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Dust - the Origins
It started with George Romero, but then it almost always does. Friday night, October sometime in the mid-1990s, and the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead was the only thing on television. I'd never seen it and had no particular interest in zombies, but the only alternative was my contracts law textbook so why not? And from the moment poor doomed Johnny solemnly intoned "They're coming to get you, Bar-buh-rah!", the movie had me, and it kept me, and the ending was a punch in the gut. The grainy black and white, the clumsy acting, the slapdash storyline and foolish self-destructive characters and almost nonexistent special effects weren't deterrents, they were the whole point. It all looked like ancient footage from some amateur documentary, and real people act foolish at the worst possible times. I never saw the remake, or any of the sequels: It wasn't the idea of zombies, themselves, that had me, it was that particular story. I didn't seek out any other.
Flash forward to 2003, and Carnival of Souls. More cheap black and white, shot on a shoestring in the middle of nowhere, and when Mary Henry's hand emerged from the depths of a Kansas lake long after she should have drowned they had me, again. Were those technically zombies, though, or were they ghosts? It had to be the former, for no ghost appears in the flesh as she did, walks among the living almost but not quite one of them, inspires their unwitting yet visceral disgust: They could, so to speak, smell the decay all inside her. That fascinated me, as did the titular carnival at the Saltair Pavilion. Zombies like to dance, it turns out, to eerie, calliope-style music that seems to come from nowhere. Interesting.
What George Romero started Herk Harvey finished, and I couldn't get zombies, themselves, out of my mind. They were ubiquitous, actually, when you started paying attention, but the more I learned about zombies and the popular imagination the duller and less satisfying it all was. Zombies, it turned out, were nothing but a joke. Talk funny. Walk funny. Ugly. Smelly. Filthy. Can't speak English right. Eat disgusting food. Spread disease. Mentally inferior. Lights on, nobody's home. They'll steal and devour everything you hold dear, including yourself. Shoot them. Kill them. Cleanse the earth of their kind. It's a moral imperative.
I was urged at every step, in this particular mythology, to ally myself with The Good Guy, the clean upright English-speaking human alpha male and his ragtag gun-toting buddies who were making the world safe for the One True Species, one bullet-riddled skull at a time. The hell with that. Zombies--actually, Jessie's absolutely right, let's dispense with that misappropriated West African word--the undead are nothing but people who died. Your mother, "Good" Guy, your spouse, your sibling, your child, your friend, your neighbor, you yourself, and what if you only think they're all monsters? What if dead people still have minds of their own, can laugh and fight and form friendships and love each other and grieve--and kill, as you do, for malice and sport as much as from hunger? What if the moans and groans you hear are an actual language? What if the undead have a "life" span, slowly aging and decaying and crumbling into dust just as inert bodies do in the coffin? What if the creature in your crosshairs still remembers you, loves you, can't plead for what you once were to each other before you pull the trigger?
(For that matter, what if your incredibly tedious guns don't even do the job? That's the first determination I made when I sat down to write Dust, that there would be no Deus Ex Firearms whatsoever. Fire itself, that'd work to kill them, but then fire has the disadvantage of spreading like, well, wildfire. As does bio-weaponry, but then we're getting ahead of ourselves.)
If Dust could be summed up in one sentence, it would be a lyric from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: "The history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat." It presupposes a world where the living dead are not some new aberration but have existed alongside the humans they once were for thousands of years, an uneasy harmony occasionally broken up by unfortunate incidents such as, say, the famous Pittsburgh Massacre of '68. Other elements came into play: the Greek myth of Erysichthon, which haunted me since I first read it as a child, about a man the gods punish for his hubris with a hunger so insatiable he ultimately devours...himself. Luc Sante's beautiful, unsentimental prose poem "The Unknown Soldier," in which the forgotten dead assert their right to speak for themselves. The eerie photographs and morbid newspaper clippings from Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip. The unsettling banjo music in the end credits of the cult horror film The Last Broadcast, which inspired the notion that the undead express their strongest emotions through telepathic music: "brain radios." That and eerie waltzes in Carnival of Souls inspired the spontaneous psychic dances, the only moments of true peace and harmony the undead ever enjoy.
Eating, in this world, is identity: The living eat dead meat. The dead eat meat so recently living that it's still warm and pulsing with life. The dead find the living's dietary habits as abominable, disgusting, taboo as the reverse. Every human alive, in our world as well as theirs, pins a far greater part of their self-image than they realize on what goes into their mouths. It was a joke then that Jessie, the fervent vegan in life, began a ravenous flesh-hunter in death, and yet it was also entirely to be expected.
Armed with the facts--such as they were--in September 2003 I jotted down a sparse page of disjointed notes: character names, story locales (the Calumet Region of northwest Indiana, besides being my easily accessible home geography, was both underserved in fiction and had enough urban-suburban-rural-industrial variety to make it interesting), a little folkloric rhyme the undead liked to sing amongst themselves but never made it into the book. The slang--"hoo" for humans, "rotter" and "feeder" and "bloater" and " 'maldie" for each other--also came early because it was fun to think up. Jessie simply walked in right at the start and announced herself, an angry, lonely girl abused in life, abandoned in death, yearning for love and acceptance but furious at the world. It was inevitable she'd take instantly to the jarring, aggressive, insatiably hungry culture of the undead, also inevitable that she'd write off her human family entirely only to have them return to be her undoing. Joe started as a parody, one of those "teen angel" hoods-with-a-heart-of-gold from the fifties pop songs who dies in a drag race gone wrong, and then he surprised me by showing himself as lonely and yearning as Jessie, if not more so, under the brutal surface. It was inevitable, again, that they'd both fall in love. Florian, a literal walking skeleton, was always meant to be the paterfamilias of Jessie's surrogate family, but I never expected him to turn out gentle, genuinely wise, the only true parent she ever really had.
Actually they all surprised me, as I worked little by little on draft one, draft two, draft three through 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007. Renee, the lamb thrown into a pit of snarling wolves, grew up amazingly fast and became not just Jessie's friend, but her ally. Linc--only kindhearted from Jessie's perspective, no human would want to run into him--was supposed to be merely Joe's foil, the "geek" to his "jock," but then quietly, stubbornly, relentlessly worked his way up from the margins of the story to the center. Teresa, the gang leader, was even more selfish and cruel that I'd imagined. (The rival gang the Rat Patrol were exactly as selfish and cruel as I'd imagined, so at least I had some control over the proceedings.) Lisa, Jessie's neurotic mess of a human sister, proved she could be there for Jessie in death as she never was in life. Jim, her brother, began as the most cardboard sort of villain, missing only a mustache to twirl, then I remembered that the truest antagonists are those who genuinely believe they're acting out of kindness and love. Only when Jim tried to "save" Jessie, did it become clear how much he--like all Good Guys--utterly feared and despised what she'd become. Death him/her/itself, the trickster, the demon, the angel, the destroyer, the salvager, was there from the beginning, though he didn't announce himself right away to me any more than to Jessie: Like any trusting parent, he first and foremost wanted to let his undead children try and fend for themselves.
Since the first inspiration for Dust was a pair of B-movies, other midnight drive-in fixtures seemed entirely appropriate: The meteor that causes extraterrestrial chaos upon landing. The semi-secret laboratory with "noble" purpose gone horribly wrong. The pandemic plague--but why just consider what would happen if the living became undead, why not consider what might happen if the undead were brought back to life? Untouchable life, even? What if Death the trickster, in his eagerness to consume the earth, thus ultimately ended up tricking himself?
It's all well and good to talk about Herk Harvey and banjos and falling meteors, but what truly inspired Dust was of course my own fear of death. There's another song, by the musician Exuma, that embodies it: "You won't go to heaven, you won't go to hell/You'll remain in your graves with the stench and the smell." What if the "afterlife" took place right on earth, and you rotted slowly, inexorably, feeling the first bugs nest and hatch on your body? What if you actually had to watch your loved ones grieving you, as Jessie and Renee both did, and be yards away and yet an eternity removed, unable now to be anything to them but a monster? What if pain, fear, longing, grief, the hungers of the body don't stop when life stops? What if Death isn't an angel of mercy, but a real live son of a bitch?
As it turns out, then, for me as for everyone else the undead were an embodiment of fear. But they surprised me, yet again, by becoming embodiments of hope as well. Life doesn't end after death, not really. To become something new, alien, unimagined, is not to lose oneself, one's identity and thoughts and needs and wants, they just express themselves a little differently. Nobody's lost to anyone forever; if there is no afterlife, there is at least the "eternity" of memory. To lose one family is to gain another. Betrayal by loved ones can lead to new, stronger bonds that are about real trust. Nearly everyone's stronger and more capable than they imagine, when put to the test. Flesh is just flesh and if it rots, well, that's only natural.
But that's all very Hallmark Hall of Fame and ultimately it was also about having some fun whistling in the graveyard. Dust was a chance to play with all sorts of notions of life and death: ordinary mortal existence, living consciousness trapped in dead decaying bodies, seemingly "live" flesh rotting and dying from the inside out, invulnerable immortality through the back door. As Jessie says, "How many kinds of living and dead and living dead and dead living had I been in just these few months, these few days, after the stasis of plain old human living and dying? I deserved some kind of existential medal." Tell me about it, it was hard to keep up. It also felt like finding the pulse of something real, and true, about life and death under all the campiness of traditional zombie mythology. Both the B-movie folklore and the insomniac anxieties inspired the book in equal measure, and both deserve their due. It starts with a silly story, some actors shuffling around sideways in worn-out clothes, and ends with real people, real fears, real hopes. But then, it almost always does.