I have been into apocalyptic literature since I was reading sci fi and fantasy in late elementary and early middle school. The Stand became my favorite book pretty quickly after discovering Stephen King. The zombie did not really enter my consciousness until I was in college. I knew about the Romero movies and I knew about the Return of the Dead series, but these were not forefront in my consciousness as a genre.
Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead were described to me before I watched them. A friend of mine in college and I were hanging out in his room one weekend when most people had gone home. Somehow we got onto the subject that the idea of the zombie disturbed him most. He gave me nearly a scene for scene description of both movies. I was fascinated and encouraged him to keep talking until he had told both. His descriptions were vivid and captured a subtext that hooked me from a story perspective before I ever connected with these movies visually.
I rented both movies on VHS one weekend and watched them with his description underscoring the entire experience for me. I may write zombie stories now in large part due to his tellings.
Jason was a complicated spirit. He was working as a music minister at a local church in the town where we went to college as he studied as a music major. We had friends in common and that’s why our friendship started. Later, we became friends in our own accord.
We lived together one summer between school years as we stayed in town and worked to earn up money for the following year. That was the summer I read The Shining the first time. I worked the 4 A.M. shift at Wal Mart too. Good times.
Jason. myself, and two other friends took a trip up the East Coast at the beginning of that summer. We went to Richmond, Baltimore, Boston, New York, Washington D.C., and Maine. While in Maine, we stopped by Stephen King’s old house with the spooky gate. We have pictures from there and other points of the trip. One of the other guys on that trip is an actor that ended up playing Bobby Eagleton in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist.
Jason had his secrets that summer. He did not always want to tell me where he was going or what he was doing. He started distancing himself from some of our mutual friends. He seemed to find himself in troubling situations which did not have a logical reason for how he ended up there.
I would find out later that he was gay and was keeping that from a number of people in his life. I felt bad that he did not feel comfortable telling me. I think some of what he dealt with alone might have been easier, if he had someone he trusted in the space I occupied in his life at that point. It wasn’t my business and he did not owe it to me, but I feel bad that he was that much more isolated for having to keep boundaries with me. We had mutual friends who were gay and out too which wasn’t the easiest life at a Southern Baptist College. He did not choose to open that part of his life up to the public. I regret that distance whether there was anything to be done about it or not.
I include a number of gay characters in my fiction of all genres that I write. Sometimes the subject is at the forefront. Other times it occupies a different space in the story. My current series, The Dead Song Legend, features gay characters in the main character roles. Like Jason and every other person I know well, gay or straight, the characters are complex and are made up of a combination of many attributes including some that are in conflict. Identity is what we present to the world, but it is also what we hide as well.
The more I look back on Jason’s life as I knew it, the more I see of him in the Dead Song story, but also in my entire zombie writing career. He was the first one to tell me a zombie story even if it wasn’t his. He showed me what there was to fear, respect, and enjoy in the genre. The zombie story became the story that belonged to both of us in a sense.
Jason died of cancer. His birthday pops up on Facebook every year and makes me sad, but I don’t want to unfriend and lose those pictures and posts. In his last years, he experienced life on his own terms choosing to enjoy the things there were to taste in the world. He went out the best that anyone could in that sort of wind down of life.
There are a lot of pieces of him scattered throughout my writing. As I reread book 1 of the Dead Song Legend, I see more and more of him in it. I expect I’ll be spending more time with Jason as the dodecology unfolds.
The Dead Song Legend Dodecology Book 1: January from Milwaukee to Muscle Shoals –
The Sound May Suffer – Songs from the Dead Song Legend Book 1: January –
Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He taught public school for sixteen years before becoming a full time writer. He is the author of the Dead Song Legend Dodecology and the music of the five song soundtrack recorded as if by the characters within the world of the novel The Sound May Suffer. Follow his many dark thoughts on Twitter @AmongTheZombies, his Facebook author page, and at JayWilburn.com