No. 2: “Drowned: A Different Kind of Zombie Tale”
Context at the end of this excerpt.
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. See you tomorrow!
A passage midway through “Drowned: A Different Kind of Zombie Tale”:
“I think we ought to turn around right this instant and go home,” Jack said. “This is fucking sick. You’re fucking sick, Joel. You ought to have your head examined.”
“Come on, Jack, you’re playing right into his hands,” Kathy said. “That’s just the reaction he’s looking for. It’s a prank, can’t you see?”
“It’s not a prank,” Joel said.
“Come on, Joel.”
“It’s not a prank.”
Kathy wasn’t sure what to think any more. Now that they were here, or almost here — now that they were entering the domain of the dead — the fun-and-games aspect of the evening was gone.
Can he really be serious about this? she wondered. Can he?
And she thought: No, he can’t.
But she didn’t know if she believed that.
It’s more than sick, Jack was thinking. It’s illegal, and it’s perverted — more perverted than any of Joel’s other stunts, and God knows he’s pulled some good ones.
Like that séance.
It was the coincidence that was most disturbing to Jack. The circumstances of Sully’s death had been troubling him enough anyway — now this whole incredible scene, driving out to his grave with a whack job who claimed he was going to dig him up. He wasn’t concerned that Joel might succeed in his goal. No, that wasn’t it.
No one can raise the dead. Not possible.
But seeing Sully’s body, his face, already beginning to rot…
…he couldn’t do it.
“What’s the matter, Jack, afraid?” Joel said.
“No. I just want to go home.” His anger had passed. In its place was…
…the voice of his grandmother.
(Me, Jacky. Here with you.)
“You want home, you’ll have to walk,” Joel said with sudden anger, “because I came here to do something and I’m not leaving until it’s done. Look, you knew what you were getting into when you got in this car tonight. I’ve been telling you all week.”
“I didn’t think you were serious,” Jack said. His head felt fuzzy again.
“What did you need, a signed affidavit?”
“I figured you were kidding. Only crazy people pull shit like this.”
Joel hit the brakes, nearly sending Kathy through the windshield.
“Jesus Christ,” she swore. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?”
Joel jumped out, flipped his seat forward and leaned into the back seat, his face six inches from Jack’s. “This time I’m serious, fisher boy. You want out? This is your chance.”
“Go, Jack. Or stay. The choice is yours. Just make up your mind. And fast. I don’t have all night.”
“Knock it off, Joel,” Kathy said. “He’s creeped out by this place. He’s not the only one.”
“You keep out of this. Which is it, Jack?”
Jack looked past Joel into the night, the darkness, so different here. The car had stopped moving, but that other sound was still out there, somewhere. Sweet Jesus, were things ever fucked up. If only he hadn’t smoked so much shit he could figure it out. As it was, his thoughts were one giant jumble of misfiring neurons.
Stay, and he would be helping to rob a grave. Robbing a fucking grave, for Christ’s sake. Sully’s grave, no less.
Leave, and he would never hear the end of it. Joel would paint him as a coward.
Leave, and he would have to walk back through… whatever it was that was out there.
That was what was so scary… whatever it was that was out there.
(So lonely, Jacky. So dark.)
It was completely irrational, the notion that there was something out there.
(Me, Jacky. Nanny. I’m here. But I’m not alone. Something horrible is here with me, too. You must go. Now, before it is too late.)
After so many joints, so real.
Jack tried to move his legs — just tried, to see what they would do — but they were paralyzed. Frozen.
“I take it you’re staying,” Joel said.
He hopped inside, slammed the door, and threw the car in gear.
Ahead of them, the indistinct shapes of tombstones emerged from the shadows. Here and there, where the Toyota’s headlights caught their polished marble surfaces, there were flashes of light. Joel slowed to a snail’s pace. He’d scouted the cemetery this morning, and he’d found Sully’s grave with little trouble. Nighttime was a different matter.
He remembered how close to trees the plot had been. That meant the perimeter road. He drove slowly to the end of the cemetery and took a left at the shed.
As he hunted, Kathy fished the roaches out of the ashtray, tamped them into a glass pipe she carried in her purse, and lit the bowl. She passed it back to Jack. He refused.
“I think that’s it.”
Joel did, too. He put the car in neutral and shone the glove-compartment flashlight on the stone, which bore Sully’s father’s name.
“We’re here.” Joel shut the car off, killed the headlights, and got out.
Before Kathy or Jack could respond, Joel went to the trunk and opened it. The shovels were on top.
He tossed them toward the tombstone. The kerosene lantern was next. He turned the wick up, lifted the globe, lit it, then placed it near the shovels. Its flame sputtered and flared, casting shadows in the wavering light.
Last was a cardboard box with a greasy towel draped over the top. Handling it carefully, he placed the box next to the lantern. Jack watched, hypnotized.
Because the box was rattling. Not enough that you’d notice it if you weren’t looking for something, but Jack was looking for something…
He swallowed, but it did nothing to drive the dryness from his mouth.
Joel took a shovel and passed it to Kathy.
“You’re crazy,” she said, refusing it.
She thought: How much longer can he keep this up? A joke’s a joke, but this is getting ridiculous.
Except it’s not a joke. Never been a joke, I see that now. Never been anything but deadly serious business. What we’re seeing is what we’re going to get…
A man possessed.
-- 30 --
This was the first novel I completed, although I had begun various others, abandoning them after a certain point when the magic had drained away and I was left with nothing but a bunch of words on the page (fellow writers, you KNOW what I mean). Originally titled “Sully,” “Drowned” came to fruition when I lived in Jamestown, Rhode Island, in the early 1980s.
Initially, I made no effort at publishing it. Possessed of what I thought was a better idea – what became my first published book, “Thunder Rise,” coming Day 5 in #33Stories – I tucked it into the old trunk and moved on. That’s part of this writing gig, always movin’ on.
Many years later, I hooked up with David Wilson, author and publisher of Crossroad Press.
Wonderful guy. He eventually published three collections of my short stories and three of my books, including a reprint of “Thunder Rise” and what became the final two volumes of the “Thunder Rise” anthology: “Drowned” and “Asylum.” Look for more later in #33Stories.
This is the introduction to “Drowned: A Different Kind of Zombie Tale” that appeared in the August 2015 publication by Crossroad Press:
You hold in your hands (or behold on your screen) the first novel I ever wrote. More accurately, the first I ever completed. You know how that goes. Thank you for being here! My gratitude, too, to David Wilson, David Dodd, and Crossroad Press. They are a class act.
As the subtitle reveals, "Drowned" is a zombie story, one written years before The Walking Dead and the numerous other living-dead books, stories, movies, and TV series that are so popular today — but which have a long, sometimes proud, literary tradition. Drowned belongs to a novelistic genre that dates back through Lovecraft to the early-19th nineteenth-century Shelley. Of course, the theme of people returning from the dead, or never dying, predates recorded history.
Here’s the story behind this zombie tale:
These many years ago, I completed Drowned, produced a hard copy from a printer, and put it aside without, as I recall, attempting to sell it. I finally was finding success in getting short stories published — nothing like publication to encourage a writer! — and I simultaneously was intent on penning Thunder Rise, the first book I sold, which had started to take shape in my mind as I was writing Drowned. Asylum and Summer Place, which round out the Thunder Rise trilogy, followed Thunder Rise. Crossroad Press has brought out editions of all three, including an audible version of Thunder Rise. Another tip of the hat to David and his team.
Drowned remained more or less forgotten (make that more) until, during one of my periodic attempts to reform my pack-rat ways (they always fail), I found a hard copy in a box buried beneath other boxes hidden behind old Christmas decorations and furniture in the attic of a house where I once lived. I began re-reading this novel that was originally titled "Sully" (a pretty bland name, I concluded, in deciding to change it). Time has a way of losing things on you, or at least locking them away (especially if you write incessantly, which I do, and have, since grammar school), and so the re-reading was, in many passages, like reading a new book.
A weird experience I’d never had before…
The bottom line is I liked it and deemed it worthy of publication, but (I’ll leave final judgment to you). Stylistically unpolished in a few spots, it had a nice cast of characters, an intriguing setting, some good plot points, and an effective narrative arc. Plus — again, you be the judge — an unusual twist on the time-honored zombie formula.
The thought of scanning or retyping was daunting, and I almost put "Drowned" back in its box — a reburial, as it were, one that likely would have had no chance of resurrection, if you’ll pardon the pun. Then, digging through various computer archives (a long, frustrating dig… yes, I’m a digital pack rat, too, and not always well organized, despite best intentions) I finally found Drowned and got to work. I cleaned up some rough spots and contemporized certain references (tape decks became iPods, for example, and VCRs got dumped in the dustbin of history, to paraphrase Trotsky). I made some word-choice changes (taking out a lot of adjectives and adverbs, an exercise Stephen King strongly recommends in his masterful On Writing). Importantly, I strengthened the connection to Thunder Rise.
But mostly, I let her stand.
An obvious question is: why was the sequel to the Thunder Rise trilogy written first? The answer: with Drowned, I first imagined the supernatural world of The Evil, of Hobbamock, the demon that Charlie Moonlight fights in Thunder Rise and the same malevolence that haunts a psychiatric hospital (Asylum) and a family vacation home (Summer Place) even after Charlie is victorious. As Pierre Antoine, the voodoo priest in Drowned, describes it:
The Evil, the source of all suffering, of all human sickness and misery and pain. Hobbamock, as it became personified on Thunder Rise.
So, enjoy the read! And always remember: never, ever mess with The Evil, as poor Joel White does in the pages ahead.