The Loneliness of the Long Distance Rotter
Alan Sillitoe’s short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, was required reading when I was a freshman in college, and one with which I had formed a profound and abiding intellectual connection. I was a budding scientist working on an ecology project deep in the backcountry above Santa Barbara, California. The site was quite remote, requiring a ninety-minute hike through some fiercely dense scrub along the bottom of a seasonal creek named after the cut it had dug through the rock, Rattlesnake Canyon. I often lost myself inside my own head during those hikes and would be startled upon reaching my destination having only the faintest memory of the ground over which I had just traversed. (At least until the day I stumbled upon an actual rattlesnake sunning itself in my path, but that’s different story.)
Suffice it to say, there was a period of time after finishing Runner that I entertained taking up the sport of cross-country. Fortunately, twenty minutes later, the takeout pizza I had ordered was delivered, and sense returned to me. So ended my brief foray — well, mental exercise — into track-and-field.
Fast forward roughly thirty years and once more I find myself revisiting that story, its main character Smith, and the theme it embraced— not of what it must be like to be a working class young man in 1950s England, but the mental processes that Smith uses to escape thinking about his dismal prospects beyond petty crime. As a writer of zombie fiction, I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to be trapped inside the mind of one of the undead slogging through the apocalypse, nothing to do but to contemplate a future far bleaker than Smith’s, no hope and only the slimmest promise that the slow eternal jog through hell will eventually lead to some blessed salvation.
All too often the zombies in stories are mindless, soulless creatures, machines made and molded from the flesh and spirit of man, but otherwise lacking anything human about them. Stolen from them are the very ingredients which make us human: our self-awareness, our sense of moral right and wrong, our self-control. To my way of thinking, what makes zombies so frightening — and fascinating — isn’t what they are capable of doing to the living, although there’s enough to be said about that, but in the things they are no longer able to do for themselves. In particular, it’s their lost capacity to guide their own future that haunts me. What must it be like to become a passive witness to one’s own criminal acts perpetrated by a body no longer under one’s control?
That has to be the ultimate betrayal, the worst sort of insult an individual could ever imagine. All our lives, we cultivate ourselves through our choices. We choose whether to act and how. To have that all stripped away from us robs us of our humanity. To be simultaneously aware of it and unable to stop it is a fate so much worse than death.
The idea of the aware zombie resonates deeply with me, and several of my stories touch on it in some form or another. But nowhere is it explored more deeply than in the mind of Cassie in the novella, Velveteen. Cassie first made her appearance as a minor character in my GAMELAND series, mentioned only very briefly during a chance encounter with the series’ main character.
In Velveteen, Cassie is a zombie, turned at age six a dozen years before. She has spent the next dozen years trapped alone inside a dark bathroom with nothing to do but to think about her situation. She reflects on the events which lead to her infection and subsequent death and resurrection. She exhibits a terrifying patience, waiting until the day she believes her parents will return to rescue her, as they had promised. But the inevitable degradation of her adolescent mind, the untrustworthiness of her slowly decaying memory, and the perpetual darkness and silence, all create an otherworldly and counterfeit sense of what is real and what isn’t, yet no clear means to distinguish between the two. In the end, we are left with a heartbreaking tale that is as unnervingly horrific as it is undeniably, yet uncharacteristically, human.
Cassie so fascinated me that she became a focal character in the later prequel to the series, A Dark and Sure Descent, although this time in her pre-infected state. The trio of stories put together provides a singular glimpse into the mind of a person who has lost everything in life and yearns for its return in death. Yet despite her decade-long run within the prison of her mind, she still manages somehow to retain the faintest traces of hope and freedom.
And to me, that is what is at the heart of the best zombie fiction, not that they are machines and monsters, but the realization that they are innately and undeniably human.
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The stench of rotting flesh is in the air! Welcome to the Summer of Zombie Blog Tour 2015, with 30+ of the best zombie authors spreading the disease in the month of June.
Stop by the event page on Facebook so you don’t miss an interview, guest post or teaser…and pick up some great swag as well!
Giveaways galore from most of the authors as well as interaction with them!
#SummerofZombie is the hashtag for Twitter, too!