People who know me as a humorist have been asking me about my new horror novel, Rise Again, which arrives in bookstores next month. The question is obvious. "Is it funny?"
When a comic writes a serious horror novel about the destruction of the world, you know things have gotten bad.
Indulge me a minute. When I began writing about politics during the first administration of George W. Bush, the situation was so dire, the future so uncertain, I decided I'd better make it funny. Because the things I had to say were not going to make people happy any other way.
The nation was rushing towards a war with Iraq. It was a ginned-up bunch of nonsense for anyone that was paying attention and didn't have a vested interest in empire-building. A team of international experts had been inspecting Iraq's weapons systems for years. We already knew Iraq was not a threat. There were no WMD, and anybody could learn that if we hadn't made a national pastime of ridiculing the United Nations.
In addition to that, it was becoming clear that America was undergoing a major transformation: millions of otherwise unremarkable citizens were allying themselves to a cause that ran precisely counter to their best interests, a program of redistribution of wealth and power from the electorate to the corporate. Ordinary Americans were being encouraged to borrow against future prosperity; if that didn't work out well, too bad. Blame immigrants. In other words, we had a class war dressed up as a culture war.
The angry citizens that bought into the culture war were abandoning their own futures in order to punish a vague demon known collectively as "the Left," a rainbow-hued phantom of the Cold War turned into a caricature suitable for the reactionary Baby Boomers -- and their offspring -- who missed out on the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The last time these people were happy was the Reagan years. They were determined to turn the American clock back to the fictional world of Happy Days, a popular television show celebrating the 1950s as a time of monocultural innocence and old-fashioned values.
And look what's happened since.
Did this make me some kind of soothsayer, able to see the future that so many talking heads and professional pundits could not? No. It made me an alert, well-informed citizen. Anybody could have seen what I saw, and known what I knew. And millions did. But we were ignored when we cried out. We were ignored when we marched against war and resisted corporate greed. We were marginalized for our pessimism and our lack of faith in America, the Brand.
The spokespeople of the professional media, let's remember, got fame, fortune, and power out of the deal. All they had to do is cheerlead the war, cheerlead the rise of the Evangelical right, and cheerlead anything Wall Street decided to do. They probably knew more or less that what they were selling was nonsense. But if nonsense is going for a thousand bucks an ounce, it's a worthwhile commodity. And they made tons of the stuff.
It's not even worth saying "we told you so."
So I used to write about this situation, and made it as funny as possible. Because otherwise, how else could anybody stand it? The message was so terribly bleak. These days, I seldom write about politics or culture at all, and I don't try for humor. If things were grim back in the pre-war days, they're a thousand times worse today. It is not funny. There is nothing funny about it.
So I wrote Rise Again, an epic novel of the zombie apocalypse, to express what I saw happening in this country.
Yes, it's about a nation overrun with flesh-eating zombies, and it's not a "message" book. It's blood-drenched nightmare, just in time for Halloween. It's easy to make fun of the zombie genre, if only because a lot of terrible entertainment has come out of it. But when George Romero directed the seminal Night of the Living Dead, he was sending a message along with the groundbreaking horror: We are dying inside, and eating each other. We are devouring ourselves.
He was right. That was the late 1960s. 40 years later, we've become the Ouroboros, the snake devouring itself by the tail, which is the myth from which man-eating zombies can be said to spring. I took that idea and ran with it. Heck, I even mentioned it to George Romero. His words? "Good luck. It's not easy." Horror is never taken all that seriously, at least not until the author has been dead a century or two. Ask Stephen King, he'll tell you. Horror is regarded as a sort of lark, created by writers that never grew up for audiences afraid of the dark.
It's anything but that. Horror literature, down at its core, has been sending us the same, desperately important message since ever it began. Beware, the message goes. Beware, on this path lies death. And it takes a certain courage to read about that. Because the gag, of course, is that death lies on every path.
We all die. But horror is here to tell you that there is a special death ahead, chosen by each one of us according to how we have lived. What makes the modern zombie genre special is the timeliness of its message: you may not even get to choose the means of your own destruction. There are millions of mindless, hungry ghosts out there right now, choosing it for you.
That's why I wrote Rise Again. It's got some humor in it, but it's not a funny book. It's got a message, but it's not an allegory. It's entertainment. It's scary. Most of all, it's a warning. Beware, on this path lies death. You're going to have to fight for your life.