A decade ago, if you’d walked into a bookstore looking for a zombie novel, you would have found only two: Brian Keene’s The Rising and Joe McKinney’s Dead City. Long recognized as one of the driving voices that launched the world’s fascination with the living dead, Joe McKinney’s Dead World novels have emerged as seminal works in the Horror genre.
Now, collected for the first time in Dead World Resurrection, are all of Joe McKinney’s zombie short stories. The zombie has grown up since Joe McKinney first penned Dead City, yet he has continued to stand out among the throng of voices telling tales of the undead. Dead World Resurrection shows why.
Brian Keene, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Rising says Dead World Resurrection is “a merciless, fast-paced and genuinely scary read that will leave you absolutely breathless” and Weston Ochse, author of Empire of Salt, claims “McKinney writes zombies like he’s been gunning them down all his life.”
McKinney recently answered a few questions for THE BIG THRILL.
You’ve been at the forefront of keeping zombies alive for readers since before their rise in popularity. What propelled you to put together this collection now?
Routine clean-up of my Dropbox account, actually. I have a tendency to let files build up for a while before I get the bug to clean stuff up and organize. I was on one of those cleaning sprees about a year ago, getting miscellaneous files put into order, when I realized that I had written and published about a hundred and fifty thousand words worth of zombie short stories. That was enough for a book, a pretty fat book, actually, as far as single author story collections go, and so I started shopping it around. Christopher Payne at JournalStone got excited about the project right away, and the next thing you know, the collection was underway.
But it also made sense timing-wise. I’ve been a professional writer for ten years now, and the stories in this collection cover that entire decade. Ten years seemed like a nice round number, so I went ahead and pulled the trigger on the collection.
This collection links between several of your Dead World novels, but also gives us a glimpse into other terrifying post-apocalyptic worlds. Do you plan to expand these new worlds into other works?
That’s certainly possible. I have expanded short stories into novels in the past, as with my books Dodging Bullets and Quarantined, and it’s certainly possible that I could expand one of the stories in this collection into a full-fledged novel. But what will probably happen first is that these stories will get turned into graphic novels. I’m already in discussions with JournalStone’s new graphic novel division to make that happen, and things are moving along there faster than I expected.
Have you revised any of these previously published tales in the collection to surprise fans?
I laboured over that decision for a while before making up my mind to leave them as they were. I’ve learned quite a bit about my craft over the years, and some of these stories were written early in my development as a writer. But in rereading them, I felt good about the stories. They were raw and edgy, and even the earlier ones still glowed with the emotional energy that went into their creation. Once I realized that, I made the decision to keep them as is.
Are there any elements that connect these stories together to flow like a novel or embrace a theme?
Not in the sense of plot development or story arc. The beauty of the zombie story, for me anyway, is its great flexibility. A zombie story can be funny, like Shawn of the Dead, or a biting commentary on the way we live, like Shawn of the Dead, or even a profound homage to the power of love and friendship, again like Shawn of the Dead. The stories in Dead World: Resurrection cover a lot of emotional and thematic ground, everything from humor to political satire to love and loss and isolation. Some of these stories are deeply personal, such as “Bury My Heart at Marvin Gardens,” a farewell note to a friend who died too young, others are just for fun, like “Dating in Dead World,” while still others, like “Survivors” and “Ethical Solution,” gave me the chance to experiment within the context of the larger Dead World series, sort of like a proving ground for concepts I would later develop in the novels. So when I sat down to organize the collection, I had the choice to lump like stories together or to keep an emotional and thematic balance across the entire sweep of the book. I chose the latter simply because that’s what I like to read, which has been my guiding principle throughout my writing career: I write what I like, and either people like it or they don’t. So far, people seemed to have liked it.
You’ve had a long career in law enforcement. Did you ever find yourself cataloguing details in your head to write later as you investigated real-life scenes?
Oh yeah, that happens constantly. The thing is, my department has very specific rules about writing for publication. We are not allowed to write on incidents with which we’ve had a personal involvement, or on matters that have yet to be adjudicated. That may sound strict and unfair to those outside law enforcement, but it actually makes a lot of sense to my mind. Consider, for example, the detective who takes a statement from a victim who has just been raped. This poor woman lays out the most devastating moment of her life to a stranger. Why? Because there is an expectation of professionalism there. She knows that the case will one day end up in court, and that’s hard enough, but consider her feelings of betrayal should that detective turn around and slather her story, even half disguised as fiction, in some sleazy genre rag. That’s a level of trust I will never violate. My personal integrity, and the integrity of the badge I wear, means a whole hell of a lot more to me than eleven cents a word. Still, being a cop has informed my view of human nature, and I’ve seen things and done things that translate well into fiction without giving away the professional trust I spoke of earlier. So, yeah, the verisimilitude comes out, even if the story itself isn’t an accurate transcription of true events.
Have the life of a homicide detective and the life of a horror author ever collided in bizarre ways?
Oh yes, definitely. I once had an ADA ask me if I had a job besides being a cop. I equivocated, but she went on to ask if it wasn’t true that I was also an award winning horror author. Her intention, I think, was to bolster my credibility with the jury, as much of the case with which we were dealing hinged on my written reports. Unfortunately, one of the jurors turned out to be a fan of my books, and her reaction was enough to cause the judge to question her away from the rest of the court. The juror was dismissed, and a replacement found, and a conviction eventually returned, but the whole thing put me in a rather uncomfortable position ethically. I would have been sick to my stomach knowing that somebody said guilty just because they were a fan of my books and not because they thought the case had real merit.
You are a cop and write cop characters—so how much of yourself, and your job, creep into your stories? Do your characters ever face real-life moral dilemmas you may have faced?
I think every writer will tell you that all their characters are, in some way, at least, a component of themselves. I’m no different. I’ve recycled quite a few of my more challenging personal moments into fiction, as much for their value in developing character as for their therapeutic value to the author. I don’t know if I could specify exactly how much of me goes into my characters, and when I say that I’m talking about the ones that would seem to share nothing at all with my circumstances in life, but I suspect that even those characters who fall pretty far from the authorial tree carry get most of their stuff from some dark corner of my brain.
I will tell you that I have on one occasion pretty much copied out my life into fiction. Earlier this year I won the Bram Stoker Award for my Young Adult horror novel, Dog Days. The main character of that book is a young man named Mark Eckert. Now, one of my favourite writers of all time is Jack London, who did a little bit of everything in his life. He was an oyster pirate, a gold prospector, a boxer, an urban explorer, a labor leader, and of course a successful novelist. Just before he died he put all those things together into a thinly veiled autobiography called Martin Eden. And, just to make sure everybody knew it was an autobiographical story, he chose a character with the initials M.E., or me. It’s a clever trick, and one that I promised myself I would steal when I got the chance. Dog Days was that chance. That’s why Mark Eckert, who goes through a rather harrowing experience during the summer of 1983, has the initials M.E., or me.
You’ve been writing about the living dead for years. How have you seen zombies evolve in fiction since you penned your first novel and where do you see them headed in the future?
Well, originally, we had voodoo zombies, like in the films of Val Lewton and Bella Legosi’s White Zombie. For decades, that was all there was. And then, in 1968, we got George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and for the first time zombies were plain old unfocused, but highly aggressive, dead corpses. No longer were they under the control of a witch doctor. That meant a whole new range of metaphorical possibilities for storytellers, but it also signalled the demise of the voodoo zombie. That’s been the biggest change I’ve seen over the last few years. Some younger members of the audience don’t even know what voodoo zombies are, even though they claim to love zombie stories.
I’ve been to countless horror conventions over the years, and of course I always get stuck on the zombie panel. I remember once, while addressing an audience of about six hundred horror fans, I asked how many wanted to see voodoo zombies come back. I got nothing but crickets. I see that as a window of opportunity, though, rather than as something to lament. To my mind, that just means that the world is ripe for the next Serpent and the Rainbow. Once something on that level comes along, fans of the genre will probably realize they were in love with voodoo zombies all along.
Which do you love more—writing short stories or novels? And can we expect another collection any time soon that ties into your other novels?
Definitely short stories. I started writing because I love short stories so much, and to this day I still try to read at least one a day. But unfortunately you can’t make a living selling short stories, unless you’re Ray Bradbury, of course. So I keep myself to a pretty aggressive one to three novels a year schedule, and try to squeeze in a short story whenever I can. Those have built up over the years. In fact, I have enough stories stockpiled already to make my next collection of non-zombie short stories. I’ve decided to call that one Speculations because the stories in it come from just about every genre in speculative fiction. That one will be coming out in the summer of 2015.
What’s up next for you? More zombies or a new kind of horror—or something completely different?
Next up for me is a mummy story with a bit of romance thrown in called St. Rage. That one also comes out in the summer of 2015 from JournalStone Publishing. I’ll also be doing one more zombie book, a sequel to my latest novel, Plague of the Undead (Kensington, October 2014), and a fictionalized account of the life of the Texas Prohibition Era serial killer, Joe Ball. So, there’s lots of good stuff coming!
Joe McKinney has been a patrol officer for the San Antonio Police Department, a homicide detective, a disaster mitigation specialist, a patrol commander, and a successful novelist. His books include the four part Dead World series, Quarantined, Inheritance, Lost Girl of the Lake, The Savage Dead, Inheritance, Plague of the Undead, Crooked House and Dodging Bullets. His short fiction has been collected in The Red Empire and Other Stories and Dating in Dead World. In 2011, McKinney received the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel.
For more information, please visit his website.