Author Interview, Publishing/Editing, The Zombie Feed, Writing

THREE QUESTIONS: Brandon Alspaugh

Brandon Alspaugh’s story in The Zombie Feed Vol. 1 is a multi-layered, and multi-era, examination of the undead and undeadness. You won’t find zombies eating brains in “The Sickness Unto Death”, but you will find letters, online discussions, Confederate soldiers, ancient death myths, faith-frightened monks, and the story of a modern soldier returning home after his untimely death. The assortment of narratives are all linked by Eric Masonis’ homeward-bound journey to reunite with his family, and the alternate sections of forward narrative and backward-glance vignettes creates a rich quilt of human experience in the face of the sometimes horrifying, sometimes vengeful, sometimes poignant return of the dead to the world of the living. This is definitely one contribution to The Zombie Feed Vol. 1 you won’t want to miss!

You can pick up your copy of The Zombie Feed Anthology on Amazon.comBarnes &, or from The Zombie Feed directly. Get it on your Kindle or your Nook (or in any e-format from Smashwords) for just $2.99! Seventeen awesome zombie stories for $2.99? It’s like Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Winter Solstice has come early! :D

1. The Writing Question: What published story of yours was the most difficult to write, or the most difficult to sell?

The same story actually ticks both of these boxes – it was a piece called ‘City of Altars’, published by Dave Lindschmidt in the dearly-departed City Slab. I had been reading a lot about shamanic states in various world cultures, about the transcendent or fugue state they enter where they really feel they’ve touched a higher plane, particularly during sacrifices. Of course, since my mind is a feckless hummingbird, I was also reading Robert Ressler’s Sexual Homicide at the time, which is one of the foundational texts in criminal profiling. The connections drew themselves.

I must have done four successive drafts before I had something readable. That’s the problem with ‘idea stories’ – it’s really difficult to find a way to explain the weird ideas and tell an entertaining story, which is why a lot of them tend to have a college professor type that sort of tags along and drops in a page of exposition between chase scenes. I didn’t go that route, but maybe I should have – it sure worked for The Da Vinci Code.

The story bounced around the horror mags, with the rejections pretty universally reading “Interesting, but not for us.” Then Scott Standridge, who was editing City Slab at the time, wrote back with “I get it, and it’s a great idea, but the story takes way too long to get going.”

He was right, damn him. Alfred Bester once wrote that a bad writer ends his story where a good writer begins his, and my story started in the most boring place possible and then wandered aimlessly around London before stumbling to its conclusion. So, after briefly cursing God for creating editors who actually have valuable insights and suggestions (it’s so much simpler when they’re just evil) I junked as much of the beginning as I could, reworked the plot sequence, and made it all one full-tilt race through the psycho-geography of London.

Six drafts and nine rejections later, it was finally published. I still think of it as one of the niftier stories I’ve written, in the sense that if I could somehow pipe it back in time to my 17-year-old self, he would probably think it was a little slice of demented awesome.

2. The Horror Question: What work of horror do you consider the most terrifying/freaky/scary, and why?

The purest horror I ever experienced was when reading ‘The Marching Morons’ by C. M. Kornbluth.

That probably requires some explanation. Essentially, this is the story of a man who, by virtue of a dental accident (look, it’s not like Twain did any better), winds up in a future dominated by stupid people. Although it’s one of the classic short SF pieces of the 1950s, it’s not without its flaws: the theory of inheritable intelligence is nonsense, the notion of the ‘average IQ’ being 45 is a contradiction in terms (average IQ is always, by definition, 100), and the characters often make speeches to each other rather than having actual conversations.

But here’s the thing.

We sympathize with the smart people in the future. They’re the ones who toil in the background to keep the world running. I think Kornbluth knew exactly who his audience was: the kind of people who identify with Odd John and Hari Seldon. Most readers of genre fiction have had the isolating experience of being the smartest person in the room. And who hasn’t raged against a world filled with those stupid people who bedevil our lives in hundreds of ways?

Where the horror sets in, for me, is how slyly Kornbluth twists that sympathy for the smart people into hatred for the stupid people. We’re shown that they’re not only stupid, but arrogantly so, wearing their sub-par IQs as a badge of honor. We watch them wreck cars that can’t go above thirty miles-per-hour, crash planes because they’re too busy annoying sheep, and when they speak they make Sarah Palin sound like Benjamin Disraeli. As the helpful Ryan-Ngana systematically lays out for us, they’re wrecking the species, and they don’t even care. Damn them!

That’s how it works. Once the story has decided something has to be done, we realize we need to get rid of the stupid people. Okay, so let’s put them on another planet. We’ll make them think it’s a great idea. Crank out commercials telling them how lovely it would be to take a trip to… well, how about Venus? Small, and hot, but hey, it’s the future. So you build these ghastly, shiny spaceships, and park them at the edge of town, and line all the stupid people up so they bumble in, two-by-two…

And then Kornbluth reveals that the spaceships are all Auschwitz furnaces writ large.

It’s a shock to the mind, a real jolt to the ventral tegmentum, when you realize “Holy shit, I’m kinda-sorta-Hitler.” We like to think there’s a huge gulf between us and them, but once you’ve agreed that any group of people – Jews, Latinos, Homosexuals, Stupid People – are A Problem That Needs To Be Solved, you’re halfway to Dachau.

Kornbluth saw – decades before Norman Spinrad drove the point home in The Iron Dream or Harlan Ellison detailed in ‘Xenogenesis’ – that the sense of isolation that typified most readers of genre fiction didn’t exclusively create a cadre of noble dreamers. We’ve all met the fans who have let their esoteric tastes warp them into something petty and anti-social and, most of all, angry. Angry and selfish and anxious to make every failure they’ve ever suffered someone else’s fault.

It’s just too short a distance from here to there. We geeks hold ourselves at a remove from the world around us, and writers even more so. We are all, at some point, all alone in a crowd. Spend too long feeling that way and it’s easy for the faces to blend together, to forget the crowd is hundreds of people, each with their own dreams and failings and hopes and fears. I think this is what Kornbluth saw, in the early years of the Red Scare and White Flight, and why he felt like making a point in scaring the shit out of us by showing us the worst part of ourselves.

Kornbluth terrified me to the core by holding up a mirror at just the right angle. He knew how easy it was, even for those of us who ought to know better, to slip into the same ugly thought processes. That’s why ‘Marching Morons’ is the scariest thing I’ve ever read. Our ability to deny the intrinsic humanity of another person is, to me, more terrifying than a hundred sewer-clowns.

3. The Oddball Question: Are you an e-reader or a tree-reader, or both? Why?

E-reading and tree-reading… gah. It’s really two sets of criteria you’re dealing with. Whenever you show a tree-reader an e-reader, their response is always some variant of “Oh, I like real books. I like the feel and smell and heft, the whole experience of it, and when you crack the spine for the first time…”

That makes sense to me. I have an e-reader packed to the gills, but I also I have floor-to-ceiling shelves along an entire wall of my office. I have some really gorgeous first editions, some Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts that are too big or unwieldy to digitize, and some hard-to-find brilliant SF from decades past that no one’s had the good sense to reprint (how can we live in a world that has yet to produce the Collected Fictions of R. A. Lafferty or Fritz Leiber or Avram Davidson?)

But I don’t kid myself – when I shell out money for a Subterranean Press or Charnel House edition of a book, it’s because I know they’re going to send me a beautiful artifact that’s as much a fetish object as it is a medium for recording stories. When I want to immerse myself in the beauty of the book as an object, I crack open the delicate pages of my beautifully-illuminated hundred-year-old copy of the Sefer Ha-Agadah. When I want to actually research something in it, I pull up the PDFs on my e-reader.

There’s no need for it to be an either/or proposition. For those who just want to read, the medium shouldn’t matter. My e-reader lets me carry a thousand books with me at any time, perfect for someone like me whose mood has a huge influence over what I want to read. It lets me read one-handed, which saves from the inevitable hand cramping that comes with trying to hold open a paperback with my thumb. It lets me have a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray at the ready without having to shell out money to Barnes & Noble for one of their cheap, gaudy hardback reprints of a public-domain literary work.

But I couldn’t read it if it were out of power, or if the screen was cracked, and I almost certainly couldn’t use it as the lever to reveal the hidden stairway behind my bookcase (although I suppose an e-reader would simply put that sort of thing on remote.) I can’t give the copy to a friend or to a library when I’m done with it. And I can’t use the terrible books as kindling should the furnace break.

It’s fine to value the less practical, more sensual aspects of tree-reading, and I do it all the time. Still, it’d be silly to forget that the primary point of the book is to store text, and it’s heavy, wasteful, and decidedly tree-unfriendly to insist that this must be done on paper. Having an e-reader means I read and re-read more than ever. The stories haven’t lost any of their beauty or importance just because they’re rendered by a computer.

And in the final analysis, I’m in it for the stories.


Brandon Alspaugh is a writer. There are times when he pretends to be other things, and usually he gets away with it, but that’s just because he does a remarkably good imitation of a normal person, and no one suspects otherwise. A member of the SFWA and HWA, he is the only child he knows whose mother attended a parent-teacher conference to discuss his ‘excessive reading’, and imagines they preferred he find a street corner somewhere to loiter on.

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