Why Daryl Gregory created a zombie messiah for Raising Stony Mayhall

Ever wondered what the Nativity would look like if Jesus were a zombie growing up in late-80s Ohio? With Raising Stony Mayhall, Daryl Gregory has answered that question. We asked him where the idea came from.

Raising Stony Mayhall opens with Wanda Mayhall and her daughters finding a dead girl and a dead baby in the snow. When the boy begins to cry, the strong-willed matriarch makes the split-second decision to hide him from the authorities. She takes him home, unsure of her next move — and then he begins to grow. The novel traces Stony's isolated (but otherwise completely normal!) childhood, his traumatic flight from home, and his journey to becoming the spiritual leader of the world's ragged zombie population. We talked with Gregory about the world he created, as well as his work on the new Planet of the Apes comic.

Your central concept of a sentient zombie is a break from (to use a really bad pun) the body of zombie literature. What made you go that direction?

I really wanted to write an anti-zombie novel. There was just so much zombie stuff coming out that I thought, "Maybe there needs to be somebody going the other way." When I pitched it to my editor, I was saying, "It's kind of like the Unforgiven of zombie novels." I saw that movie and I thought, "Well, that's pretty much it for westerns for me. It said everything, took every cliche and inverted it and moved on. No one can ever film another western again." But of course, you can't stop westerns and you're certainly not going to stop zombie novels, nor should you.

Really it started out, I wanted to write about a family in which a kid was being raised with them, sort of adopted, feeling like an outsider and feeling like something was missing. In the first idea, it wasn't really a zombie novel. There was just something terribly wrong with him. When I realized that he could be dead and I could use all those tropes from zombie fiction, then it just spiralled out from there and I got really excited about it.

Of course, my agent really liked it because she thought, "Well, I can sell a zombie novel!" I didn't quite tell her that I was writing the anti-zombie novel at the time, that I was maybe just going to annoy all the people who really like zombie fiction in which zombies are monsters.

Do you consider yourself a zombie fan? Do you have a favorite zombie story?

For me, it really was the Romero movie just scared the hell out of me when I was first ran across it as a teenager. Then, you grow up with all the zombie stories, and then you get Shaun of the Dead later, and you think, "Ok, that's the best possible zombie comedy ever." I think everybody at this point has grown up with zombies. So it seemed like all the furniture of zombie novels was just waiting to be used and maybe misused in my case.

So I'm a fan of the original core stuff, but I think I've seen everything along the way. I've seen all the Resident Evil movies, I think. Though, when I was writing the book, I stayed away from reading anything new. So I deliberately have not read the Walking Dead graphic novels or seen the TV show yet. I had to wait.

Stony's life has very messianic overtones. Why take that approach with his character?

Oh, it's definitely the zombie messiah story. I wanted to cover a person's entire life. So you start with this very Moses-like beginning, where he's found along the side of the road and raised by the enemy, raised by humans. I was raised fundamentalist, raised by southern Baptists, so I can't hardly spit without seeing a Christ image or a metaphor. It just sort of comes with grits in the south. So I was like, "Oh, of course he's the zombie messiah." I was interested in the idea of the Jesus story, where he's the messiah for everybody, not just the Jews. The zombies are waiting for their messiah to deliver them from this persecution from the humans, but he's kind the messiah for everybody by the end. I was interested in telling the messiah story in this down-home, psychologically realistic way, but have it be a story about a zombie. And of course, any time you talk about zombies and rising from the dead, you go right back into Jesus territory. I kept running across scripture I wanted to use, I have him run into religious people. The zombies are going to be making up their own religions along the way about this stuff. So it just kept feeding on itself.

One of the big tensions in the novel is that zombies are this underclass, and they're wondering whether they should just die off, recruit a couple of new people annually by biting, or just launch the apocalypse. At the end, that tension is still there. Do you think it's possible for these two groups to coexist?

I would like to hold out hope that they can. Because they're sentient, maybe there's hope. But the realist in me says its not going to work out. You'd think by now we'd be done with war and racism and zenophobia, but its so persistent that I don't think this world is any sort of exception.

It depends on my mood. I end where it is because it's sort of hopeful on a local level. But on a larger level, stepping back and thinking about it, it's like, "How long can this new status quo hold out?" All happy endings are conditional until the next day.

You sort of take the original Romero outbreak and say, "Ok, that happened," and then a good bit of the book is Stony's teenage years in the 80s. Why that time period?

This is a complete cheat on my part. I decided I wanted to do his entire life, and then I decided I would base it on my own timeline. I was born in ‘65, the Romero movie happens in 1968 and in our world there's a guy named Romero who makes a documentary of the actual first zombie attack. I grew up in Illinois and not in Iowa like Stony does, but I wanted to write about my family, the sort of people I grew up with. I could talk about the ‘80s and our fascination with comic books and the way pop culture felt and the way, and also, this doesn't really anything to do with the 80s, but the kind of intense friendships boys have when they're in that preadolescent stage. I grew up in the suburbs and it was pretty undeveloped, and we were running through the woods a lot unsupervised. I like this idea of what guys end up doing when they're not being watched and mom's at work. My friend and I did shoot arrows at each other, but none of them actually struck into my heart and had to be dug out by my older sister. We were crazy.

Your previous two novels, Pandemonium and The Devil's Alphabet, straddled the lines between science fiction and fantasy. Where does Stony fall?

I'm always writing scifi in some ways, because the characters never know what kind of novel they're in. So I'm writing them realistically. They're going to ook for scientific explanations first, and then only be pushed into some other explanation if nothing else makes sense. Pandemomium was this novel about demonic possession, but nobody knew if it was a psychological problem or a neurological disorder or actual demons or what it was. And The Devil's Alphabet was pretty much straight scifi, but I put in all this stuff that made it feel like a Southern gothic kind of fantasy story.

Stony himself is kind of a scientific-minded guy and an inquisitive guy. He is always trying to study what's going on with his own body and with the bodies of others to try to crack the code. He comes to find out over the course of the novel that they just don't make sense and he can't make sense of them. They're actual dead people who nevertheless still move. How do they move? How do you think if you don't have any electrical activity in your brain? It's a blunter version of those other books, in that he's struggling with a world that makes absolutely no sense.

I think I keep coming back to this theme because the world doesn't make much sense to me, either. You hit upon things you can't reconcile, and then you either have to fall into magical thinking and make a religion out of it, or you have to say, "All right, I don't understand this but I am going to proceed with the rules as i understand them."

You've done a fair bit of work in comics, as well. How does your work in each medium influence the other?

There's a couple of things going on. One is just a structure difference. It's like going from sonnets to free verse or back and forth. There's a joy in learning a whole new structure and a way to tell stories that's in collaboration with the artist. I'm trying to write as little as possible a lot of the time when I'm writing comics and picking just the right bit of dialogue, because the form is so restrictive. There's so little space, and you want to give as much room as possible to the artists because they're carrying all the emotional weight for the story. It has changed my writing in that I'm a lot more careful about dialogue since i started working on comics, picking exactly the write phrase and cutting out the padding around it.

But they do such different things that there are certain stories that just work better as comics. A story like Stony's, where you cover an entire life and you're spending a lot of time in the beginning watching him hang out with his family and hang out with his friends — I'm not sure how well that would work as a comic. You would certainly want to have enough guaranteed issues from the publisher to take that amount of time.

You're working on the new Planet of the Apes comic right now. What are the long-term plans for that?

It's going to be an ongoing series and the sales are good, so we're going to keep going as long as we can. It's unrelated to the reboot that they're doing this August with James Franco. It's based on the classic mythology, and Fox gave us free reign. We could set it in any time period and use any characters we want. I think because they're concentrated on the Franco movie, we're at the little kids' tablet at Thanskgiving, eating whatever we want. They've approved all the scripts and they've been very easy to work with and they are basically letting me do the story I want.

So what are you most excited about, in working with that story?

What I love about the Apes movies was they were, more than almost any other scifi franchise, explicitly tackling issues. They are tackling racism, war, zenophobia. So to honor the spirit of that I said, "Ok, if I can write any Apes story, it has to be something that means something to me personally and also means something, socially, about the time we're writing it. Even if we've got these apes talking and walking around like humans and waving swords, what is it that means something about where we're at now?

For me, the story was all about security versus personal freedom. What are the trade-offs people make for a secure society. That seems like where we've been for the last ten years, since 9/11. There's this other that we're struggling against and there's us, we're trying to protect our civilization. But in this case, it's the apes running the civilization and the humans who are partitioned off and are definitely the underclass. I'm writing about that in a barely cloaked manner. And in the Apes movies it's pretty clear what they are talking about. It doesn't take a very big decoder ring to figure out what's going on.