Welcome to this week’s installment of The Scariest Part, a recurring feature in which authors, comic book writers, filmmakers, and game creators tell us what scares them in their latest works of horror, dark fantasy, dark science fiction, and suspense. (Remember, if you’d like to be featured on The Scariest Part, check out the guidelines here.)
I’ve known this week’s featured author for more years than I care to say. I was a big proponent of his first novel, the Lovecraft-meets-Kerouac road trip Move Under Ground. His latest novel, The Last Weekend, has just been released by PS Publishing. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Meet Vasilis “Billy” Kostopolos: Bay Area Rust Belt refugee, failed sci-fi writer, successful barfly and, since an exceptionally American zombie apocalypse, accomplished “driller” of reanimated corpses. Now that all the sane, well-adjusted human beings are hunted to extinction, he’s found his vocation trepanning zombies, peddling his one and only published short story and drinking himself to death — that is, until both his girlfriends turn out to be homicidal revolutionaries, he collides with a gang of Berkeley scientists gone berserker, the long-awaited “Big One” finally strikes San Francisco, and what’s left of local government can no longer hide the awful secret lurking deep in the basement of City Hall. Can Bill unearth the truth about America’s demise and San Francisco’s survival — and will he destroy what little’s left of it in the process? Is he legend, the last man, or just another sucker on the vine? Nick Mamatas’ The Last Weekend takes a high-powered drill to the lurching, groaning conventions of zombie dystopias and conspiracy thrillers, sparing no cliché about tortured artists, alcoholic “genius,” noir action heroes, survivalist dogma, or starry-eyed California dreaming. Starting in booze-soaked but very clear-eyed cynicism and ending in gloriously uncozy catastrophe, this tale of a man and his city’s last living days is merciless, uncomfortably perceptive, and bleakly hilarious.
And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Nick Mamatas (warning: contains, um, adult language):
Asking a writer about the scariest part of their book is like asking a stage magician what the most magical part of his or her act is. The magician already knows the trick to sawing a lady in half—really, the lady’s flexibility is what makes the trick. The magician is just a bit of spectacle and handwaving, really.
There are antecedents to this. Kafka thought he was writing humorous short stories, and was reportedly bemused to hear that his friends thought his work to be grotesque and unsettling. (And Kafka’s work does have a subtle humor about it. “Because I couldn’t find the food that I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else,” the Hunger Artist explained, as he finally starved to death.) Some of the best writers hardly have any idea of what they’re writing.
I’ve rarely called my work horror, except for commercial—ha-ha!, there I go being funny again—reasons. I don’t terrify myself writing this stuff, or worry (or exult!) when I think of something that’s transgressive or taboo and put it in a story. Even when I’m writing a zombie novel.
The Last Weekend was a hard sell. Apparently zombie novels are so popular that nobody buys them anymore. My zombies weren’t even different; they’re slow, shambling Romero types. The real difference between The Last Weekend and the other ninety zombie novels being published every month is that it is not secretly about reveling in killing marginalized minorities focused on the sort of people who don’t normally get themselves involved in apocalypses: bohemians, drunks, and loners.
Every zombie fan knows that the heroes really get into trouble when a loved one becomes a zombie. No loved ones, no problem. In the book, protagonist Vasilis “Billy” Kostopolous calls the effect “anti-social Darwinism.” All that’s left in San Francisco, a town with lots of hills and almost no graveyards, are the awkward and isolated. The gung-ho heroes and the loving families were the first to die. Yay!
To write about marginalized characters requires being a bit marginalized. A couple of years ago, before the book was sold, I read part of it at the Science Fiction in San Francisco reading series. Billy has gotten a job with what’s left of the city government as a “driller.” If you have a relative who is about to die, you call 911 and a driller will be right over to put a hole in Uncle Ted’s head before he zombifies. In this scene, Billy was a little late to the gig and had to actually destroy the zombie-wife of the man who made the call. It didn’t go well:
“Okay,” I said, but the man, on his knees now, didn’t answer. I wiped my hand on some old magazine, but the paper flaked off and stuck to my palm in clumps. “Well, okay,” I said again. He started weeping. “WHAT?” I finally demanded. “What did you expect to actually happen here? I blow some air up her cunt and she comes back to life? Slice open the cuts, find her heart, and put it in a store window mannequin? Jesus Christ, you make me sick.” There was something in my hair; it felt like when I was a child and my father would shout “Eat it or wear it!” and turn a bowl full of pasta with the wrong brand of sauce upside-down on top of me.
During the reading, I didn’t notice any audience reaction. Afterward, I got an earful. Did you know that “cunt” is a bad word? Bad enough that members of a San Francisco crowd gasped when they heard it, and someone muttered into her cellphone about it during intermission. Nick said cunt! I was completely surprised. Bad words, coming out of the mouth of a first-person narrator in dialogue, upsets people? Upsets modern people who do things like go to literary events? Couldn’t Billy have just said “Blow some air into her lungs” like a good boy? No, of course not. I never even thought of something like that, and though I had a couple of years to change the line before the book was finally published, never even thought to do so. Actually, I just recalled the incident when Nick Kaufmann asked me to write about the scariest part of my book for his website. (PS: buy Nick Kaufmann’s novels. I’m writing this to lure you here. Just click on something!) Let’s all march in place and chant, “Cunt, cunt cunt!”
Anyway, the whole cunt thing was momentary, and small as far as these things go, but still interesting. Kill a few hundred million people in prose just to set the scene, have a bit of close-up physical and emotional torture of characters to get the story rolling, and what really upsets some readers is a degenerate anti-hero saying a bad word in the middle of a bad situation. The scariest part? Who knows? The last time I saw a magic act the friend who was with me couldn’t stop talking about the wig the magician’s assistant was wearing.
Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including Love is the Law and The Last Weekend. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Best American Mystery Stories, and many other magazines and anthologies. As editor of the Haikasoru imprint of Japanese science fiction in translation, he is at least partially responsible for any number of books, including the essay anthology The Battle Royale Slam Book (co-edited with Masumi Washington) and All You Need Is KILL: The Official Graphic Novel Adaptation, based on the book by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, and with art by Lee Ferguson.