMPIRE HUNTERS trilogy and the upcoming ROTTER WORLD from Permuted Press:
Craig: What have you contributed to the genre? What’s your best known work? Tell us about it.
Scott: I’ve published several zombie-based short stories as well as a hodge podge of other works, including one story about a washed-up author who finds a unique way to get his writing back on track. My best known work, however, is THE VAMPIRE HUNTER trilogy, an urban fantasy about two former Boston cops battling a nest of vampires in Washington D.C. The books are a fast-paced, action-packed gorefest as the hunters try to stop the world from being taken over by the most evil vampires to hit the printed page since Steve Niles wrote 30 DAYS OF NIGHT.
My first zombie novel, ROTTER WORLD, will be published by Permuted Press in early 2012. In this book, a small group of humans and vampires who survived the zombie apocalypse from a safe haven along the coast of Maine must travel to an underground government facility just outside of Gettysburg to recover a vaccine for the rotter virus. None of them are prepared for the devastation they encounter in the rotter-ravaged countryside, but even those horrors pale in comparison to what waits for them inside the underground facility.
Of all my works, I have a special affinity for my short story is “Deck the Malls with Bowels of Holly,” which appeared in Living Dead Press’ CHRISTMAS IS DEAD anthology. It’s about an alcoholic mall Santa who faces off against zombie reindeer. What more needs to be said?
Craig: What type of storytelling in the genre do you consider your niche?
Scott: I have a knack for writing about zombies. Some are my stories pretty basic, dealing with a group of ordinary people trying to survive the outbreak (“Cruise of the Living Dead” and “Dead Water”), while others are more tongue-in-cheek (“Rednecks Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” and “Deck the Malls with Bowels of Holly”). I love detailing the mounting tension as the main characters realize they are in the idle of a zombie outbreak. One hallmark of each of my zombie stories/novels are graphic descriptions of the living dead as well as copious amounts of blood and gore.
Craig: As a 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?
Scott: I prefer slow zombies. Hordes of slow zombies. One or two slow of the living dead shuffling toward you is nothing to be concerned about. When you have dozens of them closing in, though, then it’s time to consider saving that last bullet for yourself. As much as I prefer the traditional Romero-style, I also realize there’s a place in the genre for fast zombies. If a horde of slow zombies is scary, having that same number rushing at you at full sprint is downright terrifying. In ROTTER WORLD, I use both types. Those that have been around for awhile and are in advanced stages of decay are the traditional slow zombies (“rotters”), which make up the majority of the living dead encountered. There are also those that are freshly reanimated; they’re mobile and fast because their bodies and muscles have not yet deteriorated (“sprinters”).
The trademark of my zombie writing is the unique situations I place the characters in. The story has to catch the reader’s imagination or it’ll get lost in the background chatter of all the others out there. Zombies have become such an integral part of our culture that even elementary school kids know you stop the living dead by shooting them in the head, so in “Rednecks Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things” I came up with the idea of placing a group of hunters at ground zero of an outbreak, only to have them find out with devastating consequences that head shots are not effective. Since I had never seen a movie or read a book about zombies aboard a luxury liner, I filled that niche with “Cruise of the Living Dead.” One of the next short stories I’m working on is about the Confederates using zombies during Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Craig: What makes zombies so interesting to write about?
Scott: Americans have a penchant for apocalyptic fiction, much more so than any other culture, and zombies fill this niche perfectly. Every other monster poses an immediate but short-term danger. The characters meet these monsters, engage in an epic battle and defeat them, and then the survivors return home to their normal lives. The living dead, on the other hand, represent the collapse of society in its most visceral form. In only a few cases within the genre is the outbreak contained. Once the outbreak expands beyond the critical mass of the government’s capacity to suppress it, then the end of the world is inevitable. Once on the move, zombies become an unstoppable force of nature that sweep across the land like a living dead tsunami, destroying everything in their path.
Craig: Which writers do you particularly admire, and what did each teach you about the craft or profession of writing?
Scott: I’ve been very fortunate to have Brian Keene and J.F. Gonzalez as mentors. I’m grateful for their friendship and guidance, and might not be where I am today if not for them.
I wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for Graham Masterton. My mother bought me THE MANITOU as a Christmas gift when I was about ten. It was the first modern horror novel I had ever read. I remember staying up late every night during Christmas break because I couldn’t put it down.After that, I was hooked on the genre.
I’m a huge fan of Joss Whedon. I loved BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, and was always impressed with the way Joss could take the most intense scenes and intersperse them with humorous elements, and still make them work. I try to work that same type of light-hearted relief into THE VAMPIRE HUNTERS trilogy.
Craig: What’s the last book in the genre that you particularly enjoyed?
Scott: The last zombie novel I really enjoyed was Ben Tripp’s RISE AGAIN. It’s a well-written, fast-paced, action-packed roller coaster of a ride. The plot focuses on the local sheriff of a small mountain community where the biggest challenges of her life are dealing with tourists from Los Angeles who descend on the isolated town for the 4th of July celebration. All that changes when authorities in nearby towns warn her that a swarm of tens of thousands of people from Los Angeles are heading in her direction, each one infected with a virus that makes them run and scream uncontrollably until they drop down dead, and who infect anyone they come in contact with. The mass of crazed civilians pass through Forest Peak. When the dust settles, the sheriff and a handful of survivors are faced with picking up the pieces of their lives and figuring out a way to deal with the thousands of corpses littering the street. But then the situation goes into full FUBAR mode when the sheriff intercepts a recorded communiqué from a weather station that broadcasts the same message repeatedly: The infected dead will rise again. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but if you’re a zombie fan, then RISE AGAIN is a must read.
Craig: I agree–RISE AGAIN is a great zombie book. So what appeals to you most about the genre—zombies, survival horror, apocalypse—and why?
Scott: It’s the potential reality of the genre that appeals to me. I don’t expect the dead to rise up and begin wandering through my neighborhood, but living twenty miles outside of Washington D.C. you learn to live with the possibility that some nut with a nuclear or biological weapon could rip apart your world just by pressing a button. Whether we were survivors of a zombie apocalypse or a one-megaton blast, it’s scary to consider how we would react in a world where all the expected social norms are replaced by the basest of instincts.
Craig: Which is your favorite type of story—apocalyptic (we’re seeing the collapse), or post-apocalyptic (the collapse has already happened)—and why?
Scott: The collapse of society is far more disturbing than living in a post-apocalyptic world. In the latter, the survivors have re-established some semblance of society and are getting on with their lives, no matter how Spartan or dangerous that existence may be. During the apocalypse, though, everything we have come to know is viciously ripped away. The outbreak quickly overcomes the authorities’ ability to cope and, in many cases, government and law enforcement become more dangerous than the living dead. Pets are abandoned and families are separated. Those we know and love are attacked and turned. Lawlessness becomes the norm. Everyone must make difficult choices and, in order to survive, must do things they find abhorrent and against their nature. Those few that survive the apocalypse must deal with a world that is irrevocably changed for the worse, and must face the reality they have become something they never thought they could be, whether that is positive or negative.
Max Brooks once noted on a History Channel documentary that the same type of preparations one makes for a zombie apocalypse are the same types of preparations one would make for any natural disaster. I think the same can be said for the impact the genre has on its readers. Most of us were riveted in front of our televisions to the twenty-four hour coverage of post-Katrina New Orleans and the devastating effects of the tsunamis in Japan this past spring, fascinated and horrified as we watched these communities collapse before our eyes. Zombie books and movies put us in the center such a nightmare, and as such are much more psychologically terrifying than vampires or ghosts.
Craig: What are the key elements to a great story, and how do you approach them?
Scott: First, you need a plot that’s unique and well thought out. There are hundreds of zombie novels on the market, many of which are not memorable. When you look at the ones that stand out and grabbed the public’s attention, they each had a unique take on the genre – for example, Jonathon Mayberry’s PATIENT ZERO (zombies bioengineered as a terrorist weapon), Max Brooks’ WORLD WAR Z (the apocalypse told as an oral history), Steven Schlozman’s THE ZOMBIE AUTOPSIES (the apocalypse from a scientific point of view), to name a few.
ROTTER WORLD came to me a few years ago while having lunch with a literary agent who said the one concept she had never seen before was vampires, zombies, and biological warfare all rolled into one. So I came up with the idea of having vampires steal the Zombie Virus (which was developed by U.S. scientists looking for a way to regenerate scar tissue from soldiers wounded by IEDs in Afghanistan) and release it against man, not realizing that zombie will eat the flesh of the undead as well as the living. A small group of vampires and humans put aside their differences to work together to survive the outbreak, but that tentative truce is put to the test when a small contingent of U.S. officials led by an enigmatic scientist arrive at their camp and claim the vaccine for the Zombie Virus is kept in an underground government facility in Pennsylvania, and they must travel across s rotter-infest countryside to retrieve it. [NOTE: The literary agent who sparked the idea never returned my query about representing this book, which is good for me otherwise I probably never would have been picked up by Permuted.]
Second, you need strong, realistic characters. The protagonists have to possess their own quirks, foibles, and vices otherwise they won’t ring true with the readers. If the characters are two-dimensional and stereotypical, the readers won’t care about them, and the story will fall flat. The same goes for the antagonists. Everyone loves a really awesome villain because it’s so satisfying to watch him/her get the comeuppance.
One of the reasons I started writing THE VAMPIRE HUNTERS back in 2004 was because, at that time, there were few books or movies that portrayed vampires as the villains. While I loved the main characters (Drake Matthews, the iced coffee-drinking, cigar-smoking, Glock-toting leader of the hunters and his partner, the sexy and intelligent Alison Monroe), I had the most fun creating my vampires. They are pure, unadulterated evil and their goal is total dominion over the world. I give them personalities and explain the motivations that drive them. Walker, the uber-master’s consigliore, willingly became a vampire to get revenge on his master. Melinda, who is twelve-years-old, was turned by a vampire with a penchant for child molestation, and now hunts other children and pedophiles. There are back stories for each of my vampires and reasons why they behave the way they do, which I detail throughout the trilogy. My goal is to make the vampires central characters to the books just as much as the hunters, and to be the villains you love to hate.
Craig: What are you working on? What can we expect next from you?
Scott: I’m putting the final touches on my fifth novel, YEITSO, about something evil stalking the desert around Los Alamos, New Mexico; it’s my homage to the monster movies of the 1950s that I grew up on as a kid. I have two short stories (one about steampunk zombies, the other told from the living dead’s point of view) that I’m looking to place. For future projects, I am pulling together notes for a young adult novel I plan on starting early next year that deals with a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world where the boundaries between earth and Hell have broken down, allowing the two realms to merge. In addition, I’m also playing with an idea for a sequel to ROTTER WORLD as well as a novel about a group of OSS officers trying to stop the Nazis from concluding a pact with Satan in the closing days of World War II.