Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Walking Dead, Blood Flats, and ideal heroes and villains (Part 1 of 2)

Heroes and villains: what makes each of these character types effective in a story? In this two-part post, we’re going to answer this question by examining heroes and villains in two fictional works: The Walking Dead and Blood Flats.

As many of you will know, I am a big fan of the AMC series The Walking Dead. When The Walking Dead debuted in 2010, the series was a much-needed addition to the generally poor to mediocre horror films that have been produced of late. I watched the first episode, and like a lot of people, I was instantly hooked

The Walking Dead is successful for a number of reasons. First of all, the series takes its own horror elements seriously (an important issue that I may return to later.) Romero, Raimi, and others have in recent years produced horror films that are a cross between gross-out and slapstick—a combination that simply doesn’t work.

But there is nothing slapstick about the plot and the tone of The Walking Dead. This really is the end of the world—courtesy of an apocalyptic zombie outbreak. As a viewer, you find it easy to suspend your disbelief for what would otherwise be an unbelievable scenario.

The Walking Dead would be a good series if it had only its now trademark realism to recommend it. However, The Walking Dead is a great series because its characters are three-dimensional human beings rather than cardboard stock characters.

The series’ hero, Rick Grimes, is appealing because, like most us, he sometimes falls short of his own high ideals: Rick is determined to do the right thing. But he often fails.

In other words, Rick Grimes is a human hero—not a cardboard cutout of an omnipotent superhero.

This was best illustrated by Rick’s handling of the disappearance of Sophia, the young girl who was traveling with the group.

First of all, Rick’s misjudgment in a tense moment was closely linked to Sophia becoming separated from the adults. Then he endangered the entire group for weeks afterwards, even though the odds of finding Sophia alive were slim to none. (Recall that Sophia eventually turned up in the barn that contained the zombies.)

Rick Grimes is a hero with a good heart who sometimes displays poor practical judgment. He also frequently doubts himself.

This is a contrast to the omnipotent (but less believable) heroes that less skillful screenwriters and novelists often plug into adventure tales. (To get an idea of the contrast, watch practically any film that stars the Rock, or read any of the Dirk Pitt adventure novels written by Clive Cussler.)  

*       *      *

The hero of Blood Flats is ex-marine and Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Lee McCabe. Lee is also a fallible hero—though not in the exact way of Rick Grimes of The Walking Dead. Lee is considerably younger and more emotional, and he sometimes questions his fundamental motivations.

When he comes back from Iraq, Lee’s first impulse is to focus on his own problems. He has a feeling of being behind the curve. At the age of twenty-three, he has yet to begin a real career or enter college.

And now that he has survived the war, Lee doesn’t want to allow anything or anyone to hinder his progress. He feels that he has already done his time “fighting the bad guys.” Given his experiences in Iraq, this position is not unreasonable.

Although one of Lee’s neighbors is a dangerous methamphetamine dealer, Lee doesn’t want to intervene—even though a part of him does. The reluctant hero, Lee resists taking action. He doesn’t step over the line and commit himself until he hears a woman’s screams from the residence next door. (And by that time, it is almost too late.)

Lee is also hampered by numerous personal vanities and weaknesses. These can be observed in his interactions with Dawn Hardin, Sheriff Phelps, and other characters in the novel.

Recall the scene in which Dawn Hardin slaps Lee across the face. This is the scene in which Dawn reveals that she is no longer an honor student at the University of Kentucky, but a meth-addicted prostitute. (This is Chapter 88 from the book):

“What happened to you?” Lee asked. They were alone in the living room of her little studio apartment, sitting on the floor. This was all she had been able to find in town after her father had thrown her out. A part of her had been inclined to return to Louisville—but there was nothing for her there but more hooking and more drugs. The same downward spiral.
At the same time, there did not seem to be much for her here in Blood Flats: A family that now despised her, and this apartment—where she could sit alone with her craving for meth, rationing out the supply she had brought with her from the city.
Redemption, she thought. That is what I will find, one way or another. Redemption of my former life. Redemption or death.
Lee leaned back against the wall and Dawn sat cross-legged, her back against the apartment’s threadbare sofa. The air was close and stuffy. A hint of a breeze blew through a double screen door that opened onto the balcony from where Dawn had stood to beckon him a few minutes ago.
What happened to you? The scope of the question was so massive, so personal and so painful that she knew it would be difficult for her to answer him. Although she detected genuine concern in his tone and expression, Dawn bristled at his presumptuousness. Lee McCabe was apparently the same blunt, cocky sort that she remembered him to be. Never mind the fact that she had opened her makeshift home to him, such it was. Whatever his degree of innocence (and she did believe that Lee was innocent—despite what she had heard on the news), this still represented an enormous gesture of charity and trust. Never mind the fact that he was now a fugitive wanted for multiple homicides. (He probably had his own rank on the FBI’s most wanted list by now.) He would still find the space to notice how far she had fallen since their last meeting, and he would still have the nerve to bring it to her attention.
“You first,” Dawn said. “Why does half the world believe that you’re a mass murderer?”
She listened as Lee recounted a convoluted tale that spanned back several days. A few of the names she vaguely remembered from the news, as murder victims that had been attributed to Lee’s actions. When he mentioned the name of Lester Finn she stopped him.
“I know Lester Finn,” she said. She folded her arms across her chest, gripping each bony elbow with the opposite hand.
“A friend of yours?” Lee asked, with a trace of accusation.
“No. Of course not. I despise Lester Finn.”
“But you do know him.”
Dawn shrugged. She could sense him backing her into a corner, interrogating her, though he had absolutely no right to appoint himself as her inquisitor.
“So how does an honor student like yourself become acquainted with a drug dealer like Lester Finn?” he finally asked.
“I’m not exactly an honor student anymore,” she said.
She gave him a short history of her drug problem. She did not mention that she worked the streets of Louisville to make money to support her habit. That would be too painful, too humiliating to admit. But she imagined that Lee McCabe had somehow surmised the entire truth.
“That stuff you take,” Lee said. “This is the stuff that people are trying to kill me for.”
“It’s almost killed me, too, for the record.”
Lee McCabe appeared not to have heard her. He was lost in his own private rage, she could tell.
“What’s your problem, Lee? I get the feeling that I’ve disappointed you. Well, for what its worth, I’ve disappointed a lot of people. My father had disowned me and my mother and sister want to pretend that I don’t exist anymore. And I’ve disappointed myself.”
“This is just great,” he said. “You screw men for money, and then you buy drugs.”
Dawn recalled her first meeting with Lee McCabe, at that party several years ago, when she had been a college freshman with a bright future stretching out before her. Back then Lee McCabe had misjudged her as a snob. Now he was misjudging her again—only in the opposite direction.
Did he have any idea how much she hated what she had become? Did he know about the countless times she had contemplated suicide?
She felt possessed by her own rage—and in that moment her anger was as implacable as the desire for the drug sometimes was, even in at its worse.
Before she could stop herself, she slapped Lee McCabe across the cheek. Then she leaned back, folded her arms again, and said nothing.
Lee rubbed his cheek where she had struck him. She knew her own strength was limited and that she could not possibly have hurt him. Nevertheless, there was a red patch across the skin where she had struck.
Lee looked at her, seemed lost in contemplation for a few seconds, then said:
“I deserved that. I was wrong.”
“No, you’re right, about me, I mean. You’re as arrogant as ever, and you have the tact of a pit bull; but I can’t fault your assessment of the situation.”
“I’m a jackass,” Lee said.
“Yes. You’re right about that, too.”
“I’m usually a lot better than this,” Lee said. “I’ve been having what you might call a bad day—a bad couple of days, in fact. Half the country thinks I murdered two of my neighbors. A local drug lord is trying to kill me. And at least one police officer has tried to kill me, too.”
“You’re certainly making the news,” Dawn said. “There’s going to be a special edition about you on CNN this afternoon. Some journalist who claims to have met you.”
Lee’s surprise was immediately apparent. “A journalist? You mean Brett St. Croix?”
“Might be,” Dawn said. “I don’t recall. But he’s going to talk this afternoon on CNN. On the Situation Room.”

As you can see, Lee is not always a very nice guy, even though he usually steps up and does the right thing in the end. In this scene, Lee’s initial attitude toward Dawn is judgmental and self-righteous. He eventually realizes his mistake—but not until he offends her (and receives a much-deserved slap across the face).

So much for sympathetic heroes. In the next installment, I’ll delve into The Walking Dead and Blood Flats again to examine the characteristics of the ideal fictional villain.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Corporate life and horror fiction: how the former leads to the latter

Ernest Hemingway famously enjoined the fiction writer to “write what you know.”

This was a subject that Ernest Hemingway had strong feelings about. Hemingway believed that only the actual, real-life experiences of an author constituted valid sources of fiction.

This belief is evidenced throughout Hemingway's body of work. Read any Hemingway novel or short story––from For Whom the Bell Tolls, to “Big Two-Hearted River, to The Old Man and the Sea––and you can trace the kernel of each tale to some epoch or incident from the novelist’s life.

This is why Ernest Hemingway stories overwhelmingly deal with the lingering psychological effects of World War I combat, and the self-destructive dalliances of the so-called “Lost Generation.” (The latter theme was also a favorite of Hemingway’s contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

And what about yours truly, you ask. I don't completely disagree with Hemingway. As a matter of fact, I believe that life experience is the stuff of fiction. This is a partial explanation of why so many writers who achieve conspicuous success at a young age tend to flame out quickly. In order to be a prolific writer of fiction, you have to have a deep well of life experiences. And the acquisition of life experience takes time. (This is a subject that I might return to in greater detail at a later date.)

A lot of people––both online and offline––have asked me about the inspirations behind the various stories in the short story collection Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense. What led you, they ask, to write a short story about industrial robots that turn into demonic creatures (“The Robots of Jericho”), or about a man who sees the undead in Chicago’s O’Hare airport (“Gate Time”)?

When I sift through my life experiences, I go all the way back to the beginning. And this shows up in the stories in Hay Moon. Some of the stories in this collection, like the title story itself, come from incidents in my childhood. (No, I never actually saw zombies in a barn, but I may have imagined that I did once or twice.)

No matter how long one lives, the emotions and pivotal experiences of childhood seem to linger. My grandfather lived into his late seventies, and he was still talking about his childhood when he died. I suppose, therefore, that it is not unusual for me to still be writing about my childhood at the comparatively young age of 43.

However, among the short stories in Hay Moon, there are only a few that I could have written at the age of 20. At twenty, I simply didn’t have much of this material. Now I do.

Why? Partly because I have spent the last two decades in the corporate world, doing all of the things that corporate cubicle dwellers do: coping with office politics, going on business trips, and trying to figure out exactly what it takes to “get ahead” in the corporate environment. (Hint: Smile a lot, never say anything bad about the company, and remain at your desk as late as possible each day.)

Seriously, though, roughly half of the short stories in Hay Moon sprung from experiences that I've had on the job. Since most of the tales in Hay Moon have a supernatural element, they are not literal accounts of corporate working life. (A verbatim account of corporate life would be boring, wouldn't it?) Nevertheless, these are stories that I could not have written without my 20+ years of experience as a corporate warrior.

Take the story “The Robots of Jericho.” On the surface, this is a straightforward science-fiction/monster tale. But the story is uniquely personal to me. I have logged many, many hours in manufacturing facilities. Almost all of these facilities have been automotive plants. And many automotive plants contain welding robots.

Watch a welding robot at work, and it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to see it as a man-devouring creature. Of course, that was just the starting point for the story. If you've read “The Robots of Jericho,” you will know that the story includes a hint of the mythology behind this story’s particular version of the archetypical homicidal beast. That mythology was derived not from my workplace experiences, but from my readings of ancient history. But “The Robots of Jericho” would never have existed if I had never stepped inside an automotive manufacturing facility.

Then there is the story “Gate Time.” I suppose that it would be theoretically possible for anyone who has traveled by air to write this story. But frankly, I tend to doubt it. The weariness and humdrum drudgery of constant business travel are unknown to the casual vacation traveler. The main protagonist in “Gate Time” sees ghosts and other supernatural creatures in airports. These visions come to him because he spends so much of his life shuttling from one airport to another, from one corner of the country to the other. As it turns out, his job is also the reason why he is unable to avoid airports––even after they become terrifying for him.

I believe that readers respond to the horror elements in both “Gate Time” and “The Robots of Jericho” precisely because they are interwoven with aspects of corporate life that so many readers can relate to. I would also assert that I have an advantage in crafting this sort of story—an advantage that I earned through twenty years of very hard labor in Cubicle Land.

I suspect that the corporate workplace will continue to offer me inspiration for stories in the years to come. (My next novel, in fact, is a corporate thriller called Termination Man.) We spend a lot of our lives at work; and the workplace is an environment often filled with high emotions, drama, and conflict. This makes it fertile ground for fiction, as I found out while writing many of the stories included in Hay Moon.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Suddenly it's OK to enjoy the zombie genre

Based on my Facebook feed, a lot of my friends have been following the AMC series The Walking Dead

In case you haven't seen an episode of The Walking Dead yet, this is another addition to the zombie apocalypse genre. But this one has a quality that most of the genre lacks. (For more on this, see my earlier video review below:

Zombie films (as in George Romero) have traditionally been the fare of young males who enjoy watching dead people rise up and devour the living. (Such tastes might the result of excess testosterone.)  Zombie films represent the sort of entertainment that no self-respecting, middle-class homemaker or accountant would enjoy (or admit to enjoying). 

Until now...

The Walking Dead is in a class by itself. This one combines a serious, realistic approach to the horror premise with a tight plot and a cast of dynamic, lifelike characters. And that makes all the difference.