My horror fiction tends to involve the end of the world.
Each generation has had its fascination for the end. I believe it is programmed into us—an overriding concern for the survival of the species, not just our own continuing existence. The mechanisms vary—aliens, supernatural, nuclear war, pathogen, robot uprising, environmental collapse, zombies—but the net effect is the same: the end of the world as we know it.
Some people are drawn to these visions because they find them exciting and liberating. They want clarity in their lives. They want to be tested and live simply. Others are drawn to their visions because they find them scary as hell. They wonder how they would protect their families in such an event. They fear not only for their own survival, but civilization’s and humanity’s.
As a writer of fantastic fiction, I love placing a layer of the extraordinary on our everyday world and imagining the consequences. Drop in some real people facing the fantastic in a dangerous situation, and you’ve got the setup for a thriller. Make the fantastic pose a horrible threat to these people—the more horrible the better—and you’ve got horror, specifically survival horror.
Make the fantastic pose the same horrible threat to everybody at once, and you’ve got the makings for the end of the world. The result ideally is a story that is believable, that scares and excites the reader, and, with the stakes being the survival of the human race or at least civilization as we know it, is stirring to the spirit as well as the intellect.
That’s the fictional realm in which I enjoy playing as both a reader and a writer.
Now all you need is the mechanism. For me, zombies are particularly fun to work with because they hone the survival threat (heighten the thriller aspect), present options for fighting (heavy action), they’re scary if done right (heighten the horror aspect) and pose the threat from creatures who used to be people the characters cared about (emotional trauma and potential for philosophical stakes).
My stories often see their characters brutalized by events outside their control, but there is usually hope that if humanity can get past the zombie threat, everything will be okay again, and the species will survive.
I believe that any good zombie-apocalypse (z-poc) story should contain several elements:
First, it does not matter to me as a reader if the zombies are fast, slow, living, undead, as long as it’s a good story. (As a writer I prefer ordinary people turned into a “zombie,” or violent automaton, by a virus, which I just think is more scary and realistic than the shambling undead.)
Second, the story should have a richly imagined, highly detailed world that truly depicts the horrors of collapsed civilization.
Villains who immediately begin to rape and murder when the sh*t hits the fan, idiots who trip and drop their gun so the really slow zombie can catch up and bite them, or heroes who shrug off the death of their family and go around scoring perfect headshots, are not believable.
Everything that happens should be realistic and thereby respect the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
Fourth, the cause of the zombie pandemic should be either believable or left mysterious.
Fifth, the story should be complete in itself and not suddenly dump a cliff-hanger so you’ll buy the next book in the author’s planned trilogy that might have been better served as a single book.
And finally, while the book will likely follow a basic formula (zombies come, civilization ends, people have to fight to survive), it should have some innovative element that sets it apart from the rest of the genre.
I hope you agree.
My novels have been extremely successful, and every day I’m humbled and grateful that so many have enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.
Craig DiLouie is the author of Tooth and Nail (Salvo Press), The Infection (Permuted Press) and its sequel The Killing Floor (Permuted Press), and Suffer the Children, which will be released by Simon & Schuster in 2014. He is an Active Member of the Horror Writers Association.