John Shirley on horror, the melding of genres, and storytelling (it’s in the genes)

Resident Evil: RetributionJohn Shirley isn’t new to the writing biz: He’s a master of cyberpunk, science fiction, and horror. But those genres aren’t exclusive from one another — they share common traits, and writers often stir elements from them together, like paints from different pots. It’s not much different from the blending of science fiction and fantasy, for example.

But what do those genres — and novel, short story, and screenplay writing, in this case — have to do with video games? Well, a lot. Video game narratives are a form of fiction, but they draw from any genre you can name, including the ones Shirley does best. He’s no stranger to the medium, either. He’s adapted into print the first-person shooter series Borderlands in The Fallen and Unconquered and BioShock in Rapture, and now he’s turned to Resident Evil. Only this time, it’s a book based on a film based on a game franchise: Resident Evil: Retribution(from Titan Books).

John ShirleyFortunately, Shirley has all the right experience and know-how to make it work — from penning screenplays (such as the first one for The Crow) to writing his own novels (like City Come A-Walkin’ and Dracula In Love), short stories (like the Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award-winning collection Black Butterflies), movie novelizations (Constantine and Doom, etc.), and more. So how does he juggle it all?

Misprinted Pages: This isn’t your first foray into sci-fi and horror — you’re something of an expert by now. How is the writing process and creative investment of penning a novelization based on an existing property (like Resident Evil) different from inventing your own original story?

John Shirley: Well, of course, in my own “just John Shirley” fiction — like A Song Called Youth, or Demons, or Everything Is Broken — I have to make up the plot entirely on my own. There might occasionally be some plot point suggestions from an editor, but it’s rare. And I don’t have to take the suggestion. With a novelization, I have to incorporate the entire script into the novel, and that means someone else’s plot. I can add additional plot points — like “B story,” as they say in television writing — [or] subplots, but nothing can contradict the script, the backstory of the script, or the “world” of the franchise. So it’s a sort of dance one does.

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A poll and another book cover (because Fridays are awesome)

More book reviews soon, promise! But first, a question.

Also, check out Dana Fredsti’s newly revealed cover for Plague Nation (coming in April of next year). I can’t wait! If you haven’t read the first book, do yourself a favor and move this one to the top of your pile.

Here’s my interview with Dana.

Plague Nation

Still flying, still stylish in affordable boots, still helping the helpless: a review of Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion

As you might guess from that mouthful of a title, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion* spans the creator’s biggest productions and a number of smaller topics, such as his foray into comic books and his (returning) screenwriting days. It’s also a mammoth book. A good whack with this thing will knock a vampire right out.

Anyone who plucks down $18.95 or less will be getting exactly what they pay for: a whole lot of Joss Whedon, presented as a series of essays … after essay … after essay. The Complete Companion isn’t serious, dry-as-sand academic writing, but it is formatted that way, and that sensibility shows in some pieces more than others. You’ll likely fluctuate from bored to fascinated with each new read. Whatever your interest level or preference of writing (occasionally you’ll encounter an essay that’s bogged down with verbose and weighty language), the book caters to a variety of tastes and topics.

The Complete Companion covers it all: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Serenity, the comics (including ones you might not have read), Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Dollhouse, and finally Whedon’s films (counting those that came before he was famous). It’s a lot of reading, but even seasoned fans will learn some new insight or secret from behind the scenes.

But be warned: This book is laden with spoilers. If there’s absolutely anything you haven’t seen to completion but plan to, skip the entire section and return to it later. The editor didn’t censor the plentiful essays, so there’s no avoiding discussion of crucial scenes, characters, and plot points.

Luckily for me, I’ve already exposed myself to most of Whedon’s work, so I could handle the contents. Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion is a deeper look at the world of Whedon, but for the fan, it’s strictly post-show and movie-watching/comics-reading material.

*This book was provided for honest review courtesy of publisher Titan Books.

Interview with Dana Fredsti on Plague Town

Yesterday I reviewed Dana Fredsti’s Plague Town—out today from Titan Books. I was offered a chance to speak with the author about her new zombie book and how her exclusive background in horror influenced its writing.

Misprinted Pages: Hi, Dana. Thanks for sitting down to chat about Plague Town. Can you tell us what your upcoming book is about?

Dana Fredsti: Hi there, and thank you for having me here! Plague Town is my take on the  start of the Zombocalypse experienced from the point-of-view of a twenty-something, divorced liberal arts major who has no idea what to do with her life until she’s attacked and bitten by zombies and discovers she’s one of a very small percentage of the population who is immune to the virus. This puts her and her fellow “wild cards” in the unique position of being able to fight the undead hordes without fear of infection. Wacky—and gory—hijinks ensue.

There’s a lot of zombie stuff out there—from movies to video games to television shows. What made you want to write a series of zombie novels, and how is Plague Town different from its peers?

Oh, I could go on at length here … First of all, I am not one of those people who think that zombies have “jumped the shark.” Folks like me (people who have been total zombieholics since the early ’80s) have been waiting a long time for zombies to get even a little of media exposure of their hairier and fangier cousins. And I don’t see any end to werewolf and vampire novels any time soon. Not even taking into consideration the variations writers and filmmakers have been coming up with on the original flesh-eating ghoul “theme” started by the Father of All Zombies, George Romero. The best of the books and movies are as much (if not more) about the characters and human relationships as they are about people getting their intestines pulled out. So … maybe I should answer your question now.

I was approached by Lori Perkins with Ravenous Romance to develop a series of books that were “Buffy … except with zombies. And different.” I said yes ’cause … well, zombies! The series was then sold to Titan Books, and I worked very closely with my Dark Editorial Overlord, Steve Saffel, to tone down the romance, tighten up the pacing, and bridge the gap between readers of paranormal romance and the zombie genre. Plague Town is unique in that it probably has more humor than your average zombie novel, and has one of the few female protagonists in the genre to this point. I think my narrative voice (okay, Ashley’s narrative voice) makes it stand out as well. There are some other elements I think are unique, but talking about them would be major spoilers at this point.

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The best zombies of the season: a review of Plague Town

“But all you need to remember is that both Ripley and the cat survive.”

You know those books that grip you with a good story and refuse to let you do anything short of devour it? Few manage to truly and honestly marry me to their pages regardless of their literary merit or how well they’re written. Plague Town is one of those books, and not only is the prose good, but it’s seasoned with a dash of steamy romance and an excellent sense of originality and pacing. In other words, it survives the zombie apocalypse in style.

Plague Town, by Dana Fredsti (@zhadi1), is a zom-rom-com-dram (yeah, I totally just coined that). Translation? It’s a zombie romantic comedy/drama, and you’ll want to read it in as few sittings as possible. Seriously, this book pulled me in hard like a ravenous zombie.

Fredsti (as you’ll learn tomorrow, when I post a special interview with the author) is no stranger to zombie fiction or pop culture, and she infuses that knowledge into her story every step of the way. She has an enviable knack for precise and energetic writing, and she builds characters very well. So well, in fact, that Lily (one of the best in the book) became the little sister I never had. That’s how vividly I could imagine her character.

The author also knows sex—and it shows. The romantic involvement in the book does take a backseat to the zombie invasion, but when it’s pushed to the forefront, it’s not cheesy or tacky or embarrassing. It’s honest-to-goodness sex, and Fredsti writes it like a pro.

But back to the pop culture familiarity. Fredsti never skips a beat, constantly making fun references to actual horror lore through the eyes of her quirky main character, Ashley Parker (who is awesome, and not just because she’s a girl). The world knows about zombies the same way we do, and when the outbreak happens, this little detail spares the reader from the downtime of exposition—the kind that drags its feet as slowly as the zombies do.

(Fredsti even throws in a subtle nod to Max Brooks’ World War Z with the occasional mention of “zeds.”)

Because so much already exists as groundwork, the story is more believable and appreciable as an addition to the media’s ongoing fascination with zombies—from The Walking Dead on AMC and in comics to video games (Yakuza: Dead Souls is a recent goodie) and countless movies, etc. etc. Plague Town uses them all as a stepping stone to a greater telling because it acknowledges and at times incorporates their own contributions.

Plague Town unravels military secrets and pours on the blood, just like you’d expect. It also compensates for why some people (I can’t help but think Resident Evil here) can withstand zombie attacks without actually turning. The book answers mystery this with “wild cards”: humans like Ashley with an immunity to the zombie virus, giving them enhanced abilities and a better chance at survival after their resistance is activated by an otherwise deadly zombie bite. Of course, they’re still prone to death by mauling, but otherwise they can take all the nips and bloody goo that might come their way.

All while reading this, I thought how awesome it would be if Fredsti expanded the book into a series. Because I couldn’t get enough of it or her writing, and it’s not often that I’d commit to a sequel immediately after finishing a book. But guess what? Two more books, Plague Nation and Plague World, are forthcoming.

Hell. Yes.

*Plague Town will be available starting April 3. Thanks to Titan Books for the advanced copy! Stay tuned tomorrow for my interview with author Dana Fredsti.