Kim Paffenroth, author of the forthcoming novel Valley of the Dead, told Tor.com that the book is about Dante Alighieri stumbling across a zombie invasion during his seventeen years of living in exile.
“He befriends three other refugees fleeing the ravages of the undead,” Paffenroth said in an interview. “The horrors Dante sees as they are trying to escape—people being burned alive, devoured, torn limb from limb, decapitated, eviscerated, boiled in pitch, impaled, crucified, etc.—form the basis of how he would later describe hell itself when he wrote his classic Inferno.”
Paffenroth has been fascinated by Dante’s Commedia ever since first reading it in 1986. “I’d go back and reread parts of it over and over, trying to get down his ideas and connect different parts of the work together, or compare it to other people I’d read,” he said. “I had thought originally that I’d write scholarly essays about the poem–that that would be how I would interact with it and express my ideas about it. I wrote those kinds of treatments, but eventually, it seemed to me I could do more and reach a bigger audience by writing a version of Inferno that told the story without so much of its Christian cosmology. I thought I could create a sort of secularized or demythologized version, that was still true to Dante’s vision, but would make his ideas accessible and relevant to a new generation who’s not so well-versed in Aristotelian philosophy or medieval Catholic theology.”
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, Italy in 1265 and was embroiled in the political strife of his day. “[There was] an ongoing battle between two factions in Italy—the Guelphs and Ghibellines (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is based on this feud as well),” Paffenroth said. “Eventually the Guelphs won, but then that party split in two. Dante was on the losing side of that conflict, and was punished with banishment from his home; he lived the last 19 years of his life in exile, and no one now knows exactly where he was for 17 of those years. Though he wrote some minor works before his exile, he is best known for a huge poem he composed during exile—The Divine Comedy, which outlines a journey though the three realms of the afterlife—Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Heaven (Paradiso).”
Paffenroth thought so much about Dante over the years that he found he’d absorbed much of his thought and style. “The questions of how he would react upon meeting a beautiful woman for the first time, or how he’d pray to God, or be angry with himself—all such questions of motive or his reactions seemed quite self-evident to me by the time I sat down to write,” Paffenroth said. “Now, as for the sinners and monsters he meets along the way—those were harder to imagine, especially for the more archaic or unfamiliar sins like blasphemy. I hadn’t really thought before what would make a certain speech ‘blasphemous’—how can you hurt God with words? But, as I imagine Dante had to do when he wrote his poem, it was always a matter of putting yourself in the sinner’s shoes.”
Paffenroth reread each canto of Inferno as he was building the zombified scene that would parallel it. “First, I’d have to decide whether or not to include the sin,” he said. “For example, I don’t really think usury or homosexuality are sins, so I didn’t include those. But I’d keep some of the imagery, if it fit; the burning plain where homosexuals, usurers, and blasphemers are punished in Inferno is still in Valley of the Dead, but only blasphemers appear in my version. Or, if I kept the sin, I’d have to think how to work it in believably: zombies are a perfect image for the damned, I think, but the only sin they usually commit is gluttony, so I had to get creative with how zombies and living people interact in the story, often using the living to imply the sin.”
Valley of the Dead isn’t out yet, but it’s being published in a limited edition based on pre-orders. Orders will be taken from June 1 – August 31, and however many are ordered, that’s how many will be produced, up to a maximum of 150. Which means there are no “regular” orders, only pre-orders, so if you want one, you should pre-order it now.
Paffenroth’s next zombie project is a new zombie anthology, The World is Dead. His next novel is Closes at Dusk, which, sadly, doesn’t have any zombies in it, but it does have ghosts.