by Sandy Auden
Patricia Briggs talks about coyotes, alpha werewolves and telling whoppers in
her latest Mercy Thompson story, Silver Borne; and get ready for flesh-rending gore
as editor Christopher Golden and authors Tad Williams and Tim Lebbon take on the
scariest monster on the block in Zombie: An Anthology of the Undead.
Right now, the book market is swamped with Twilight wannabes and Laurell K Hamilton-style urban fantasy. Everyone is doing their own take on vampires and werewolves with a sprinkling (liberal or otherwise) of sex and romance.
Thankfully, every now and then, a real gem of a story arrives that feels fresh and exciting and you fall in love all over again with the urban fantasy scene. Patricia Briggs' series about Mercy Thompson is one such gem.
Mercy is a mechanic, and a damn good one, who spends her spare time karate training and tinkering with a VW bus that happens to belong to a vampire. Her next-door neighbour is an alpha werewolf -- literally, the leader of the pack. And both vampire and werewolf know Mercy's secret -- that she's a coyote shapeshifter with a tendency to attract trouble.
In the latest book in the series, Silver Borne, we catch up with Mercy after she's spent the last couple of months trying to evade the murderous queen of the local vampire seethe, and now that alpha werewolf -- who's maybe-more-than-just-a-friend -- has asked for her help. A book of fae secrets has come to light and they're all about to find out how implacable -- and dangerous -- the fae can be. Okay, so maybe her troubles have nothing to do with the job. But she sure could use a holiday...
The stories are narrated from Mercy's point of view so how did Briggs first meet the coyote shapeshifter? "I met Mercy, as I meet most of my female characters, a little bit at a time as I wrote Moon Called [volume one]," she says. "Male characters sometimes introduce themselves as fully rounded characters, but my women seldom do."
It's an unusual animal to shape-change into isn't it? "A coyote is underpowered, which means that it is easier for me to put Mercy in peril. And she has to use her brains instead of awesome superpowers to get herself out of trouble. Both of which make her an easier character to make good stories with.
"But in the course of writing, her coyote nature has pushed her in places I couldn't foresee. There is the connection to Coyote, the mischievous star of so many native legends and stories. She is by nature a predator -- and the werewolves see her as a competitor in their territory. Coyotes are survivors and adaptable -- and Mercy is too. Being a coyote is part of Mercy's character."
And she lives in the middle of the Tri-Cities in the US. "Mercy's world, more than any other I've crafted, seems to have been already in place before I started world building. It feels to me that all I have to do is look at a particular aspect of it more closely and it is there in front of me. Of course the fae would be segregated into reservations. Of course they would find a way to turn it to their advantage. Of course Baba Yaga would be one of the Gray Lords.
"It feels like an exploration to me, rather than a creation."
Mercy is embarking on a brand new adventure in Silver Borne but the author is reticent about sharing too many details: "Mercy learns that it is a good idea to return borrowed books on time. Okay, okay... seriously, like all of the Mercy Thompson stories there is a little mystery, a little magic, a little romance and a fair bit of danger. This book deals quite a bit with the fae -- or one particular type of fae, anyway. And Samuel [one of the werewolves] finally has to face his issues."
Why have you decided to tell Samuel's story now? "It was time. Samuel has been gradually going downhill for a long time. Mercy's relationship with Adam [the alpha werewolf] means that she cannot be his life support anymore. It was time to give Samuel the final push and see if he was going to sink or swim."
You never know with Briggs' stories whether her characters will sink or not because the stories have numerous twists in them. But Briggs doesn't outline the twists in advance. "Outline? What's that? Truthfully if I know what's going to happen, I figure the readers will also. The twists insert themselves as I write -- and when they don't, I know I'm doing it wrong."
Which may account for why the latest story got an end-of-book rewrite at the eleventh hour. "I had a light bulb moment about how to fix some things and round out some rough edges. It's not an unusual occurrence for me, but I wish I'd gotten it about two weeks sooner so the stress level in my publisher's offices wouldn't have been so high."
Briggs' stories are also very down to earth and logical, something that's important to her. "For fantasy -- urban or traditional -- the magic of the story works because it feels real. The only way I can get readers to accept the big lies (be it magic or werewolves or dragons) is to ground the rest of the book in reality. The real stuff builds the connections so that the whoppers feel like truth, too. Logic, on the other hand, is absolutely necessary for a good story to work, whatever the genre."
Along with being real and logical, the stories are written very concisely, with no meandering off on tangents. "Sometimes I blame Andre Norton for this. Ms Norton wrote the first sf novel (The Beastmaster) and the first fantasy novel (Year of the Unicorn) that I ever read. She could say more in 60,000 than a lot of writers say in 200,000 words.
"I also keep in mind an interview I once saw with Walt Disney. He said that no matter how good the song was, if it didn't advance the story in some significant way, he didn't put it in."
Mercy's story advances this April in Silver Borne, with the next volume following in February 2011.
Brain-Eating Fiction -- Golden, Williams and Lebbon on Zombies
Another topic gaining popularity in the world at the moment is Zombies. They're all over the silver screen and turning up in classic stories like Pride and Prejudice and A Christmas Carol.
Now Christopher Golden has put together a new anthology of stories from some top notch writers including Tad Williams, Joe Hill, Kelley Armstrong, Mike Carey and Tim Lebbon.
So how did Golden get involved in the anthology? "In an unusual way, actually," he admits. "An editor at St. Martin's Press contacted me and said they were thinking about doing a big zombie anthology and would I be interested in editing it. I said, 'not at all... unless you're interested in a different angle.'
"I wanted to look at the current fascination with zombies from a modern perspective, to include stories that were both excellent fiction in their own right, but also touched -- directly or indirectly -- upon theories about what it is about zombies that has made them the monster du jour.
"I'm not sure what I expected from St. Martin's, but what I got was unrestrained enthusiasm. Turned out that my editor there was thinking along the same lines and wanted to do something interesting, not just a bunch of blood and guts. (Though the book has blood and guts, too, of course.)"
The next step was for Golden to get the contributing authors involved with the project. "I wheedled, cajoled, threatened... Well, no. Actually, I asked them. I wanted an eclectic group, and I feel so pleased at the line-up of this book, and the wonderful stories they contributed."
What was the brief for the stories? "As mentioned, what I wanted were different perspectives, different genres, and different attitudes. I wanted stories that took on our uneasy co-existence with modern warfare, the grim acknowledgement that maybe we're not the white hats anymore, the idea that we don't get to see bodies or coffins, and the horror of torture... among many other subjects.
"I wanted to address resurrection as well, from all angles. I think I guaranteed myself the range that I was looking for simply through the selection of contributors."
Golden enjoyed reading the stories as he received them. "Some were funnier than I expected, and some so sad. Joe Hill's story surprised me because I never expected to be able to be scared by a story told entirely in [Twitter] Tweets, but he accomplishes that very nicely.
"I've only read historical fiction from David Liss, so it was wonderful to get this different side of him as a writer. Then there's Holly Newstein's "Delice." I had specifically intended NOT to include any voodoo-related zombie stories, but she won me over. All unexpected pleasures. The book is loaded with them."
One of those unexpected pleasures was "The Storm Door" by Tad Williams.
It's not the author's usual fantasy fare so what does he like about zombies? "Zombies are just one of those classic ideas," says Williams, "the blurring of the line between the living and the dead, something that has always intrigued and terrified us. Vampires fascinate us because they're about being more than merely human, zombies because they're about being less. Lots of people would like to be vampires, but I don't know anyone who really wants to be a brain-eating walking corpse."
So how did Williams come to writing about corpses? "I met Christopher Golden at Comic-Con and did a story for him for his anthology, Hellboy: Oddest Jobs. After that, he asked me if I'd like to write a zombie story for Zombie. I said, "RRR, BRAAIIIINSSSS..." or something similar, and it was agreed."
The story includes a lot of details about Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. "I really wanted to talk about the transition between life and death, and the Tibetan Buddhists are among the few modern (in other words, still commonly practiced) religions that really spend a lot of time thinking and talking about it. (The ancient Egyptians were similar, but I've already done a few Egypt-related things.)
"That gave me a handle, which is what I usually look for to start a story -- something that engages me immediately. It also gives you the immediate backdrop that you have to build up in a novel, but don't have much time for in a short story."
You don't often find Williams in shorts. "I love writing short stories, because I can experiment with other styles and modes, especially humour, which is a big part of everything I do, but not as big a part of my novels.
"The only thing hard about shorts is finding the time to write them. As it is, I tend to only write them when someone interests me in an anthology, because most of the time I'm too busy writing my novels to write anything else."
Another writer with a hectic work schedule is Tim Lebbon, a man who is no stranger to brain-eating maniacs. "This is probably my fourth story," Lebbon says, "and there's a huge novel -- called Coldbrook -- coming soon as well."
In typical Lebbon style, his story "In The Dust" mixes zombies with a love story. "That's because it's the opposite of what zombies stand for. And much of my writing concerns loss -- for me that's the foundation of horror, whether it's loss of love, personality, control or a loved one.
"It gives my main character a depth and a history, and in an apocalyptic story this short, you need that. You need the tenderness, because without that all the hopelessness and death has nothing to be compared to. And really, in a situation like the one my characters face, there's got to be something to keep them going."
The scenario his characters face is the breakdown of civilisation, plague break out, and military containment. "It all came from a dream, actually, and the little town where the story plays out is based on one only a few miles from where I live (Usk -- nice town, good pubs and restaurants, the exact place I want to be trapped come the zombie invasion). So I guess the background and setting was there from day one, and I built the story in and around that scenario."
Into the normal setting of restaurants and pubs, there lurches disturbing creatures. "I think zombies are one of the most terrifying 'human' monsters because they're just so alien, so other. There's no reasoning with them, no real way to control them, and the fact it's their sole purpose to bite us -- whether for food, or blood, or to spread their disease -- that makes them so scary. That, and the fact that they used to be us. They're the most basic, determined monster, wearing a human face. And when it comes to the apocalypse -- and I like writing about that too -- I think they're one of the most shocking causes: Death by us."
Zombie: An Anthology of the Undead is out now from Piatkus publishers in the UK. In the US, the book is entitled The New Dead and is published by St. Martin's Griffin.
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic interviewer/reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; and a diligent interviewer/reviewer for Interzone magazine and SF Site. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. For background information, visit www.sandyauden.co.uk.
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