“Well, shit,” I thought, “I’ve got to write that, don’t I?”
Turned out I did. I began hashing things out on that walk, starting an internal debate about whether this would be a comedy about a zombie detective on a quest for some missing brains, or a hard boiled zombie version of a noir classic. Though it’s the first of my books to be released in its entirety, UOA (as I called it in all my notes) was the third book I finished. So in development, a lot of it was a reaction to what I had previously written in Blank. The hero of that novel was a smart ass, a thinker, a pop culture junkie with a ridiculous haircut who couldn’t win a fight with a crippled kid. He was a Raymond Chandler protagonist by way of Quentin Tarantino, minus any hint of badassery. So I knew I had to write the exact opposite.
Glen Novak would be a thug. A brute of a man who would solve his own murder by basically kicking the living shit out of anyone and everyone in his way. He would be somewhat gullible (he gets lied to at several points and believes it), not especially bright, and more than anything, a violent bully. I knew that if I was going to have him solve his own murder, he needed a large pool of suspects or there’s no mystery. This meant making him less than a good man, and that was what I struggled with more than anything else. I had to make him loathsome enough so that a lot of people wanted him dead, but not so bad that someone reading the book would be cheering for it the whole time. I tried to make him a man corrupted by the world, but self aware enough to know he was corrupt. And making him the least evil of the three town fathers helped a little.
I knew I’d need to give my hero a gang, and I remembered something Shawn Ryan said when he talked about designing the Strike Team from The Shield: one character needs to be crazier than your hero, and one needs to be more normal. Stew became the normal one, and Pulaski was the nutball. Pulaski sort of sprang fully-formed from my head, and quickly became one of my two favorite characters to write. I mean, how do you not want to write about a transvestite killing machine? From there, I added Martinez because I wanted to have one of the most trustworthy people killed off early to build suspense.
In some ways, I regard the ending as a happy one. Yeah, Novak’s dead, but he was kind of a piece of shit anyway and along the way, he killed the worst of Devon. A lot of innocent people die too, but at the end of the day hope isn’t completely lost. In fact, Judy Bloch, who survives, is hope personified. She is the woman of science, the only one actually attempting to take a proactive stand against the undead. She’s also pregnant, which in itself is symbolic of hope. After Novak’s rampage, the people left alive include the best fighters in town (Ford, Sakimoto, Pulaski), all of whom have been shown to have more of a conscience than their leaders. The power vacuum can be filled with Bloch, Chris Stewart, and Gloria Wu, who are better people than the former town fathers by a large margin. The people of Devon have beaten back swarms before, and as long as they have the killing machines, hope is not lost.
The collapse of Devon is intended to mirror the systematic failure of Novak’s body to the infection, because in some ways, Novak is Devon. With the death of Calomiris, the swarm attacks in earnest, right when our hero was ready to kill himself. It’s raining for a similar reason, but also because of what Akira Kurosawa said about the rain in The Seven Samurai: it makes everything more desperate. When I was outlining the book, I included the advancement of the symptoms, the state of the weather, and the status of the coming swarm, ramping each one up with every chapter. The infection necessarily turned into body horror, but I was raised on Cronenberg films, so this was probably inevitable.
Okay, yes, this is a pulp novel. And yeah, I said “symbolic” earlier. Check out some of my horror reviews to see what I like to read into things. That being said, I intended characters to represent something larger than themselves. Calomiris and Rippey were business and religion respectively, while Novak was the individual (this is why his weapons were specifically hand tools). Trapped between the two extremes exploiting him, Novak is destroyed, although as the individual, he chooses suicide over joining the faceless mob of the undead. It’s not even presented as a choice: Novak knows he’ll kill himself as soon as he gets bitten. Meanwhile, hope lies in science, personified by Judy Bloch. I have no excuse for the zombie stage show. That was just me trying to think of how people might entertain each other in an ultra-jaded post-apocalyptic world.
As a pulp novel, I had to make sure that the damn thing moved. Art books can wallow in pretension, but we genre writers have to kick our books in the fucking head until they do what we want. It’s most important that UOA delivers a decent mystery and some lingering chills. Then you can get to the ridiculous artistic statement I tried to layer under a perfectly good noir story.
Now, if you liked Undead On Arrival, check out the masters. Other than the slide whistle, D.O.A. is a fantastic film (the remake isn’t bad either), and was the source of my title and the gimmick of the plot. The Black Dahlia (the Ellroy novel, not the de Palma abortion) also should not be missed and was a huge influence on the characters. Lastly, my zombies are of the Romero variety, so watch the Dead Trilogy if you haven’t already. And while you’re at it how about Zombie Ranch written by the Show’s Clint?
Oh yeah, and one of the things that’s hinted in the book, but never actually said… it takes place in 1990, with the end of the world happening in 1985. Look at what Novak wanted to watch on TV, what Pulaski listens to, and what Cheeseman complains about. Day of the Dead came out in ’85, so there’s my fake high five to Romero.
Until next time, creatures, remember: if a man takes your finger, take his head.