Seeking publication in today’s advertisement saturated industry can be a bit like wandering into the zombie apocalypse: impossible odds, a sense of isolation, and at times it feels like everyone actually making it out there is in serious need of “braaaaaaaaaiiiiinssss.”
It’s an upstream swim without a doubt. But author Thom Carnell (who is a longtime contributor to both FANGORIA Magazine and the DREAD CENTRAL site as well as a once upon a time co-creator and writer for the much revered CARPE NOCTEM Magazine) is tackling both at the same time with his first novel, NO FLESH SHALL BE SPARED (review here). Fueled by zombie-bashing carnage, the novel was released in time for Halloween of 2010.
Carnell: It’s really a nod to my family. So much of what I do involves my wife, Catia, my son, Jhustin, and my daughter, Shae. I mean, they sit through the conceptual stage, the writing, the editing, the research… the doubt. They listen through the long hours of me talking about ideas to see if they make sense. For NFSBS, my son (who works in the gaming industry) was integral in formulating the dynamics of the matches, the timing, the layout of The Pit, the mechanics of how the game worked and the best way to make the presentation visually interesting. On one or more occasion, each of them has acted as stand-in for the laying out of the fight scenes. It was literally, “Stand here. Lift your arms up. Reach out for me. Try to grab me.” They made it possible for it to not only make sense in my head, but also that it made sense physically. Every punch, every kick, every dynamic was worked out and made plausible due to their involvement.
Now, my wife has always been much better than I am when it comes to grammar and punctuation and the mechanics of writing, so she reads everything in order to keep me honest in that respect. She’s also my barometer as to whether something is over the line or not. I’ve written things that I thought were absolutely hilarious, but she’s handed them back to me saying, “Dude… really?!? This is disgusting.” One story (called STIFFLICKER – ’nuff said, right?) in particular is so utterly offensive that I doubt it will ever be published. I mean, this thing makes A SERBIAN FILM look like THE ADVENTURE OF MILO AND OTIS. [laughs] One Beta Reader called it “a delightful little trip down the drain.” So, she keeps me grounded and stops me when I go too far afield (which happens a lot). She’ll also hand me back stories or articles with a gentle, “You weren’t feeling this.” I know that, while I thought it was ok when I first wrote it, my heart really wasn’t into it and the thing should be rewritten. I trust her judgment in such things because, if I were to left to my own devices, it could get ugly… really ugly.
So… given all of that, I thought it was only fair that I sort of share the writing credit with them even if only in this token way. There has been some confusion in the marketplace so we may change that to my given name just to make things clear, but… this is and will remain a group effort. I couldn’t do this without the help of my wife and kids.
DC: The zombie apocalypse theme is a pretty popular one, in a variety of media. Something about those dead people really grabs audiences. What drew you to that as a writer?
Carnell: The thread of logic is pretty evident when you take into consideration my background. I grew up as a huge fan of horror films and particularly a guy named Bob Wilkins and his CREATURE FEATURES show which aired on KTVU Channel 2 from 1971 to 1978. Bob was a HUGE influence on me at a time when I was ripe for the influencing. I had the chance to interview Bob before he died and I am grateful that I got the chance to tell him how important he was to me. I told him that he was “more of a father to me than my own had been” (since my dad left us early on). I’m sure Bob thought I was being kind or hyperbolic… I wasn’t though. I was actually being very serious. Bob showed me that it was ok to be a horror fan and not be a weirdo like say, The Ghoul or Ghoulardi or most of the ‘schticky’ horror hosts of the day. I also read a lot of horror novels from a very early age. When I was young, there was no such thing as Young Adult horror or GOOSEBUMPS or whatever. I read a lot of classic adult writing even as a child like Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Shirley Jackson, Bradbury, Bloch, Matheson… Then, Stephen King came along and rocked my teenage world. Then, Barker… Then, people like Skipp & Spector, Stewart O’Nan, Brian Hodge, David Schow, Edward Lee… and, most importantly, Joe R. Lansdale. To this day, I am a rabid Lansdale fan. Hey-soos, can that man write. He can scare the shit out of you and make you laugh all at the same time. Just amazing! So that was the horror piece of the puzzle.
DC: Any other influences?
Carnell: I started studying martial arts, military strategy, and Eastern philosophy when I was in my teens and that helped me understand the dynamics of physical altercations. Then, during the Eighties, I worked as a Jazz/New Age/Soundtrack buyer for Tower Records for a long time and after I got married and had kids, I left that job to attend the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. That was something that affected me in a huge way and why certain chapters in the book like “Graveyard Shift” ring as true as they do. I went from a guy who was working at a record store, playing music, and generally just having a good time to someone who now was in a very extensive and concentrated field of study in which I had my nose rubbed into my own mortality each and every day. I mean, the classes there were intense and really concentrated. It was basically a two or three year course of study distilled down to a year. Yeah… very tough. While in school, I kept my job at Tower, but also worked in “Guest Relations” (aka bouncer) at a nightclub for a while. That experience gave me insight into “The Monkey Dance,” the foreplay for violence. You know… the chest poking and bravura leading up to two people throwin’ down. I was what they called “The Mouthpiece.” I did the talking (cutting someone off, telling them to settle down, telling them they had to leave) while four or five HUGE Samoan guys would stand near me as “motivators.” It was fun, especially when word got out I spent my days around dead people. The whole thing helped me understand the whys and wherefores of fighting, the inherent posturing and silliness of it all. Now, if you follow the bread crumbs, you have horror films and books, then martial arts, then music, and finally the whole funeral thing. Throw that all into a blender and NO FLESH SHALL BE SPARED is your result.
DC: Tell me about mortuary school.
Carnell: I graduated from The San Francisco College of Mortuary Science in 1991 with credentials as a Funeral Arranger/Director, an Embalmer, and a Certified Eye Enucleist (I’m licensed to remove dead people’s eyeballs for cornea transplants). I worked in the field on and off for about ten years and had some amazing experiences – both good and bad. I met some really inspirational people along the way and had the honor of serving a bunch of very nice families. During my time in that field, I saw some moments that will stay with me forever, moments of what I call “shimmering beauty” that touched me in a very deep way. I also sort of came to terms with a lot of stuff (Life, Death, Loss, Grief, etc) that I would never have if I hadn’t been in that field. I finally left due to… “philosophical differences” between me and the people I worked for. Basically, I felt that I was doing the job to help people at a time of their most significant need, to bring order out of chaos, if you will. My employers on the other hand… were business people. They wanted to make money, plain and simple. One day, I was called into the manager’s office and chastised for not “selling up” on a casket sale. In other words, instead of selling the person what they needed, I was supposed to sell them – at a minimum – a unit that was one level higher in price. I left the job a day or two later. But… I’m compelled to say that most of the people who are out there doing that gig, the ones who are doing it for all the right reasons, are amazing people. Truly exemplary human beings.
DC: During the writing, did you ever feel that you had to bring something new to the table?
Carnell: I’ll be honest… I love the genre and I have a great affinity for zombies, but… I’ve grown so tired of how every zombie movie and every zombie book is about the same damn thing. All they seem to want to talk about is what I call the ‘NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD scenario.’ No one seems to want to talk about what happens next. I mean, if the walking dead didn’t wipe out humanity and we were able to get a handle on things, bring them back under control, how would we as people deal with the idea that it was now a given that when someone died they were going to get back up? It’s like most writers just sort of gave up and figured that we were all cooked if it were to happen. I never thought that. In fact, read Jonathan Mayberry’s ZOMBIE CSU and you’ll see that the odds of the zombies winning are actually pretty slim. Hell, even in Max Brooks’ great book, WORLD WAR Z, Mankind ends up getting things back under control. So, the idea that when the dead rise, humankind was fucked never sat well with me. Now, that said, when I sat down to write the book, well… First off, I never started out to write a book. NO FLESH started out as a 2,000 word short story. [laughs] Yeah, I know… the book’s final word count is somewhere around 160,000 words. So, sue me… I’m an over-achiever. Now, at the time I was outlining the short story, I looked at what was popular with people and two things seemed to be just off the horizon: zombies and fighting. Luckily, they were well within my wheelhouse. From where I stood, no one had really put the two of them together before. As time went on, I did have two instances where I got a little nervous about that… and this was when I was beyond the point of no return in the writing. One was in Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD where they toss Asia Argento into a makeshift pen. Then, there’s a zombie wrestling scene or two in Sakichi Sato’s movie, TOKYO ZOMBIE. I saw those and I gotta admit, I panicked a little. But by then I was well into the writing and realized that what I was doing was different, more character based.
Anyway… I started out with this simple idea and the story kept poking me in the chest saying, ‘What about this? What about this?’ All of this meant one thing: rewrites and lots of ’em. More ideas popped up and then I’d turn around and there was this new character staring at me, demanding my attention. Rewrite. Then, the idea of ‘Well, what about these new characters? Who are they? What is their background? What happened to them during those first few months?’ So… rewrite. Then, after I had the idea of the televised fights, I thought well who would be running these things? Who was behind this corporation? What’s their deal? Yep, you guessed it… rewrite. So many passes were made through the narrative until I finally had the finished book. I do think that the world that’s been created is still a fertile one and I’ve in fact outlined two sequels. I’ll start on the first one once I finish the release of this one.
DC: Explain the use of the “Before…” chapters.
Carnell: Those were a way to give each character’s back-story without them getting in the way of Cleese’s tale and the story of his involvement in The League. It made it possible to step back for a moment, to allow the reader to cleanse their palette, give some background on the people in the story, and to have poignant moments in which we learn where each character came from. In some instances, it showed how much further along their road they were. In other cases, it showed how different the people were, how the rising of the dead affected them, how it all changed their lives. The inclusion of those chapters was a way to give specific character’s history without falling victim to too much blatant exposition. ‘Well, back in the day, I was a ____ and that’s why I’m so good with ____,’ y’know? That shit gets tedious and is far too much ‘telling’ rather than any ‘showing.’ The “Before…” chapters sort of make the book both a novel and a short story collection all in one. Plus… like I say… it allowed me to slow the pace down (sort of) and flex some muscles that were less ‘action’ and more ‘horror.’
DC: What kind of research did you do? There’s a lot of martial arts and weapons knowledge on display in the book.
Carnell: The anatomy and funeral stuff was a given. After mortuary college and working as a funeral director and embalmer I had that pretty knocked. I mean, I’ve assisted on autopsies. I’ve embalmed literally thousands of people. Believe me… I have a pretty good understanding of the human body. The martial arts was something, like I’ve said, that I’d also studied for a long time. Over the years, there’s been Aikido training, Muay Thai, Krav Maga, Kendo, Iado, Kenjutsu… a bunch of other stuff. Plus, I’ve read virtually every major and many minor classics of martial arts literature. My library of that stuff is pretty extensive and, I’m told, a bit scary. The weapons info came from a mountain of research and finding the right people with very specific bodies of knowledge. Most of the other research was an ungodly amount of movies – Asian cinema, westerns, horror films of all kinds. I literally watch two to three movies a day and have since I was a kid. Lately, I’ve been reviewing everything I see on my Facebook page and, believe me, it gets crazy sometimes.
DC: One of my English teachers told me that, ‘If you’re writing a scene that shocks even yourself, it’s effective.’ Did you have any moments like that writing NO FLESH, where you just couldn’t believe what you were putting on paper?
Carnell: I get those all of the time. There are moments in the book – the opening chapter, the church scene, some of the fights – where I laughed my ass off, which is my reaction when I think of something that is either really working or so over the line that it seems ridiculous. And when I do that, you know it’s going to be crazy. But that’s the great thing about the horror genre… shocking scenes are de rigueur. They are the stock and trade of this type of storytelling. Now, that said, shock for shock’s sake is an empty trick. It’s an easy “get.” In the end, there has to be a solid and compelling story behind all the Grand Guignol. I mean, without a strong story, this kind of thing can become silly and distasteful. I think that’s why the recent rash of “torture porn” films have died on the vine. It’s all sizzle, but not steak. Think of it this way… a book or movie or whatever… is like a house and the Story is the foundation of that house. And you can have really nifty faucets and doorknobs in the house, but if its foundation is rickety, then your house is going to come down around your ears. It’s especially true when you’re talking about a horror story. You’re already asking your audience to suspend their disbelief in a big way. ‘Ok, dude… vampires are real.’ That alone is a pretty big pill to swallow.
The mistake a lot of storytellers make these days is they think that a creature that rises from the grave and sucks the blood of the living ISN’T ENOUGH. So, they load the narrative up with all this other stuff that weighs the story down and makes it completely silly. My philosophy is this… take your basic tale – boy meets girl, the hero’s journey, whatever – and add your supernatural element to it. Then, back the fuck off. From that moment on everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – must ring true. From characterizations to motivations to the basic physics of the scenes HAS TO be true to life. Don’t add extra nonsense to ‘make things more interesting.’ Stick with what you’ve developed and once you’ve set your interior logic in stone, adhere to it like it’s the very Law of Gravity. Don’t get cute with it. The problem is that there are a few writers out there who continually play fast and loose with the laws of their own mythos and the basic rules of storytelling that audiences have come to think that breaking those rules equates to good reading (or viewing or whatever). The rules have been broken so many times and so egregiously that people now think that is the way it must be done. It’s why utter shit like TWILIGHT and the rest of the vampire rehashes that are being strewn across the television landscape make me ill. Then, when fans do get their hands on something of substance like say an August Derleth or Matheson or Bloch novel or what have you, they think, ‘Wait a second… where’s the pizzazz? Where’s the window dressing?’ It’s bullshit and genre fans should know enough about their history to realize when they’re being tricked. I mean… ‘shimmering vampires who walk by day’… werewolves that transform into beasts mid-leap… Shut the fuck up already… Horror fans deserve better.
As far as those writers who are entering the zombie-lit genre, they too should know their history. I mean, if you don’t know who Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur are… and you don’t know who Jorge Grau is… and if you can’t tell me the significance of John Skipp and Craig Spector… then maybe you’re stepping out onto the wrong playing field and maybe you should find another one – one that you do understand – to play on.
DC: So, now that the book is done and becoming available, what’s next for you?
Carnell: I’ll be doing some promotional appearances, signing some books, doing a reading or two. I’m scheduled to attend a few conventions across the country to moderate panels. I’m gonna pop in on Sean Smithson’s FILM SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL U.S. in the Seattle area now and then. I’m talking about collaborating with some very talented people who I’ve long been a fan of. I’m also available for radio, television, and media talks (and you can contact me for bookings via my publisher’s web site ). I’ll also continue writing for both DREAD CENTRAL and FANGORIA for as long as they’ll let me. I love working for those guys and I owe so much to people like Tony Timpone, Michael Gingold, and Chris Alexander at FANGORIA as well as Uncle Creepy here at DREAD CENTRAL. I still get really excited whenever I see my name in a byline at both of those places. It’s an honor to be included with men like that. And finally, I’m pulling together a script based on the book as well as gearing up to, like I said, lock myself away to write the sequel. The next one is a LOT more action oriented (if that’s possible) and the plan is to spend the first few chapters reconnecting with the characters who didn’t die in the first one) and then tear off the training wheels and kick some ass.
DC: Where can people get a copy of the book?
Carnell: The most direct way is to go to the publisher’s, Zed Presents… website. They’re doing some cool specials there like signed books and tee-shirts and they’re really fast and dependable. The book is also available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
DC: Are there plans for the book to be released as either an eBook or an audiobook? Did you just say something about a script?
Carnell: As a matter of fact… Crossroad Press has just released the novel as an eBook and that’s available for Kindle, Nook, and other eReaders. You can get one at the Crossroad Press’ site or via Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s site. As for an audiobook, there’s been a bit of talk about doing one and I’m really excited about the possibility. Given enough fan interest, I think that may happen sometime soon. And yes, there have been some discussions with some film people about bringing the story to screen, but… that idea just blows my mind and I don’t want to jinx any of that by talking too much about it. But yeah… this is an exciting time for us and it should only get better and better. So, stay tuned…
Be sure to visit Carnell online!
– CK Burch
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