The day before I wrote this article, I started reading a zombie novel called “Dead of Night” by Jonathan Maberry. The really interesting thing about it is that it has so much more personality than another Maberry novel I’d read a week or two earlier called “Patient Zero“.
Whilst both novels feature zombies and ex-military protagonists (Joe Ledger and Desdemona Fox), one is a fairly standard military action-thriller novel with zombies in it and the other is this utterly glorious and unique low-budget grindhouse film of a novel 🙂
So, naturally, this made me think about ways to make zombie stories really stand out from the crowd.
1) Characters and/or settings: A really good zombie story often tends to be just as much (or more) about characters and settings than about shambling hordes of the undead.
The best zombie stories will often have an intriguingly unusual setting and an assortment of eccentric or unusual characters. Not only does this set the story apart from the crowd, but it also provides something other than zombies to hold the reader’s interest too. In addition to this, it evokes extra curiosity in the reader too.
An excellent example of this is probably Weston Ochse’s “Empire Of Salt“. This is a novel that is set in a run-down 1950s/60s-style resort town in the US. The sea beside the town has turned stagnant and the only people left in the town are a fairly eccentric group of people who either like the town enough to stay and/or who can’t afford to move. As such, this novel is incredibly atmospheric and fascinating even before the zombies really show up.
Likewise, another zombie novel called “Double Dead” by Chuck Wendig is fairly notable/memorable for the simple reason that the main character is a vampire who is accidentally awoken from a blood-deprived coma by the events of a zombie apocalypse. Although the novel contains fairly standard post-apocalyptic settings, the interesting choice of protagonist really helps to keep this novel notable and memorable.
Then there’s Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” – although this is technically a vampire novel (it contains “vampires” who act and look like zombies), it’s a really notable zombie story for the simple reason that it’s set in a rural part of 1980s Britain. Given how the zombie genre often tends to focus on the US, seeing an older version of rural Britain in a zombie story really makes this novel stand out 🙂
Then there are novels like Alison Littlewood’s “Zombie Apocalypse! Acapulcalypse Now” (which is set in Mexico) or Toby Venables’ “Viking Dead” (which is set in Viking-era Scandinavia). All of these novels are about a million miles away from the standard American cities, shopping centres etc… typically found in the zombie genre.
So, yes, intriguing characters and/or settings are one of the best ways to make your zombie story really stand out from the crowd.
2) Narration: One of the major things that helps a zombie novel to stand out from the crowd is the narration.
In other words, you need to make sure that your zombie story has a unique and interesting narrative voice. Whether your story is using first or third person narration, your story needs to have the kind of narration that your reader will want to read for the fun of it rather than just as a functional way to learn what happens next.
A good contrasting example of this can be found in the two Jonathan Maberry novels I mentioned earlier. In “Patient Zero”, most of the narration is fairly standard modern thriller novel narration – it’s fast-paced and it’s very readable, but it doesn’t really stand out from the crowd that much. It isn’t that different from what you’d see in a modern Lee Child, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown etc.. novel.
On the other hand, Maberry’s “Dead Of Night” has a much more unique style of narration – which often playfully combines more formal descriptions and the kind of informal, irreverent and comedic narration that makes you feel a little bit rebellious when you read it. This gives the story the atmosphere of a more high-brow novel, whilst also giving it the “edgy” personality of something like a Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez film 🙂
Although “Patient Zero” possibly contains more large-scale drama than “Dead Of Night”, “Dead Of Night” is a lot more fun to read for the simple reason that the narration is a lot more interesting and unique. So, yes, unique narration matters a lot when it comes to making your zombie story stand out from the crowd.
3) The zombies matter less than you might think: Yes, you should be creative with the zombies in your story. But, the zombies themselves matter a lot less than you might think. Likewise, the reasons for your story’s zombie apocalypse don’t matter that much either.
What matters most is how the zombies are presented. Do they symbolise something? Are they there to add suspense? Are they just cannon fodder for action heroes? Are they lurking in the shadows or charging through the streets? Are they powerful? Are they weak?
Zombies are zombies. The stories that really stand out will get around this limitation by presenting the zombies in an interesting way. For example, in Weston Ochse’s “Empire Of Salt”, the zombies are a hidden threat that constantly lurks out of sight in the shadows. They’re Lovecraftian monsters of the deep. They’re 1950s-style horror comic monsters….
I could go on but, although they’re basically just the same undead monsters that we all know and love, they’re a lot more interesting and distinctive than usual for the simple reason that they are presented to the reader in a different way than usual.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂