The Science of the Undead: Part One

On my recent blog tour, I had the opportunity to write on a number of different topics and in a myriad of different styles. The following is the first part of my interview with my publisher all about the science of the Undead. Enjoy!

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SCP: Julianne, what draws you to Zombies in particular? Not why do you like Zombie stories, but what is it about the slow scuffle of Undead feet that makes you want to tell your story about them?

JS: I have always been drawn to Zombie literature. I’ve also been drawn to more psychologically thoughtful horror stories. If I hadn’t studied forensics, it would have been psychology. In the end, I found that the stories I had the opportunity to read the genre were lacking that psychological edge that I had come to crave. Admittedly, it’s a hard thing to work into the gruesome, gore filled story that a Zombie work needs to be, but it can be done. As I wrote Days with the Undead in my mind, it came from a deeper place within me. Sure, there are Zombies but it really is a story of human survival. It’s what I was trying to do in reality as I faced a life-threatening illness and a great deal of the psychological aspects derive from that experience. It wasn’t easy to impart some of my deepest inner struggles for survival into the book but I think that is part of what makes it different. When I read it, I feel my own struggle (minus the Zombies, of course) and when others read it, I hope they feel the psychological torment that can exist in a situation like that as well without having to experience it for themselves.

SCP: A decaying corpse has a distinct odor, yet in all the entertainment we see, out heroes or heroines blast/chop/cleave or beat the head off the Zombie, which is of course how you dispatch it. Why is it that no one ever focuses on the horrendous and wretched smell this creates? Are we supposed to believe that Zombies that have been (un)dead for good this time and those which are lying, truly dead in massive heaps in the sun don’t let off a foul stench? Your main character has a background in forensics, are the masses at large just not up to the challenge of dealing with this ugly reality?

JS: To be perfectly honest, the smell would only get to you for so long. How do people who live in certain “smellier” parts of cities deal with the stench, or the people who happen to live next to smelting plants or landfill sites. At some point, your olfactory senses will make you immune to the smell. As your exposure is prolonged, you will find that you can rely on it less and less. The only thing that you’ll be able to smell after a while will be the new and different scents, until you get used to those as well. Another factor to explore is this; even though the corpses of the dead Undead are lying around in the streets, rotting away, the chances that you will smell them is reduced. As long as the bodies are not confined to in an enclosed space, the odor will dissipate. Is it going to be hard for people not used to smelling decay? Most definitely. We live in a world that promotes sanitization from odors at every turn. Perhaps learning to live with the nasty smells that can happen around us (in our homes, on the streets) will ultimately help us to survive a Zombie Apocalypse.

There is another factor to take into account with respects to the smell given off during the decomposition process. A clinically dead body will begin to smell during the bloat stage. This occurs when the body purges the build-up of organic gases and fluids that result from the reactions of anaerobic bacteria already present in the body and their metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. It’s the process more commonly known as putrefaction. The strong and distinctive odor of decomposition remains throughout the stages of bloat, active decay and even into the stages of advanced decay. As a zombie’s body breaks down further and further, there will come a point in time where it will likely stop giving off that distinctive odor. Keep in mind that the odor may still remain on any clothing that has been stained with the fluids of decomposition.

SCP: Guts, and not the bravery kind! As long as the head is attached, the body still moves. Gut or intestinal dragging is a big wow factor in modern-day Zombie lore. Do you think it’s necessary to go to that level to get the reader to fully feel the impact of the terror the characters are feeling when watching half a Zombie crawl towards them? What makes ‘half’ a Zombie so much more visceral than a whole one?

JS: I suppose there would be some that would say that seeing a piecemeal Zombie clawing its way toward you would be more terrifying but that comes from the perspective that half-beings are not supposed to move. Dead things aren’t supposed to move but if a whole Zombie was coming at you, you may be able to process the event faster and react in time. Considering that the half-Zombies have to crawl and claw in order to be mobile, that puts them out of your direct field of vision. Watch your ankles!

SCP: We know what makes your story different and love the journalistic approach you’ve taken with it, but what sets your Zombies apart in your mind? Not what you’ve written per se, but in your mind’s eye when you are writing, why are your Zombies worthy of the Julianne method?

JS: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think my Zombies are any different from those that can be seen in most movies or read about it any number of books. I think what sets my book apart is the fact that I’ve explored the psychological turmoil of survival to a greater degree. Are there moments of Undead action? Of course, and some of them are quite gory, but it’s also a real chronology of flight and survival.

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Come back tomorrow for the second part!

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3 thoughts on “The Science of the Undead: Part One

  1. I caught this during the tour – really interesting because it answers questions which I imagine are quite common for zombie-lovers. Esp about dealing with the smell. I often wondered about the guys who wonder around in the dark (err – why always in the dark?) and are surprised by the onset of zombies – I’d expect the smell and shuffling to have prepared them slightly. But I guess, like you say, if the olfactory senses desensitise to the rot to some extent, this would explain it 🙂

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