I’m thrilled to welcome my Refuge Collection colleague, Mark Allan Gunnells, co-author of Where the Dead Go to Die, his newest title released last month by Crystal Lake and already making the best-of lists.
I know you write a strong short story with The Refugees perhaps the most relevant tale of the Refuge Collection charity project. When did you decide writing was for you? Can you tell us a bit about your journey to Where the Dead Go to Die?
I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I really believe I was simply born to be a storyteller. It has always been my driving passion, the thing that brings me the most joy. As for Where the Dead Go to Die, it started in Atlanta, GA. I attended the World Horror Convention a couple of years ago, and met Aaron Dries. We instantly hit it off, and we respected one another’s talent, and he broached the subject of a collaboration. He actually brought the germ of the idea for the novel to the table, and we started brainstorming and it grew from there.
Why this story?
The thing that really appealed to me about this story was that it took a familiar horror trope-the zombie-and used it as a springboard for a very human and emotional story about grief and loss and the way we as a society view death. I thought it was a story that could work on a lot of different levels, and I was eager to explore those.
Already, response to the novel has been incredible with Paula Limbaugh of Horror Novel Reviews describing it as ‘a book that just floors you’. She states: ‘The story [is] so strong that you know emotionally it will be with you for a long time’. I have to agree that Paula is right on the money. But what about you, did you expect this kind of reaction to the story? When did you know that you and Aaron know were on to something special?
As soon as Aaron and I started working on the piece, we felt we had something very special. A story that transcended the trappings of a zombie tale and had heart and soul. As for the reaction, it has been very gratifying but I never know what to expect once a story is released to the readers. I knew we had produced something of which I was incredibly proud, but I couldn’t know if others would feel the same. I’m glad that they are responding so positively to it.
Where the Dead Go to Die is a collaboration, although the narrative is so seamless, it’s hard to imagine two people were involved. In a collaborative duo you often get one writer who is more technically disciplined and one with the crazy off-the-wall ideas. Do you think this is true, and if so, which one are you? Would Aaron agree?
We worked hard to create one voice for the novel, and that actually involved rewriting each other’s stuff. Putting aside ego and just making every chapter a true blending of our voices. I would say that Aaron is the one that kept really pushing us to go deeper, darker, and more devastating. He would often say he wanted the reader to be emotionally wrecked by the end. I agreed and gladly followed, but I would say he was the driving force for a lot of the more daring directions the story takes.
Aaron is Australian and you’re from South Carolina and yet you chose to place your story in Chicago. Why there particularly? Was it a compromise or a conscious decision?
I believe Aaron suggested it. Somewhere big, somewhere cold in the winter. And since it wasn’t either of our stomping grounds, it was a neutral place for us to create the story.
On the technical side, for the writers among us, Where the Dead go to Die is peppered with a series of ‘interludes’ which are integral to the structure of the story. Without giving too much of the storyline away, can you tell us how these came about? Was it a device you’d come across elsewhere or was it organic to your writing process?
The interludes were Aaron’s baby. He liked the idea of the flashbacks to fill in some of the character’s past, and giving that information piecemeal. We’re not the first to employ that strategy, but I think it was very effective. And Aaron’s idea to have the origami instructions at the beginning of each interlude was pure genius.
You have set the story in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, making that dreadful period between becoming infected and a person’s true death as the story’s overriding ‘antagonist’, but in fact a global pandemic, a pervasive cancer, dementia, or any number of ‘terminal’ prognoses would have served as well. What made you choose zombies?
Using a familiar horror trope like that we thought would be a great metaphor to talk about all the things you mentioned. We could hit on a lot of issues under this one umbrella. And zombies seemed like a great way to go because they have been done so much lately that we thought it would be a thrilling challenge to truly do something new with them.
[Little segue here: The Japanese paper crane legend, now an international symbol of peace and hope, has some significance in my own family, with my daughter folding 1000 paper cranes in honour of my father, her grandfather, who has Alzheimer’s, in the hope that researchers will one day find a cure for sufferers of this insidious disease. Of course, this made Mark’s story resonate even more for me!]
Do you have a favourite character in the story, or perhaps one whose story arc resonates for you?
Mama Metcalf, who is based partially on my mother and my mother-in-law, is by far my favorite. She was the most fun to write, and added such delightful humor to an otherwise dark tale. I also thought there was something noble, sweet, and also sad about her, and those layers were enjoyable to watch unfold as the story progressed.
Can you reveal an important finding that you intrigued you while researching Where the Dead Go to Die?
My husband worked in a hospice years ago, and I asked him a lot of questions for this, and the thing that struck me the most that we tried to put into the story is that even when people are near death, when their bodies are wasted away and they know they have little time left, they can still have such dignity and even humor.
The ebook includes interior images that are evocative and also poignant. I didn’t expect that at all. Is this Aaron’s work? Can you tell us about your reaction when you first saw them?
I was aware already that Aaron, in addition to being an amazing writer, is an amazing artist, but even knowing that, I was blown away by the art he did for the interior of the book. Evocative and haunting. I couldn’t be happier with the art he provided.
Where the Dead Go to Die puts the reader through the emotional wringer. Was it the same when you were writing it? And having done that, are there any subjects you feel couldn’t write about?
The ending of the book is very intense, and I definitely felt that when writing it. That said, even when I’m writing something dark and tragic and bleak, I’m having fun. Writing is such sheer joy for me, that no matter what I’m writing, I’m in a blissful trance.
What’s on the horizon for you?
Next year should see the release of my novel The Cult of Ocasta, which is a sequel to my earlier novel The Quarry. I’ve also submitted a collection Book Haven and Other Curiosities and a novella #MakeHalloweenScaryAgain to publishers and am waiting to hear back. I’m currently working on a vampire novella that I hope will be part of a collection of three novellas to come out in the future.
Thanks so much for stopping by, Mark. We’ll all look forward to seeing those projects in print.
WHERE THE DEAD GO TO DIE
There are monsters in this world. And they used to be us. Now it’s time to euthanize to survive in a hospice where Emily, a woman haunted by her past, only wants to do her job and be the best mother possible.
Euthanize to survive
Post-infection Chicago. Christmas.
Inside The Hospice, Emily and her fellow nurses do their rounds. Here, men and women live out their final days in comfort, segregated from society, and are then humanely terminated before fate turns them into marrow-craving monsters known as ‘Smilers.’ Outside these imposing walls, rabid protesters swarm with signs, caught up in the heat of their hatred.
Emily, a woman haunted by her past, only wants to do her job and be the best mother possible. But in a world where mortality means nothing, where guns are drawn in fear and nobody seems safe anymore – at what cost will this pursuit come? And through it all, the soon to be dead remain silent, ever smiling. Such is their curse.
This emotional, political novel comes from two of horror’s freshest voices, and puts a new spin on an eternal topic: the undead. In the spirit of George A Romero meets Jack Ketchum, Where the Dead Go to Die it is an unforgettable epilogue to the zombie genre, one that will leave you shaken and questioning right from wrong…even when it’s the only right left.
It won’t be long before that snow-speckled ground will be salted by blood.