Bricks of the Dead: From what I understand you started writing Pray to Stay Dead about 20 years ago. What sparked interest in you to start writing this again?
Mason James Cole: Two things. The growing popularity of zombie fiction and meeting Julia Sevin and RJ Sevin, the Creeping Hemlock Press team, at Zombie Fest in 2008.
I was thinking about reviving the idea before Zombie Fest, but talking with them about the shelf-life some of these books were enjoying, and their own plans to start a zombie imprint, was all it took…
What was different from your initial concept 20 years ago to what was actually published by Print is Dead?
It was titled Rotten Blood and it was a piece of fiery shit. The pages might be packed away somewhere, but I’m not sure I would want to look at them. The concept was the same, but the family was much more over-the-top, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 zaney. There were more brothers, one of whom was a feral little boy. Another was a massive, lumbering man with Down Syndrome who always wore a rubber Marilyn Monroe mask.
Also, the dead originally began to rise at the midway point, long after the kids had been taken by the family. It was going to be a jarring, sudden genre shift—“Texas Chainsaw” becomes “Night of the Living Dead” forty-five minutes in, and all the victims start getting up and biting the killers.
And it was much more violent, believe it or not.
And the writing was fucking awful.
What have you thought about the reaction to the book? Personally my only criticism was the severed penis scene that in my opinion didn’t make sense or for the book. Although deeply violent, the rest of the extreme parts of the book seemed fitting.
I’m not going to lie: a lot of that book was intentionally designed to be an endurance test for the reader. As a human being, I’m horrified by the things we do to one another every single day, and I feel that even the most vile fictional monster hasn’t got a thing on us. I was trying to get some of that across through the book’s occasionally excessive brutality.
As for the penis scene not making sense even from a crazy POV, I see your point, though I’ll argue that this kind of violence rarely ever makes sense, and I’ve heard of real-life cases that are just as random and vile. A good friend of mine lost a friend to a murder/rape that was as awful and random as anything in my book, so I didn’t think I was pushing the limits of realism… pushing the limits of good taste? No doubt.
Amusingly enough, I scaled back the violence, in some cases. The dick scene, believe it or not, was originally much worse, and I had originally planned to show what happened to the girl in the shed. I got to the chapter and decided to cut it before I even wrote it.
Also, you may have noticed, a lot of the violence is seen through the eyes of other characters. This allows them to close their eyes. I tell you what they’re hearing, and you see the aftermath, but you don’t see the face being peeled away from the skull, so to speak. I’ve always been fascinated by suggestive horror—people came out of the original “Chainsaw” thinking they’d seen that hook go into the girl’s back, and they had, but not on the screen. It was all in their head.
As for the reaction to the book… it’s been great. It’s gotten some amazing reviews, and they’re all pretty mind-blowing. The negative reviews make me laugh, when they’re not making me bang my head against something, mostly because I have yet to see an intelligent negative review. I’m sure I’ll get one at some point, and I welcome it. I’ve gotten really smart positive reviews, and really smart mixed reviews, but the people who hate the book seem to be fucking idiots who can barely string together a sentence, and who obviously feel a zombie tale should only be about tough white guys blowing away zombies for 200 pages.
What really gets me are the people who seem offended and confused by the fact that I mix genres. They’re very freaked out by the fact that the bad guys in the book are the humans, not the zombies. I can only guess that they’ve never seen a Romero movie, or if they have, they probably rolled their eyes and declared it “old” or “stooopid” or “gay” or something, and then went back to playing “Resident Evil” or re-watching the “Dawn of the Dead” remake.
Some of them are also freaking out about all of the rape in the book, despite the fact that one of them takes place “off screen,” and the others are interrupted. Again, it’s the implied horror. I show them the aftermath, their mi nds fill in the blanks, and then they get mad at me. I’ve seen a few “reviewers” complaining that the book upset them, disturbed them, freaked them out, and I have to wonder –“What the fuck were you expecting?” Isn’t that what a horror novel issupposed to do?
This seems to be happening with another book in the Print Is Dead line, “World In Read” by John Sebastian Gorumba. What a fucking book that is. It’s just a mean, rabid, hopeless novel. It heaps horror upon its protagonists like nothing I have ever read, and I don’t think I have ever seen a book lose its mind the way that one does. Read it if you haven’t, and then interview Gorumba.
You want safe, go someplace else. Read a Mack Bolan novel or something.
Pray to Stay Dead is a long novel at 300 plus pages but never burdened itself under its own weight, did the scale ever worry you?
It did. There are no monster-sized zombie novels in the tradition of The Stand or Swan Song, and I toyed with the idea of trying to make Pray to Stay Dead that very thing. You may have noticed that I shift POV all the time but never go inside the head of any of the Neibolt family members. I wanted to very much. I wanted to show what happened to Huff before he got back to the compound, how he lost his youngest son and so forth, and I wanted to show where Samson went at the end, among many other things. Had I cut to the family members, as originally planned, the book would easily have been twice as long. It would have been sprawling. We would have seen Huff’s back-story, in the form of a crime novella dropped right into the middle of the book… his time as a boxer, his time as muscle for the mob. The business with the “angel.” I even originally opened with Sally and her family encountering the Niebolts, long before the dead rose.
But I remembered that my goal was to write the literary equivalent of a seventies Grindhouse movie. This was Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw meets Night of the Living Dead, not Once Upon A Time in America.
For a day or two, I considered going the epic route and going back to add all of the family POV stuff, but… Practically speaking, I didn’t want to spend another year on the damned thing. Print Is Dead wanted it in time for World Horror in Austin, so I had to deliver. I like the book the way it is, very much, and I justify the lack of family POV like so—we can’t know the minds of people like Huff, so we can only look on in fear and revulsion.
From what I understand your wife and family don’t like the idea of horror and don’t want it in the house so you do your writing on the road. How did you come to that agreement?
It’s unspoken. She’s very serious about her faith, and I’m supposed to be, too. She’s never liked the stuff, so I don’t bother her with it. My jobs keeps me on the road for nearly half the year, so it’s easy. And my Kindle Fire means she doesn’t have to look at bookshelves filled with trash.
Since you keep your literary work separate from your home life, what happens when you get an idea at home? How do you keep track of it?
Are Zombies evil?
The definition has become very broad. Some would consider the Evil Dead movies to be zombie movies, and the creatures in those films are definitively evil. The zombies in Brian Keene’s The Rising are evil, too, but they’re also a lot like the ones from the Evil Dead series… demonic possession shows up here and there in the zombie genre, but it’s not very common, and it’s not what you think of when you think of zombies. Fulci’s zombies are certainly evil, particularly the ones in The Beyond and City of the Living Dead, thought I suspect the ones in Zombi are evil, too, or at least guided by some unseen force… I get the impression that there’s something behind them.
Are my zombies evil? Absolutely not.
My zombies are Romero’s zombies. This is straight-up homage or pastiche or whatever you want to call it. Rip off, even. I’m not trying to fool anyone by adding a viral element or tossing in one or two little details to make these things my own. I’m intentionally playing in Romero’s sandbox here, and his basic rules are the best because they’re so damned simple… no one knows what’s happening, and even if they did, who cares because we have to fucking RUN! It’s enough to ask me to believe that a corpse can walk and kill–don’t stretch my suspension of disbelief even further by telling me it was a rat bite or a radiation spill or some chemicals in a drum that did it. When a dead kid is trying to chew its way into my stomach, I don’t care why it’s doing it, I just want to survive.
My zombies–Romero’s zombies–are not evil. In Day of the Dead, he suggests that they’re little more than diminished versions of us. The brains are fucked up by decay, and only the r-complex (the reptilian complex) remains. They’re just aggression and dominance and hunger, with little flashes of high-brain functioning drifting to the surface like ghosts. “They’re us,” Doctor Logan says, but they’re us stripped of the things that do make us evil.
So, no–they’re not evil. They’re little more than animals, on the surface, and metaphorically they’re the pressure cooker, because the best horror stories toss an assortment of characters into a pressure cooker and then sit back to see who pops first. The pressure cooker can be an arctic base or the Overlook Hotel or a farmhouse surrounded by walking corpses.
Now, are the humans evil?
If we’re not, then nothing is.
Anything else you would like to add to everyone who will come across this interview?
Man, haven’t I said enough?