It isn’t like peeling an orange. It isn’t like popping a walnut. Skulls are harder than I’d imagined.
How long do I have, now? I’m still here, here enough to know this is wrong, but I love my wife and I love my kids and I want to hold onto those memories and for that I need a brain.
Someone is coming closer, hesitating, slack-jawed. I scream at him, meaning to send him words like, “Back off! This is mine! I caught this one!” but I think all I holler is noise. I’m not really there. I’m in my fingertips, scouting over the surface of this slick and bloody head.
I get the jaw in one hand, the cranium in another, brace the whole thing against my chest, and pull. Something gives. But no go. His mandible waggles like a broken toy.
With his head in my hands, hair stuck to my bloody fingers, I drag him to the curb. I stomp. Something cracks, beneath the flesh. I nip at skin like it’s cellophane. I get fingernails into the crack. I pull. A fingernail breaks. This brain, and maybe I’ll remember my wife’s name.
I wrote the first draft of that little story in 2008 on a site that has since died and been buried in the graveyard behind another website … that has since died. That story came from the same brain as an idea I pitched for a storytelling game while I was at White Wolf Game Studio, the company that made games like Vampire: The Masquerade, which was a big hit in the 1990s.
If you’d told me in 1996, when I was a fannish devotee of White Wolf, kit-bashing imitations of their games in my bedroom, that one day I would work for the company, I would’ve flipped out. As it happens, when I worked for them, I sort of flipped out anyway. I fell down a well in my own head and was stuck at the bottom for just about a year. It turns out the medications I was on for bipolar disorder didn’t so much work for me.
The last game I pitched to the company was meant to put a new spin on zombies — one of the few pop monsters that hadn’t been made into angsty antiheroic protagonists yet by the company — spinning them by casting players as people combating a supernatural plague and fighting off zombiedom for as long as possible before their inevitable undeath.
I don’t recall a whole lot about the pitch, honestly, because I was already down the well by then. I was staying up most nights in a panic, trying to work and deleting most of what I typed so no one would know what a terrible hack I was. I barely slept for maybe a year. Without really thinking about it, I was doing to myself what the CIA did to prisoners to get them to talk — except I didn’t know anything. As a result, my brain wasn’t really working and I don’t remember much about those days. I wasn’t dead, but I wasn’t exactly living.
Anyway, the company rejected my zombie game. Zombies were probably at the end of their popularity cycle, anyway, they figured. It was 2006.
You know the thing about vampires and zombies? About American politics and popular undead monsters? The theory goes that zombies are scary when Republicans are in office because they represent a dangerous mob of mindless consumers hungry for the destruction of the individual, the survivor. Meanwhile, vampires are scary when Democrats are in office because they are high-falutin’, wannbe-European suavity that thirsts for the blood of the populace, sucking the life out of others for the sake of their own amoral or immoral existence. The time of Reagan was a time of zombie movies. The time of Clinton brought us Anne Rice and a generation of new bloodsuckers.
Today, the dynamic doesn’t seem to hold up. Zombies and vampires have been battling for popular appeal since the turn of this new century and the battlefield fairly teems with sexy vampires and oozing zombies.
So it’s a good thing we didn’t make my zombie game, I guess, ‘cause they sure dried up.
It’s for the best. I wouldn’t have been around to make that game for White Wolf anyway. I was let go later for missing work. It’s hard for me to take being seen by people when I’m at my low points. They said we were a family, at the company, so when they cast me out it felt like my family had left me for dead.
Time passes weird when you’re halfway dead. I know I tried to climb out of the grave I’d dug for myself, but I kept getting shovels full of dirt in the face. I sort of forget the order everything happened in after that. I took on some freelance projects and screwed those up pretty good. My wife lost her job. The housing bubble burst and our little place went underwater.
I hid inside that house, inside my head, and wandered the streets of the Internet, groaning and wailing and looking for a brain. My brain. Somewhere in there, around June of 2008, I wrote my little zombie fic and I didn’t even see the metaphor.
I was deep in my haunted castle by then. I was the mad scientist and the monster. I was the brain in a jar but I was also the jar. My brain was doused in chemicals it secreted. It was like drowning in turpentine. It occurred to me to light a match just to get the liquid out of my lungs.
We shot little pills into me, like bullets into my brain, and put down the zombie that ate all those months in my mind. When my limbs started working again, I started climbing. I mantled the edge of the well and got the sun in my eyes.
And now I’m sort of pedantic about zombies. Rising from the dead doesn’t make someone a zombie. Vampires aren’t zombies. Eric Draven — The Crow — wasn’t a zombie, he was a revenant. Being resurrected doesn’t make you a zombie.
Shambling doesn’t make a ghoul a zombie. The ability to sprint or pass up a brain doesn’t make a zombie not a zombie, either. Zombies come in lots of makes and models.
There are a lot of ways to live and there are a lot of ways to be dead.
George Romero’s ghouls and Danny Boyle’s rage-monsters and Robert Kirkman’s walking dead can swarm or sprint or stalk but it’s not their speed or their hunger or their groaning that makes them zombies. It’s the rotting.
Zombies don’t evolve. We evolve. We evolve and change and that changes zombies because zombies are made from us. They are us, degraded down to something base and rotten, whether it’s hunger or anger or hatred. They resemble the dead, but they’re worse than dead. They’re destructive.
When we don’t heal, when we refuse to heal, we rot until we resemble the dead. Even if we’re technically alive.
I chose to heal. I crawled out of my grave to live. And I got my brain back.
Will Hindmarch writes and designs stories, games, fictions, and non-fictions for publications of all sorts. He co-founded Gameplaywright Press to publish books about games and stories and the business of creativity, and he’s assistant director of the Shared Worlds creative-writing camp. Some of his sentences have appeared at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and in books like The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities and Wonderbook. His games, Odyssey: Journey and Change and Always/Never/Now, among others, are available online. He’s a producer of Story Club South Side and the forthcoming storytelling audio show, Radio Fabula. He thinks of himself as a worrier-poet with an aim to write one of everything, and he’s way behind schedule. Blame Twitter.