When it comes to monsters, tropes and traditions make me itch. True, they are an easy and comforting platform for building a more elaborate idea. The established audience is also there with you, and usually thrilled with a new take on an old idea. I try to avoid tropes, which I do for various reasons (playing “Dig Me!” being the main one).
Artist and editor friends of mine say that I write really cool monsters. The editors I send stories to usually respond with “neat idea” or somesuch, even if they don’t buy the story.
How does one write a good monster? Here’s one way that I do it.
Find a trope and take it apart. Zombies = consuming humans + implacable + dead. This is what they mean to me; you may have your own thoughts.
I did a zombie story for “Tattered Souls” anthology from Cutting Block Press, where the zombificator was an injectable polymer that could be programmed to maintain one’s health through home computers. When the internet achieves sentience, it brings everyone along for the ride and never lets go after death. Yay me; not a bad idea.
But the “consuming” part was taken one step further, in that anyone infected had their RNA sequences accessed by the polymer. Their personal memories were experienced through halucinations by those others who were infected, making an even greater hive-mind. The protagonist had visions of his mother’s life from his mom’s point-of-view.
Awkwar-r-r-r-rd for that guy.
We know the history of movie zombies, from boring black-magic robots, to shambling carnivores, to running hungry dimwits.
Let’s take it one step further. How? We can look at existing limitations and figure out ways to circumvent them.
Zombies rot. Their soft tissues go first, which means brains and all sensory organs. Then rigor sets in which stiffens muscles. Then in about two weeks time, the muscles have decayed and fallen away.
It’s assumed that the zombifying agent delays the rot, replaces the neurons, keeps the muscles in working order, and acts as a metabolism in lieu of digestion. While infecting others with 100% mortality and efficacy.
This is why I’ve never gotten into zombies. They could be much more real than this.
Here are ideas just to circumvent these obstacles:
A dormancy period after infection.
Infected organs, such as someone is alive with a zombie digestive tract.
A recurring condition which arises during stress, requiring medication (“Ask your doctor about Vivify…”)
“But I want my zombahs dead! And running around! And biting!”
Okay, then what moves the zombies? It’s not the Krebs Cycle. It’s not technology. That guy at the CDC on “The Walking Dead” said it wasn’t a bacteria, virus, or even a prion.
That removes any three-or-four-dimensional motivator.
See what I did there? We’re going super-sciency!
A being with a fifth dimensional presence could reach within the zombies and motivate them from theoretically any distance, even from a parallel plane or existence. The only requirement: that being would have to have its remaining four dimensions living somewhere. Anywhere. And it would look like anything.
Would that being be taking the nourishment of living human flesh from the stomachs of the zombies, conveyed through some fifth dimensional means? Would that means be severed when the zombie is killed?
Now we’ve got an ultradimensional creature with millions of mouths roaming the countryside.
Why even have the zombies at all? Why not have a bunch of gaping maws just appear in your neighborhood attacking people?
That would be a twist.
Or to motivate your zombies, we could go to the more recent handwavium solution, Quantum Entanglement. Someone bitten by a zombie has his atoms slowly entangled with some supermassive, hyperkinetic energy source. These zombies would be biting, running, fidgeting-vibrating-smoldering-exploding zombies. And the victim would still be conscious of his splodey fate.
So now we’ve got an ultradimensional zombie queen, roaming jaws or masticators (kinda like that Russian movie with the glowing Thread bursting people, except it would be cool), and people infused with UltraMeth.
All by reducing around tropes. I feel we all benefit if we work a little harder at an idea, because we can help someone else get an even better idea.
Here is a recommended reading: “Fortean Times” magazine presents weird stuff with enthusiasm, depth, and skepticism.
Now, others do the same trope rearrangement, obviously. “True Blood” took “blood” and “infection” seriously and made vampirism into an alt-sexual community. “Twilight” took “eternal” and “biblical” and turned vampires into a Jesus Youth Camp (he glitters, he watches over you, the birth is technically virgin in that no human man was involved, etc.).