Confessions of my Past, Present and Future
The year was 2001. I was a young college student, full of piss and vinegar, and a cadet in the US Army ROTC. The ROTC program took a field trip to Antietam, site of a major Civil War battle, and our major takeaway was that undulating ground had decided the course of the conflict, though what, precisely, constituted undulating ground remained a bit of a mystery.
The next day brought us to Harper's Ferry, another important Civil War-related site due to John Brown's famous raid. Far up on a mountain top lay the entrance to a mine, perhaps, or some kind of door whose purpose was lost to history (at least, as far as a few tourists from Pennsylvania were concerned.)
"Doesn't that look like the entrance to a zombie emperor's lair?" asked Colin Chappell.
And with that, my interest in zombies - emperors or otherwise - was ignited.
This was in the dark days, the long long ago, before "The Walking Dead", the "Dawn of the Dead" remake, or even "28 Days Later", (a movie whose status as "zombie" horror will be left undebated here.) Zombies were dead, so to speak, a relic of the '70s and '80s, remembered only vaguely and mostly for being hokey.
But...something was happening. Something seismic. Perhaps at that same moment, I like to imagine, somewhere in the central Pennsylvania countryside, a young author named Brian Keene was working on the magnum opus of zombie horror, a little something which at the time he called "More Than Infinity". I like to think maybe at that moment when Chappell, who was always ahead of the learning curve, was pointing at that strange door in West Virginia, Keene was sitting down and typing "Chapter One" in the Pennsylvania mid-state. But no one will ever know if that was the case, I suppose. No one ever can know.
The next few years of my life were like a renaissance. I "discovered" zombies the way a boy "discovers" dinosaurs and then, later, acne. I was hooked.
Infected. And then, come 2003, I took a trip with my then-fiancée to the Olive Garden we frequented in our college days. And, as we often did, after putting in our names on a Saturday night and being told we had an hour or so to wait for a table, we walked next door to a Border's Books, also a regular fixture of our date nights.
And then I saw it. Two hands punching through a wooden barricade. Desiccated fingernails made it clear who the hands belonged to. The wooden barricade immediately evoked the constant board-nailing of "Night of the Living Dead", both the original and the remake. Even without any other clues, I knew this was the Holy Grail: a book about zombies. Such a thing had scarcely existed before. Now, of course, we have more than we will ever need, more than we will ever read, but in those times, the dark times, the long-long ago, it was like taking a breath of fresh air after a long plunge into a dark lake.
"More Than Infinity" had morphed into "The Rising". Horror literature had changed. And I, personally, was changed. I meant to do one thing with my life: write zombie novels.
The year was 2015. I was an eager young author, full of piss and vinegar, almost seven years out of the army. My first book, "Braineater Jones", a story about a zombie detective trying to solve his own murder (it's even been reviewed by the inimitable Nev Murray on this very site! HERE!) had been published just shy of two years before. It was closely followed by my traditional zombie masterpiece, "The Ghoul Archipelago".
Things have...changed for me. I don't read the way I used to, imagining that authors are magical creatures, impossible to meet in the wild. I've even met my hero, Keene. He poured me a cup of coffee. I met Jonathan Maberry. He shook my hand even though I was accosting him at a bar. I met John Dixon. He hugged me with a big smile on his face, pleased that I had come to his release party through an unseasonable snowstorm which will forever after be known as a "Dixoning".
Zombie authors. I know them. I am one.
Authors. I know them. I am one.
And I owe them.
I owe the shit out of people. People have blurbed me. People have beta read my manuscripts (re: given me free editing.) People have done interviews on my blog. People have interviewed me on their blogs. Some people have even invited me to write lengthy blog posts about my reading habits on their blogs. Some people are even reading that blog post right now!
And here's the thing about favors: you owe them back. By which I mean, I owe them back. There's no running tally. The kind of people who keep a running tally of favors are more likely to be Mafioso’s than authors. But that being said, the whole authorial community is based on...I guess you would call it karma?
Richard Laymon took care of Brian Keene. Brian Keene took care of me. I take care of...well, I dunno. I mean, I do know. I could name people I've helped out. But I have no idea if they'll go anywhere in the business. Shit, I have no idea if I'll go anywhere in the business. But the whole way this system works is that you pay it forward, like that crappy Haley Joel Osment movie, except it works in real life. Because the old guard did for you, you do for others, and they do for others, and so on down the line until the last author ever scribbles a word on his iPad 17. (Projected date: 2073. Then the singularity happens and the written word becomes meaningless.)
So what am I reading now? "Virtual Shadows", an as-yet unpublished sci-fi book by my good friend Mary Fan. I got to read it as a Word document. "One Night is All You Need", the first short story by my good friend Kimberly G. Giarratano. "Ever Near", a young adult novel by my fake nemesis Melissa MacVicar.
Young adult? Did I really say that? Did I really read that? Did I really just write a YA novella? What's happening to me? The community is changing me. Transforming me. Making me into something...different. Something...better...?
The year was 2045. I'm old. Old as shit. I'm now unable to piss independently or eat anything containing vinegar. Five years retired from a civil service job I never quit, in spite of some promising fits and starts as an author. I've never quite grasped that brass ring and become a "unicorn" - a writer living off my writing. There was always the day job to pay the bills.
Publishing as we used to know it collapsed long, long ago. The hope of a television show or a movie are also distant, dusty memories. No one watches fiction longer than a five second Vine any more, let alone sit down to read a book.
I glance up at a shelf of my published titles. There used to be so few that I could keep them in a stack on top of my writing desk, underneath an idol of the Hindu god Ganesh, keeper of students and intellectuals. Now I have so many credits to my name they splash across a wall. But that beautiful book, that bestseller, that namemaker, has always eluded me.
I sigh and run my hands across the stack. So many memories. Friends who have gone on to great success. Others who gave up after a single novel. Some are dead. Others don't return my calls anymore. A few do. But I'm nobody special anymore. Not like we were when we were getting started, way back in the heady days of 2015.
I struggle down the stairs. A lifetime of borderline alcoholism and shit eating has left me with a bloated liver and about 150 extra pounds of garbage on my frame. My hair is boldly silver, like my grandfather's. We Kozeniewski men never go bald.
"Sir, there's someone at the door," my robot butler, Schenectady, advises me.
"Very good, sir."
Stupid robot buzzes off, never quite understanding my decades-old slang usage. I lumber off toward the door myself. I fling it open and there stands a young girl, maybe seventeen. She's holding a slip of paper in her hands. Paper. Can't believe they still make that stuff.
"Yeah, what do you want?"
"Are you Mr. Koza...Cuza...Kezza...?"
"Yeah, that's me. What do you want, kid? I don't have any money."
She seems taken aback.
"Oh, no! I'm here to give you something. I'm ___'s daughter."
___. Wow. I haven't thought about ___ in years. Decades, maybe. Are we still on good terms?
"Oh. Yeah. I knew your parent. What's up? Did they die?"
The young girl shakes her head furiously, sending hair cascading over her glasses. Glasses. I thought I was the last one still holding out from the eye surgery.
"No! My parent said you helped them out back in the day. And that you'd like this."
She holds out a book. An actual, still-paper book. The title reads STRANGE PEOPLE: A TALE OF PRE-APOCALYPTIC AMERICA. I recognize the surname. The Christian name must be the girl's. Slowly I reach out to take it. I look her in the eye.
"A paper book. I didn't know they still made these."
She beams at me.
"They're making a comeback. They're sort of...you know...retro."
Except the word she says isn't "retro." It's some crazy 2045 slang that the kids use that I don't even fully understand. "Gooseberry" or something. But I replace it in my mind with "retro" because that's what I think she's trying to say. I open the book. The kid has signed it. Personalized it. Addressed it to me. Some old washed-up drunk never-was.
I eye her one last time.
"Your parent really said I helped out? Back in the day?"
She nods. Well, at least some things never change.
Stephen Kozeniewski (pronounced "causin' ooze key") lives with his wife and two cats in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the modern zombie. During his time as a Field Artillery officer, he served for three years in Oklahoma and one in Iraq, where due to what he assumes was a clerical error, he was awarded the Bronze Star. He is also a classically trained linguist, which sounds much more impressive than saying his bachelor's degree is in German.