…her eyes opened to him, and he gazed inside the rooms of her heart, as he so often had gazed into the eyes of the walking dead. He saw rooms that were locked and chained; he could almost hear the screams behind those shut doors. He saw other rooms that were vast and wide as oceans; in one, her love and faith in him, a faith so profound and unshakable that it shook him to see it. In another room, the many moments when she’d held others in her arms and given them refuge, and the love, deep and maternal and fierce, that she bore now toward each of those she’d sheltered. He saw her loss at having borne no children, and her joy at having found children in the men and women who lived in the insula under Polycarp’s care. He saw her determination to preserve them – and him – a resolve that was like a hard, cold wall of rock in her heart.
That is Father Polycarp gazing into the eyes of Regina Romae, who is the heroine and probably the true protagonist of What Our Eyes Have Witnessed, a novel of the early martyrs’ encounter with the undead in second-century Rome.
But Polycarp doesn’t look into the souls of the living only.
Polycarp has a Gift. He can bring peace and rest to the restless dead. At his touch, each hungering corpse lies still at last. But to do this, Polycarp must first look into each one’s blind eyes and find the remnant of the soul caught within the shambling corpse. He must witness its secrets, its suffering — all that it loved and feared and regretted in its brief life. Only then can he absolve that soul and set it free. Only then will it cease to walk and feed.
As a dad with 2 young daughters, I find myself really disturbed by all the vocal and unapologetic misogyny I’ve been hearing lately. I want my girls to grow up in a culture that values them as more than pleasure objects, and that hopefully doesn’t bear so much hate toward them.
If you have felt the same way — perhaps if you’re a dad (or mom) with daughters, or a daughter, or if you have a niece or a young cousin — I started a Place for you, a while back, where we share stories of women who our daughters can learn from: https://www.facebook.com/groups/235732309917815
While the Internet and our media barrage us with the most disheartening messages, dip into this group to find encouragement. Share the stories of heroic women you know. Let this be a virtual library of stories! It is called “Heart of a Goddess, Heart of a Tiger.” Because growing up in this world, that is the kind of heart our daughters are going to need.
Regina had trembled as she watched from the door, her heart beating with a purely animal fear at the nearness of the dead; she could neither swing the door shut nor step through it. At the extremity of her fear, her face darkened with shame and anger. She was no Roman patrician bred on milk and water, to tumble from her chair at the first sight of something unsavory. Of Rome she may be, but of the Subura, where knives, not gossip, flashed across dinner tables. And her ancestry was Syrian, of a people whose bones were strong as the bones of the hills in which they lived. She bore old lines on her back, a savage record of what would be witnessed and what could be survived.
“You have seen how God is a father who burns away what threatens his children, and you and I have felt his heat. But God is also our mother. As a woman, I know this. That her heart is a deep, deep lake dousing all wrath and flame. That she kisses us when we are born. Quickens new life within us when we have become women. God made both Adam and Eve, both in God’s likeness. And if this is true, Devora, what I tell you, what Miriam who was navi when I was a girl told me, then God who is like our mother and has compassion will forgive us the evils we cannot avoid and the lives we cannot save.”
This gripping reinterpretation of the ninth plague of Egypt is next in my countdown of 101 quotes from The Zombie Bible:
“Muttering without cease, he called the darkness by its name: hoshekh. Naming it, knowing it, might at least keep it from choking him: hoshekh. The darkness that is the darkest of all darknesses, the darkness that hides at the back of caves. The darkness that fills the mind of one who refuses to hear the cries in the street, the darkness that hides behind the ribs of a man or a woman, that eats at everything that is real and true inside them. Hoshekh. Once, the Lawgiver had called a plague of hoshekh upon the people of the cities of the Nile, who had not heard the cries of their slave workers or their wives, the cries when soldiers took their infants and drowned them in the river. And when those unhearing people yawned and lay themselves down for sleep, the hoshekh poured from their mouths like dark milk until their houses and their land was filled with it. When they woke in the morning, they were blind and could not even move from their beds, for the hoshekh was heavy on them as they lay, and heavy inside them, as though they were at the bottom of a pool of dark mud. For three days and three nights they lay moaning in the hoshekh, while the people of Israel ate and sang in the hovels of the slave encampments, where there was light and, for once, no work.
Hoshekh, Yirmiyahu called this darkness in the well that pressed on his skin. The whole city above must be filled with it, this night. Darker than dark, the city. Only the dead could move through it with their slow feet, their leaning bodies scraping against the walls of houses and shops, their fingers reaching over the stone, hungering.”
Welcome to Episode #98 of my countdown of 101 quotes from The Zombie Bible. This passage is from Death Has Come Up into Our Windows, a visceral retelling of the story of the “weeping prophet,” Jeremiah. And I do mean visceral. If you haven’t read it, I hope you will check it out. A riveting, heart-wrenching story–and some deep thoughts.
Storytelling is a communal act. Our ancestors sat around a fire sharing tales and giving each other chills. My Patreon membership is a way to use modern-day patronage to achieve that again. It means taking writing fiction from something that just happens on a dining room table to something that happens around a community fire or a community table, with boisterous laughter and shared tears. And that’s how it should be.
If you’re the kind of reader who has always wished you could sit down on a porch with one of your favorite writers to just listen to the rain and ask them that question you’ve always had or even just hear them spin out new ideas, then you belong here. That’s the kind of connection I want with my readers; that’s the kind of connection I want with you.
It is like a book club — the best book club in the world, not only because you’re getting regular new stories, but because you get to chat with the author all along the way.
Patreon provides a wonderful platform for this, and for inviting your support of my stories (in the form of a monthly subscription). When you become one of my Patreon members, you get backstage access to the stories I’m working on, and your patronage funds great new books like these — and helps me keep them risky and independent, the way they should be!
Patreon is making it possible for me to spend more of my time and energy doing what matters most to me: creating great stories, and interacting with great readers.
Will you join me? To join my membership, it only costs the price of a venti way-too-many-ingredients-in-it latte with whip cream, and you get a lot. I hope you’ll come take a look and considering joining my early members. If nothing else, this is going to be a very exciting experiment, and you’re going to want in on it.
I recently had an invigorating conversation with Richard Ellis Preston, Jr., one of the most fascinating novelists I know. Fortunately, we captured this conversation for you. It has a bit of everything — zombies, steampunk, zebra-striped aliens, the new publishing imprint Westmarch Publishing, and some clues about what’s coming next from both of our dark minds.
So you should definitely read this.
THE CONVERSATION * cue Bach’s Tocata and Fugue in D Minor, played on pipe organ by Captain Nemo*
Seriously, though, I was into zombies before they were cool. It just took me years to finish the project. Most zombie stories are set in an apocalyptic setting; mine aren’t. Mine are set thousands of years ago. I use zombies as a way of unburying our past, looking at history, religion, the way we’ve come to live the way we live and feel the things we feel. What has fascinated me ever since first seeing Romero’sNight of the Living Deadis the idea of a body emptied of everything but mindless hunger, a body that can only interact with others by devouring them. That makes me clutch the arms of my chair and shiver, and it makes me think deep thoughts. What separates the living and the dead? I mean, really? All around us, we see people devouring people. We see people reducing others to mere objects to fear or feed on.
That is a zombie face. Just look at it, emptied of all feeling but
an intense desire to eat you. How can you not love that face?
In my fiction, I place zombies in distant historical moments – and not medieval Europe, either. Think Rome or ancient Mesopotamia. I look at how we never succeed in truly burying our dead. I look at how encountering mindless eaters forces us to confront our own hungers. I look at what we have to hope for, in a world, past and present, that wants to eat us.While we’re on the subject, why steampunk? There’s almost as much steampunk out there as there are hordes of ravenous dead. Yet your Romulus Buckle is beautiful. What drew you to this kind of fiction, and how are you making it fresh?
RICHARD ELLIS PRESTON, JR:
Firstly, I agree that zombies are cool. Yes, steampunk seems to really be coming into its own lately. I discovered it as its own genre about three years ago. At that time I was wanting to write a pulpy adventure action series about a ship crew in the tradition of Indiana Jones or Horatio Hornblower, but I’d been having problems finding the proper setting. I wanted strong female characters and some zebra-striped aliens tossed in. Modern submarines didn’t work. 18th century pirate ships didn’t work. Space ships didn’t work. When I hit upon steampunk and the idea of a zeppelin crew operating in a post-apocalyptic environment I knew I had found the roots of my world.
Since I was new to steampunk (although I am a huge fan of British history and the Victorian/Edwardian era) I wanted to make it accessible to people who had just discovered the genre, so while the story has a steampunk brain and organs, the skeleton is pure adventure tale.I tried to make the series unique by placing it in a frozen southern California and by introducing a strong ‘purer’ sci-fi element to it. It all makes sense in the end (I hope) but readers will have to stick with it to the end to get all of the answers as to how this world came about from the one we know now.
But here’s a question for you, Stant. How does a writer tackle the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, as you do in No Lasting Burial? How did you approach writing him? Were you afraid of any backlash, most certain to result, from expressing your vision of him?
STANT LITORE: I definitely found Yeshua of Natzeret to be the most difficult character that I have ever written. For one thing, there is an enormous weight of past depictions, from stained glass to Hollywood.
All of those past images are like an enormous pressure at your back, a locomotive driving your story toward a cliff. The joy and the challenge of telling this story was to tell it new and tell it raw. My novels are works of “weird fiction,” exploring the ways in which we become strange to ourselves and to each other. In the zombie story, our own flesh is made weird, is made strange to us. The story of the God-made-flesh is a truly strange story, and we forget that because so many generations of storytellers and sermon-writers have domesticated the story for us, made it safe and tame. When you read the original stories, you don’t encounter a domesticated, safe character.
My approach to this old, old story was to focus on two things. First, I focused on how people reacted to this enigmatic figure. You read the stories of ordinary people who are confronted with someone who doesn’t make sense, someone who is magnetic and inspiring and disturbing, all at once. Someone who flips your traditions on their head. Someone who tells you to invite beggars into your house or sell all your possessions. Someone who claims to know things no one can know, do things no one can do. Someone who is moved to tears at things that you don’t even notice. Someone who might be a madman, or a witch, or an incarnate God, or demon-possessed. At first it is very hard to tell. He is utterly strange, and the world you know appears to bend around him.
Second, I wanted to try to imagine what it would be like to be a mortal man in a mortal body and yet hear the suffering, the prayers, and the screams of all people, living or dead, across all of time. What would that do to you? Would it drive you mad? Would it drive you to extraordinary acts of compassion? Would it do both?
I wanted to make this story strange again, make it dangerous again.I don’t know if I was afraid of backlash, but I certainly anticipated it. This is not a stained-glass Jesus. This is a sweating, weeping figure who walks into your world and rewrites its fundamental architecture, or gets you to, despite yourself. I expect backlash. If you try to tell a Jesus story and you don’t get backlash, you’re telling it wrong; you’re telling it badly.
There’s a beautiful sculpture that an artist just revealed this month of a homeless Jesus lying on a park bench:
Some people are disturbed and affronted, and some people tried to call the cops to come remove this homeless man from their upscale-neighborhood bench. And some people were moved and rebuked and inspired.
I think I was going for a very similar effect, but the artist with his sculpture achieved it much more directly than I can do in mere words.
A question for you, Richard, while we’re on the topic of characters and stories that defy domestication. What scene in your own novels proved most wrenching to write, most difficult?
RICHARD ELLIS PRESTON, JR: That was a great answer, Stant, and it provides a wonderful glimpse into the environs of No Lasting Burial.Your question is interesting because my adventure novels run in the vein of the old adventure serials—so far in the first two books there has been a tremendous amount of swashbuckling and action and catastrophe-escaping. The series takes a dark, tragic turn in upcoming books and when I sit in the quiet and think of some of the specific events approaching I want to cry. I can’t spoil what is coming by describing it, of course, but let me say that when these (hopefully) powerful and soul-wracking scenes must be put to paper, they will be awfully hard to write.
I’d say that one of the hardest scenes I’ve written so far is the hero’s (Romulus Buckle) flashback to injuring his adopted sister, Max, when they were young. Max is half alien with zebra-striped skin and struggles against prejudice every day of her life. For a number of reasons, Romulus is cruel to her in their childhood, always tormenting her. One day he chases her down a hallway and grabs hold of one of her long pigtails. She jerks loose and ends up hurtling headfirst into a doorway jamb, cutting her forehead open and leaving a scar. Romulus’ actions are terrible (his father lets him have it for this) and it is difficult to witness an injury to a child when writing the scene as it unfolds in your head. But it is an important moment for both characters. Max fights back against Romulus for the first time earlier in the scene (she stabs his shoulder with a geometry compass) and also Romulus carries a sadness with him into adulthood, a deep-rooted guilt, about how he treated Max when they were children (Max has always loved him and has long forgiven him, by the way, although her despair at her strange appearance was exacerbated by the way he abused her back then).
That was a difficult sequence to write because so much pain is folded into it, a pain which both characters still experience in their adult lives, though in different ways.
A question: I have a handful of images and items, subconscious denizens of my mind anchored deeply in the unknown reaches I suppose, which seem to always find their way into most everything I write. Some come from dreams I have and some come from nowhere, as far as I can tell. Instead of fighting their intrusion, which is always organic, I let these little bubbles surface inside the stories I write.
Just kidding in that last caption. This is what the author of the Romulus Buckle series,
formally known as The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin, actually looks like. Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. is just his alter ego, his Clark Kent, his Bruce Wayne.
Don’t tell him I revealed his identity, though. He’ll be angry.
One of these motifs is wind chimes. Wind chimes were ringing in one of the most vivid, haunting, profound dreams I ever had. I love the sound of them. And they appear, unbidden in the background, in most every story I write. In fact, I’ve come to expect it. I don’t think anybody would notice this constant element without my mentioning it because it is so small, but there is something comforting about always having that little tiny bit of my dream in all of my stories.
Richard is a writer that I respect & esteem highly, and I can’t recommend his novels enough.
I am also fiercely envious of his ride.
Stant, do you have any recurring items, motifs, themes, etc. like that which your brain seems to always want to blend into your writing?
I love wind chimes; I love listening to them. They are comforting. But I also love it when a storm comes up and the wind chimes burst into musical panic.
There are definitely recurrent images or moment in my writing. It’s not something I really think about except when I’m writing the scene itself and I run into them almost by accident and say, “ah!”
Wind in the grass. That’s one. In No Lasting Burial, Bar Nahemyah thinks the sound is “like God weeping in the grasses.”
Where the magic happens.
I think a recurrent moment is the discovery of something small and alive and beautiful after great catastrophe. A flower growing out of the side of a sand dune, or a gazelle stepping through the remains of a dead camp.
A character alone, looking up at the stars.
For whatever reason, these moments are written into me.
Oh, and this is me, Stant Litore. Yes, I really do look like that. All the time.
Now a question for you. What is the one thing you avoid most, as a storyteller?
RICHARD ELLIS PRESTON, JR:
I love those themes and images you identified, bubbling up out of your subconscious. Ah, avoidance! I love your examples above, by the way. One thing I try to avoid is having two characters tell each other things that they already know, which I call “redundant ridiculous exposition.” I do this a lot in early drafts where I may not have a good handle on how I am going to structure a scene, so I just spill out the facts that I may want my characters to communicate to the reader. Of course, then I have a scene where two people who were sitting beside each other in a plane crash are having this weird conversation where they are explaining things to one another that they would instinctively know the other knows, just so I can give the reader the information. The trick is, of course, to create a dialogue transfer that both avoids this weird exposition and still provides the reader with the backstory and facts they need. The easiest way to do this is to introduce a character who wasn’t there at the event and thus needs a full description, but there are lots of more subtle ways to defeat that clunk-machine as well. But, because I know I do it as an early crutch, I am frantic to avoid it wholesale in later editing.
In Hollywood, cool dudes walk away from explosions without looking back.
And Romulus Buckle is always shown with his back to you.
Always. No matter how cool you are, you will never be as cool as Romulus Buckle.
Now, Stant, I’d like to hear about something you avoid in your writing, and I’d also like to have you introduce the story and environment of Ansible 15715, which is your newest short story release. And Ansible is also coming from the brand new Westmarch Publishing imprint – I am familiar with it – but you can also perhaps tell our readers about Westmarch as well. Ha, that’s THREE questions!
STANT LITORE: Three questions in one? You’re trying to kill me…
What do I avoid: Doing the same thing twice. I am very restless as a writer, constantly wanting to try a new challenge or technique.
Ansible 15715 is a frantic distress call from a woman marooned in time, a researcher desperately trying to warn humanity of an unexpected and terrifying threat. It’s unlikely anyone will hear her. Unless possibly you.
It’s a work of weird fiction and it is deeply unnerving—not a story you will soon forget.
Westmarch is a writers’ collective, a network of writers who barter services with each other, in lieu of a publisher. This allows the writers to retain more control over their own work and a higher royalty. For those who got their start in self-publishing, as I did, it’s a welcome environment.The intriguing thing about today’s publishing landscape is that the skills traditionally located in a publishing house are increasingly available for direct, writer-to-provider contracting. A savvy independent writer, for example, can contract individually with an established and well-known developmental editor, a copy editor, a proofreader, a cover designer, a formatter, and even a publicist. That amazing cover for Ansible 15715? That was by a Westmarch author, Roberto Calas, (robertocalas.com) who has 25 years of experience in design.
Of course, it’s much easier to simply contract with a publishing house that can provide all of those services under one roof, and a publisher may have marketing reach far beyond what the majority of writers have. That’s where writers’ collectives come in. They’re a third way, where writers tap into each other’s resources and networks in an organized way to assemble and promote their books, paying membership dues rather than a percentage of revenue.
Westmarch is a smaller collective, new and active and exciting, and made up of writers I respect deeply.
Last question for you, Richard: what’s next from you? What should readers be watching for?
RICHARD ELLIS PRESTON, JR: That’s awesome info on Westmarch, Stant – and best of luck with Ansible 15715! Up next for me is the release of my third Romulus Buckle novel in November, along with a short story set in the same universe that will be used for promotional purposes. It is all going to come out in parallel with the release of Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk User’s Manual in which some of my steampunk work is featured. So, November will be a big month for me.
This has been an awesome chat, Stant! Thanks so much for having the conversation. I’d like to leave the reader with an idea of what you have coming up next, so please fire away!
STANT LITORE: My birthday’s in November, Richard, and I foresee what will be on my wishlist.What I have coming up next:
A novella entitled Dante’s Heart, in which every time a young man falls asleep, creatures burst out of him intent on doing violence to the world. In hunting them down, he has to face humanity’s longing for violence.
I Will Hold My Death Close, a novella in The Zombie Bible, coming out in August. You’re really going to like this one. It is a retelling of the Old Testament story of “Jepthah’s daughter.” Fleeing into the hills from a father intent on sacrificing her, she has to face the hunger of a deity, the hunger of the rising dead, and the devouring hunger of her people’s traditions and their past if she is to survive.
Finally, I am working on another Ansible story. Shhh, don’t tell anyone. It looks likely to be just as unnerving and just as tragic as Ansible 15715.
My workshop is spewing out black and purple smoke as I work busily on all this. Lots to look forward to this summer!Thank you for this great conversation, and I am looking forward to November!