Sunday, December 11, 2011

'Dying To Live' Book Review and Interview with Author Kim Paffenroth

Bram Stoker Award-winner Kim Paffenroth has written "Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth" "Dying to Live: A Novel of Life Among the Undead",  "Dying to Live: Life Sentence", "Dying to Live: Last Rites", and edited the zombie anthology "History is Dead", that was recently was nominated for the Black Quill Award for Best Dark Genre Fiction. 

"Dying to Live" by Kim Paffenroth is the thinking man's zombie book. By that I mean, everything that was written, everything that happens to the characters had a lot of thought put into it. Paffenroth took the time to research, and it shows.

A lot of zombie books I have come across do several things:

  1. Treat zombies only as unholy monstrosities that must be eliminated at all costs- instead of dangerous, unthinking, dead people driven only by instinct.
  2. Gloss over technicalities or avoid doing any sort of background research about the subjects they are covering
  3. Have flat two dimensional characters that have no empathy for the plight of the dead or each other
  4. Have the army or any sort of military be an unwavering evil organization run by incompetent or heartless jerks (Correct me if I'm wrong but, I'm fairly certain you have to take a psych test/evaluation to join the Army, and if you come off as too eager to kill your fellow man, you aren't accepted. This reason, amongst others, is why I hate, HATE, the cliche that all Army men are sick bastards out to kill people and take their stuff or their women like in "28 Days Later.")
"Dying to Live" avoids all of the above and brings to the genre some pretty serious topics.

Seeing as how Kim Paffenroth is a Professor of Religious Studies at Iona College, I was not surprised to find discussions about God appear in the text. What's refreshing is that the subject of religion is not forced on the reader, as some writers have a tendency to be heavy handed with it.

But don't think that just because the book tackles religion that it's a soft take on the zombie genre. Paffenroth does not shy away from gruesome scenes of bloodshed, gore, and violence. There are some pretty shocking and violent stories that are exchanged between the human survivors, and some were more extreme than I was anticipating. And that's a good thing.

The violence is used to show the differences between the thoughtless atrocities committed by the zombies and those committed by human beings upon each other. Truly, the scariest monsters in Creation are not the undead, but ourselves. The darker sides of humanity are used to contrast the positive things we can accomplish and makes them all the more significant.

The main character and narrator of the story, Jonah Caine, goes on a journey of faith, from being a cynical doubter to a believer by the end of the book. And I don't blame him any. I think a lot of people would begin to have a crisis of faith after suffering through the monstrosities of a zombie apocalypse. Although he never brags about it, Jonah is a very strong and intelligent man that through sheer perseverance and stubbornness manages to wander the wastelands alone and survive long enough to come across a group of people that take him in.

Jonah is one of the deepest philosophical thinkers I have ever come across in a zombie apocalypse setting. His character is likable, sympathetic, and very human. While he is used to fighting, he doesn't allow it to turn him into a violent person and retains enough of his sanity to be very rational and caring. Even when push comes to shove and he winds up in a very dark place, he manages to pull through. And it's his experiences of the evils of mankind, not the horrors of the undead, that brings him closer to God.

I was pleasantly surprised by the discussions of philosophy, literature and sociology that the characters have, and by the fact that a good number of them were intelligent people with good, solid moral compasses.

Even Jack, the hardcore soldier and leader of the group at the museum that takes Jonah in, has a good side that balances out his need to place everything in logical, pragmatic order. His approval and encouragement of people having children is driven, subconsciously, by his desire to father a child and prove his virility and strength to the group. His unwavering optimism is partly for group morale, and partly because of his good nature. Yes, he is a soldier, but he became one to protect people, not because he is a sadist or sociopath. Throughout the novel, he continues to protect people. Even when he accidentally leads them into harm's way, he takes responsibility for it and figures out a way to save them.

The character Milton embodies both sides of the war; he is both a thinking, living creature and a zombie. The reason he has the abilities that he does, and why people treat him the way they do, is quite an interesting one. Milton, being well read , realizes that even though they are dangerous and unable to think, they are still people. Dead people, but people all the same.

The climax of the story has parallels to biblical figures and the events that unfold are full of symbolism and meaning. I especially liked when Milton (with his zombie repelling presence) parted the zombie horde like Moses at the Red Sea. Seeing such a parallel during a very intense scene, right after Jonah decided that there is a God, and that he does answer your prayers, is not only appropriate, but great story telling.

Paffenroth's novel is a refreshing, intellectual take on the zombie genre that has a lot of thought and weight behind it to make you think. The characters actions/reactions are believable and they feel like real people. I rather liked that Jonah was a "common man" character, and not some insane cold-hearted Rambo out to obliterate the living dead. Overall, I really enjoyed "Dying to Live" and highly recommend it. 

Dr. Paffenroth, how did you find yourself interesting in writing horror?

I've always been interested in relating my ideas about religion to trends in popular culture. And a few years ago, I started seeing a lot of books that were working on similar themes - looking at the religious or spiritual meaning behind popular phenomena like Star Wars and The Simpsons. I noticed those books right about the same time I saw the Dawn of the Dead remake in theaters, and the two clicked in my mind, that zombies could be the pop culture phenomenon I would examine. It's worked out well.

Your ethical approach to how zombies are treated is very different than what a lot of people do with the zombie genre. Why did you decide to tackle zombies?

Well, there was the coincidence I mentioned above, but more broadly, I think zombies are good stand ins for all that ails us, spiritually. They're just degenerated humans - people who lack control or reason and are reduced to just their appetites. That makes them loathsome in a very ordinary but understandable and relatable way. It makes them ideal for contemplating human nature as well.

Every other single sub-plot comes to a satisfying conclusion, save for one: we have no idea what happened to the boy they found in the theater nicknamed Popcorn. It took me a while to warm up to the wild child, but after all the things he endured, I came to care about him. It disappointed me to find that after all the traumatic things that happened to Popcorn we have no idea how he dealt with being tortured and abused as he was. How does Popcorn turn out? Does it change him into a darker more violent person? Or, because he has so much grit and fight in him, does surviving such atrocities make him stronger as a person that is more thankful for the kindness of others?

You know, I really wondered about that as I contemplated the sequels to the first volume. And if anything, at first, I was leaning toward having him as a darker, more troubled character than he turned out. I think it makes it more interesting if people who haven't gone through that much trauma, turn out to be more selfish and violent, than someone who's been through a legitimately dehumanizing experience; it really demonstrates that we're not determined by outside effects on us, but by our reactions and decisions.

Also, he is quite close with Tanya, who is a mother figure to him. What are his reactions to the fact that Jonah fathers a child with her? He didn't seem to care for Jonah before. Do the events that happen in the prison improve Popcorn's opinion of him or cause more complications?

There's a moment in the second novel when Jonah is willing to sacrifice himself for the boy (now a man in that volume) and it bespeaks a commitment they have to one another. But the boy is something of a loner until volume two and three, and the people to whom he does show affection are what most of us would call odd choices. But then, love isn't only a choice.

I always joke that Jesus is a zombie, seeing as how he rose from the dead and all, and in some ways Lazarus has his place beside him. What really interested me is that you decided to go not only with the Jesus parallel, but Moses as well for Milton's character. Milton went from a character that people rallied around for protection, to a shepherd of the undead. How did you come up with such an interesting, and unlikely messiah for mankind?

I wanted him to be sort of "in process" (and therefore I like your Moses suggestion, since Moses doesn't always seem to know what he's doing and kind of makes it up as he goes) - he means well, he has a little bit of a power, but it's not enough to save everyone, so he kind of fumbles around until he finds his real calling at the end.

I've come across the idea of zombie Moses in one of Romero's films, "Land of the Dead" but it was handled so awkwardly and without the grace that you wrote Milton that the character called Big Daddy from the movie comes off as a mocking parody. Did that movie influence your writing in any way?

More and more as I went - the idea of smart(ish) zombies has fascinated me since Bub in Day of the Dead. And the image of what a depraved, exploitative society would look like keeps coming up in my later books - whether they're rogue military units (like in Day of the Dead, and Diary of the Dead) or a full blown city that exploits the undead and the "lower" classes of the living (as in Land of the Dead). I'm always interested when the living are the real villains.

While it was only mentioned a few times, Milton was treated as a Messiah with special powers that could help protect people against zombies. Some of his abilities reminded me of holy magic from fantasy stories, such as the ability to turn the undead. Did you ever consider that perhaps a figure such as himself could cause people to form a sort of cult or treat him like a saint?

He complains of getting too much attention and even superstition, but I wanted him to be ordinary enough (and ineffectual enough) that no one would mistake him for anything more than he is. I mean, my characters can be heroic, I hope, but they're not superheroes.

It's clear that Milton's disease is different from the vast majority of the zombies. Did you ever have in mind what, exactly drove them away from his presence? Was he really touched by God in some way or, as the scientist (Milton himself) believes, it's just the difference in diseases that repels them?

Well, that's the interpretive challenge for all believers in the modern world, I think: most everything around us has a "scientific" explanation, but some of us are still left wondering if some higher power is behind (or above) even the rational, scientific explanation. I'd like to see more Christians opt for that sense of wonder and awe, rather than insisting that phenomena like the development and evolution of life must have ONLY a divine, supernatural explanation (that flies in the face of known facts, and reasonable, well-supported scientific inferences).

The horror of being trapped in a body that is slowly rotting away doesn't appear to scare Milton. Is it the fact that he is so focused on helping others survive that keeps him going in spite of what is happening to him?

Yes, I think having a purpose can make us overlook and overcome a lot of physical infirmity (and lacking a purpose can make us feel depressed and lethargic, even if our bodies are in good working order).

I found the fact that there were certain social conventions that no longer held meaning for the survivors, whereas others, such as democracy or socialism (working and/or contributing all you scavenged for the survival of the group) were strongly upheld. Do you think that if (heaven forbid) such a catastrophe happened, that many people would be capable of banding together to survive and manage to discard their old prejudices in the face of such adversity?

Well, when you're first running from a horde of zombies, then yes, I think that will override all our other base prejudices. The challenge will come, I think, if the group tries to survive and grow long term. What will they value, or pass on? How will they adjudicate disputes? We're already seeing a lot of that in the Walking Dead series, and I think they're doing a great job of showing the intra-group tensions and hostilities.

It's clear where classical literature has its influence on the novel, such as Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Shakespeare, but I couldn't quite pin-point the influence of Moby Dick on the story-- probably because it's the only one that I have yet to read. Could you tell us what parallels or images from Moby-Dick are in "Dying to Live"?

Hmm, did I claim that as an explicit influence for that volume? It's looming large in my current work, but for the first novel, I don't think I had it specifically in mind, except for the very general atmosphere of a novel about theodicy, and for the image of our protagonists descending into the belly of the beast (hence the Jonah reference in D2L and Moby-Dick).

Do you have any upcoming novels that fans should look for in the future?

My first non-zombie novel, "Closes at Dusk", will be out soon from Belfire Press. It's a contemporary ghost story, so it's sort of at the opposite extreme from a zombie apocalypse. And I'm currently writing another zombie novel that is very consciously modeled on Moby-Dick - though please don't think just of "zombie whales"! It's really about a band of survivors who become increasingly obsessed with pursuing some elusive smart zombies and what they find out in the ruins of the previous human civilization.

You can buy your own copy of "Dying to Live" here

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