Mon
Sep 20 2010 9:46am

Small Town Zombies

When the opportunity to write a book about small-town zombies popped up (not unlike a pocket gopher sticking its head out of a hole in the ground: never quite expected, but not that strange, really, when you think about it) I was struck right away by one pretty big problem:

There aren’t that many fresh dead people in your (above) average small town. Which means, most likely, zombies aren’t that big a threat in the more rural portions of the heartland. You can’t start a classic zombie apocalypse without a few dead people to kick things off. (I’m not talking about those “zombies” you see in movies and such nowadays who are really just sick folks with drippy orifices and illness-induced psychosis; I’m talking about the good old slow-moving walking dead.)

Your urban zombie is a different proposition, of course. High population density means that zombie-ism in a city would sweep through like most any other kind of epidemic. You’d have lots of cases of neighbor biting neighbor, spawning more zombies who’d go on to bite their mailmen and taxi drivers and parole officers, and so forth. You’ve all seen those movies.

But in a small town, someplace mostly agrarian? It’s a lot harder to hit that zombie critical mass.

Even if you do get one or two dead guys lurching around looking for brains or some other body-temperature hotdish to devour, the population density is low enough in, say, rural Minnesota that he (or she, or I guess more properly “it”) would mostly just wander around fields, maybe assaulting the occasional farm animal. And zombies are like biting midges. One is annoying, but you can swat it without much trouble. They only get really troublesome when they attack you in a swarm. Except a swarm of zombies should maybe be called a herd, or troop, or shamble, or (attempted) murder. I’ll have to think about that one. At any rate, one or two zombies don’t constitute much of a menace, is what I’m trying to convey.

The average death rate in America is something like 0.8% (at least according to the first source I accidentally stumbled across, so I could be wrong). That means in a town of 2,000 people you’d be looking at 16 deaths per year on average. Sixteen zombies, spaced out over the course of a year, isn’t going to be much trouble for the locals to deal with, especially in a place where just about everybody owns a shotgun or a deer rifle at the very least. They’d probably be dead for the second time before they put the bite on anybody.

I was looking at the prospect of a zombie apocalypse with hardly any zombies in it. Sure, the Twin Cities would fall pretty quick, but way out in the country, simple starvation and lack of reliable electricity would be a bigger problem than getting eaten by the rampaging zombie hordes. And while there’s nothing wrong with a post-apocalyptic survival novel, it’s not a zombie novel. I was in a kind of despair, let me tell you. It didn’t drive me to drinking, but it drove me to thinking, which can be even more dangerous.

I considered my options, and discarded the first few right away. I’m no rigorous science fiction writer, as you may have noticed, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to write about skeletons dragging themselves out of the ground: seems to me a zombie should at least have working musculature and an intact brain if it’s going to lurch around. That ruled out having all the graves in town pop open, even if the dead do vastly outnumber the living in that situation. Besides, I wanted the story to take place in winter (which, to be fair, is most of the year in Minnesota), and that pretty much ruled out zombies popping out of graves all together, no matter how fresh those graves might be, since the frozen soil is hard as concrete, and unless you happened to get buried with a jackhammer, you aren’t clawing your way out.

But eventually I figured out some workarounds. I had to stack the deck a little—first I decided let various animals become zombified, in addition to humans. Then I added a murderous wife to help increase the body count early on, and some elderly folks on their deathbeds, and, best of all, a bonafide serial killer with basement full of fresh hungry corpses. Plus some other catastrophes as needed. It worked out all right. I got a respectable body count. Not like the big zombie massacres you’d see in a big city, okay, but good enough for simple folk.

I guess my point is, if you’re the type who makes complicated zombie contingency plans, maybe the kind that involve turning a super soaker into a flamethrower, or investing in a harpoon gun, or turning the roof of your apartment building into a sniper’s paradise, I’d suggest you reconsider. Find yourself a nice small town somewhere, no more than a thousand or two people living there, and get comfortable on a nice piece of land just outside town. Land’s cheap out there. Then when the zombies come, you won’t even notice, except for your satellite TV going out, and it probably does that all the time anyway.

Sure, living way out in the middle of nowhere might not be as much fun with your big city life with the fancy French restaurants and go-go dancers and subway trains and whatnot, but it’s better than getting your guts eaten by a horde of zombies. I mean, I guess so. I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life. I’m not any kind of expert. You just go ahead and suit yourself.


Harrison Geillor is the author of The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten, out now from Night Shade Books. You can read an excerpt here.

2 comments
Nick Rogers
1. BookGoblin
I saw this book on the shelves in my local Barns & Noble the other day, and I'll admit I didn't give it any more thought than any of the other lit/horror mashups that have come out recently. The premise gave me a chuckle, but that's about it. I didn't even reach for it to read the back cover summary.

I will say that between the excerpt and this interview I'm totally sold, which is surprising because I'm not the target audience. I'm neither a huge fan of Lake Woebegon, nor am I much for zombie fiction. I like zombies, don't get me wrong; but they're not my first choice for speculative apocalypse mechanisms. I'm more in the eldritch gods or alien invasion camps really.

Zombies are sort of the Doctor Zhivago of end of the world scenarios: slow paced, a bit monotonous, more about ponderous introspection than a marathon of whiz-bang action. Zombies drag you down with the unescapable enormity of the problem. They're death through the overwhelming mundanity of sheer numbers. Take away the enormity and sheer numbers and I'm really not sure I'd care.

Like Minnesota, zombies are boring on the surface with a surprising undercurrent that you have to WANT to find. From what I've read so far, this book is chock full of that surprising undercurrent, and I can't wait to read it.

I will have bought this book before the end of the day, assuming there's still a copy to be had.
Ann McClure
2. travelingann
Oh dear, suddenly I'm much happier about our recent move to New Hampshire.
Zombie fiction freaks me out terribly, but I might have to look into this one.

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