The Big Idea: Joseph Nassise
I always swore I’d never write a zombie novel.
I mean, come on, seriously. Rotting corpses with minimal intelligence endlessly wandering around with a taste for human flesh? What’s the point? What kind of villain is that?
No, I wasn’t going to write a zombie novel. No way, no how. What I wanted to write was a Dirty Dozen kind of story, a near-suicide mission-behind-enemy-lines kind of thing, except I wanted my version to be set World War One instead of World War Two. I could add lots of steampunk gizmos and gadgets to give it a unique flavor as well.
But as I began to write, I realized that something was missing. My villain, the Baron Manfred von Richthofen, just wasn’t cutting it. He was too…average…and what I needed was a villain that made the reader sit up and take notice. I dug through my notes, looking for a hook that I could use to make him a bit more sinister in the overall scheme of things.
Noting that, historically speaking, Richthofen had been shot down and killed in April 1918, I asked myself how the war would have changed if that hadn’t happened. What if he had lived? What if he had continued to add to his amazing streak of victories, bringing his confirmed kills to well over his historical total of 82 enemy planes? Would that provide the oomph I needed?
I didn’t think so. But the pump had been primed and other ideas began to flow as a result. What if he’d been shot down but lived through it? Even better, what if he had died but then rose again to continue fighting?
My pulse kicked up and I knew I was on to something. Richthofen gets shot down but rises again, the undead enemy ace determined to win the war for the Kaiser. That sounded pretty cool; I could work with that.
I just needed to come up with a plausible reason for it.
The idea that Richthofen was a vampire occurred to me but was just as quickly discarded. After all, Kim Newman had already done that, and done it extremely well, in his classic The Bloody Red Baron. Besides, I was almost as tired of vampires as I was of zombies. Making Richthofen a werewolf wouldn’t work either; can you imagine him going through a Dog-Soldier-style transformation while in a wood and canvas biplane fourteen thousand feet in the air? Not a pretty sight.
Ghosts. Ghouls. Spectres. Warlocks. All were considered. All were just as quickly cast aside. Still, I knew I was on that right track. I could feel it. There had to be something…
Since I wasn’t having any luck, I decided to look at the problem from a different direction. Instead of worrying about what kind of undead creature to make Richthofen, I thought about the mechanism I needed to make him into whatever-it-was he was to become. I pictured him there in the middle of no man’s land, his Fokker triplane crumpled around him, his blood leaking into the earth. What was already on that battlefield that I could make use of?
Mud. Corpses. Rats. Barbed wire. Trenches. Gas.
Wait a minute, I thought. Gas.
A quick dig through the various books on my desk told me that the first use of poisoned gas on the Western Front was by the Germans during the Second Battle of Ypres. 5700 canisters containing 168 tons of chlorine gas were released toward the Allied lines at sunrise on April 22 and the yellow-green gas was so effective that it surprised even the German troops sent to follow up on the breakthrough it created.
I knew right then and there that I had my mechanism. What if the gas the Germans had invented had not been chlorine or mustard gas but had been corpse gas instead? What if the gas worked only on inert tissue, bringing the battlefield dead back as – dare I say it? – zombies? (Or, in the parlance of the story, shamblers.)
Everything fell together from that point forward. The gas would resurrect the dead, reinforcing the German army after every battle, promoting the Allies to begin burning the corpses of friend and foe alike in giant bonfires that filled the air with ash and soot. The swelling ranks would give the Germans the extra push they needed to force the Allies back almost all the way to Paris. The world would not just be fighting for freedom from tyranny but the very survival of the human race.
There was only one final detail to set it all in motion. What if one out of every ten thousand resurrected corpses came back with their faculties intact? Not just intact, but improved a hundred-fold? The newly resurrected dead would be smarter, faster, and able to withstand more pain and injury than a normal human being? What if Richthofen had died in that crash, only to rise again as one of these revenants? How would his increased drive and ambition, never mind loyalty to the homeland, impact that war around him?
And that, dear readers, is how I ended up writing not just a zombie book, but an entire series with zombies as a chief element despite my vow.