Keeping the Zombie Genre Fresh

NOTE: This post of mine was originally published on the glorious site of the uber-fantastic Jay Wilburn.

by Jack Wallen

It sounds a bit antithetical…keeping a genre about rotting flesh fresh. But after decades of zombie stomping around celluloid, paper, and ereaders, one might easily begin to wonder (or wander, if you’re so inclined) how a sub-genre has managed to not become stale. Considering how this issue is exponentially exacerbated by the unheard of popularity of The Walking Dead and its easy to draw the conclusion the genre is on a collision course with “been there, nommed that.”


With that in mind, how do we keep the genre fresh?

It’s challenging and requires every author in the genre to set aside ego, ply their craft with brevity, and for readers to open their minds to not only new ideas, but a shift in every landscape to which they’ve grown accustomed.

I’m certain you can see where I’m going with this.

I’m going to work with my usual musical analogy. Some might roll their eyes at this and some may want to throat punch me. Either way, I soldier on.


That’s right, I said it…Rush. A band you either love…or you’re simply wrong about (cough cough, Armand Rosamilia). If you’ve followed this particularly epic prog rock band, you know how they’ve evolved over the years. Starting out with a far heavier sound (one that perfectly suited the seventies), Rush realized, as time marched on, that they had to evolve or die. So the eightiessaw them bring keyboards into the fore. When the nineties arrived, that new-wave-y sound faded and was preempted by the guitar riff-y grunge movement. And so Rush relegated the keyboards to a smaller role and let Alex lead the way. When the millennium hit, a more complex layering of acoustic/electric guitars rose and the newest incarnation of the band rose from the grunge-y ashes.

Rush evolved. They weren’t afraid to set aside a sound so clearly linked to a period of time and allowed their music to do what it needed to do…and do so naturally.

That, my friends, is what we, as authors of the zombie apocalypse, must do.

There’s a famous quote by Arthur Quiller-Couch that he used during various moments of oratory about the craft of writing. He’d say:

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

I don’t always take this quote literally. Instead, I look at it on a grander scale. In other words, do not be afraid to evolve your work in any way that would avoid a lengthy series from becoming stale. That five letter word spells disaster for long series.

It can be very easy to ride on the simplicity of formula. After all, you’ve crafted something that works…and sells. Why change it?

Because if you don’t, readers will grow tired of reading the same thing over and over and over and over and over.

The universe speaks to us. As artists, it is out duty to listen. During the writing of Buy Zombie Buy (the seventh book in the I Zombie series), my muse smacked me upside the head and dared to inspire me to turn the whole universe I’d created on its head.

I listened. Why? After seven books in the main series and three spin-off series, I could have easily fallen into the trap of repetition. Apply the formula.

  • Survivors get trapped
  • Survivors escape
  • Survivors run into a new big bad
  • Survivors temporarily stem the big bad tide
  • Rinse and repeat

And so, I tossed trepidation aside and dove headlong down the rabbit hole my muse begged I enter. In the end, I didn’t die…I didn’t suffer, go comatose, or even lose a single night of sleep. What I did do is give my series some much-needed room to breathe, to expand and explore new avenues it wouldn’t have otherwise had.

The lesson to be learned? Listen to what the muse (the universe or your instinct…whatever you want to call it) says and do not be afraid of murdering your darling ideas to keep it all fresh. Otherwise, you’ll wind up falling prey to the formulaic. It’s too easy to create a formula and then stick it out through an entire series arc. Be bold. Don’t fear the unfamiliar. Your series will grow beyond your wildest, undead dreams.