In just about half a decade, David Wellington has earned a reputation as one of horror fiction’s most inventive practitioners. Part of that reputation stems from the Pittsburgh-born writer’s ability to take some of the genre’s more popular archetypes and explore them in new and imaginative ways. That includes his unique take on zombies (the 'Monster Island' trilogy), vampires (the 'Vampire Tale' series) and werewolves ('Frostbite' and 'Overwinter').
Wellington’s latest novel is '32 Fangs: A Final Vampire Tale', in which FBI agent-turned-vampire hunter Laura Caxton faces off against undead queen Justina Malvern in a final showdown. It’s the fifth and final book in a series that began with '13 Bullets', which first appeared online in serial form on Wellington’s website (www.davidwellington.net) in 2006 and continued with '99 Coffins', 'Vampire Zero' and '23 Hours'.
With the release of '32 Fangs', Wellington sat down with Monsterpalooza to talk about his work in the genre, his thoughts about branching out into areas of fiction and the possibility of any big-screen adaptations of his work in the not-too-distant future…
Your final vampire book recounts the final showdown between Laura Caxton and the vampire queen Justina Malvern. Since you’ve already pointed out more than once that Laura can’t go toe to toe with Malvern physically, it’s really all about finding a way to outthink her, isn’t it?
Definitely. The vampires always lose because they get cocky. They think, ‘I’m ten times stronger and faster; there’s no way the humans can win!’ so they always make dumb mistakes. Malvern is the one vampire who’s never made a dumb mistake. She’s always had a good plan and she’s always realized that as strong and fast as she might be, there are still limitations to what she can do so I think a chess game is definitely the way to put it. The two of them have definitely been planning for this for a very long time. Malvern knows Laura Caxton is the biggest threat she will ever face, so she’s not just going to walk into a confrontation. It’s going to be pretty well planned out in advance.
And since Laura is still outside the law herself, she has to find ways of evening up the odds, doesn’t she?
I hope people will have read 23 Hours before they get to this book! She has always had access to a lot of high-tech weaponry and gear because of her position in law enforcement, but that’s gone now. She’s completely on her own and she can’t even talk to the girlfriend of her old partner; they’re off limits to her, because the second she tries to talk to them, she’ll get picked up by the cops, so she’s completely on her own and left to her own devices, so it’s going to be a matter of pure brain power and cleverness rather than hollow point bullets and Kevlar vests.
Changing the subject a bit, you were really ahead of the current zombie wave with your 'Monster Island' trilogy, weren’t you?
For the last five years, I’ve constantly been thinking about these waves that keep coming and going and how zombies are going to become oversaturated and nobody is going to want zombies anymore; oh, wait, they still want zombies! Or vampires are on their way out because they’re so silly and then here comes Twilight. I don’t think these things actually come in waves. It can feel like that, but I think it is individual properties. The zombie thing did feel like it was dying out until Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and then that was overdone and everybody said, ‘Oh, that was a flash in the pan!’ and then you had The Walking Dead. The thing is there has been a zombie movie made every year since 1966 so there has never been a time when there wasn’t a zombie movie; not necessarily a successful one or a big Hollywood one but there has always been a zombie movie. There has always been a vampire book out every year probably since 1890 but they’re always popular. There is never a time when these things are gone; there is never a time when they’re silly and no one wants to talk about them anymore. The movie Dracula came out in 1931 or 1933 or whenever it came out and by the fifties, people thought vampires were silly; well, no, they didn’t. There were still vampires around and people knew what a vampire was so I don’t know that there are waves. I think there are times when a given thing is more popular than another but there is this narrative in people’s heads that monsters come and go, and I really don’t think they do. I think they are archetypal and they are so much in the consciousness that there is always going to be run for another story.
But one of the things you do is you break down those archetypes to see how they tick, just like you did with zombies and try to add to that archetype.
These stories come out of some basic fear or some basic human need that makes them universal. There is a reason why some monsters go on to be famous and others fade from view. Frankenstein’s monster is a great example. This is a relatively complex monster when you think about how it was created, but Mary Shelley doesn’t even go into a lot of detail about that. There’s not a lot there in terms of mythology but there was something so interesting to people there about this creature that has been created by man rather than God that it just resonated with people. So there are always going to be those elements. With zombies, it’s the mindlessness, the fact that you can’t talk to them.
One of the great things about the zombie revolution or renaissance or whatever it is, is that we’ve seen so many different takes on zombies and they all work. 28 Days Later is probably one of the best zombie movies ever made but the zombies aren’t even dead. They’re just infected with something and they’re going to eventually starve to death because they’re still alive. And I believe that they don’t even eat people, which you think would be central to the zombie myth but it’s not. It’s just the moment when you stop being human. You still look human and maybe walk like a human being if a little slower, but you are not human anymore, and it can happen just like that and it can happen to anybody, anywhere at any time and that’s terrifying. That’s all a zombie is. You can change anything else and it still works. Brian Keene wrote The Rising where the zombies talk and drive cars, but they’re possessed by demons rather than being undead but they’re still zombies. There’s no question in anybody’s mind about that. It’s just about that moment when you stop being human and start becoming a monster. It’s really that simple. Good monsters are always that simple. Everything else is window dressing.
I get e-mails from people all the time telling me that I broke the rules. My vampires aren’t afraid of garlic and they say, ‘What are you doing? You broke the rules!’ and I want to say there are no rules. The thing about vampires and garlic may have come from Romanian folklore or it may have come from Bram Stoker’s imagination; who knows, but just because they’re not afraid of garlic doesn’t mean they are not vampires. Just because they don’t sparkle or if they do sparkle, they can still be vampires apparently. For me, that’s always been the fun part. You can play around with it a little bit. You’ve got to stick to a few very simple ideas but other than that you can play around and make it your own and for any writer, the fun part is making it your own.
What were you trying to accomplish with your two werewolf books, 'Frostbite' and 'Overwinter'?
This is the most ridiculous answer I can give you, but it’s the truth. I had written zombie books and vampire books, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘What if the next big monster is werewolves? I’d better write a werewolf book!’ It was just that simple. I thought I’d better have another monster in the holster just in case, so I started thinking about werewolves, and of course once I started doing the research and reading the old stories and looking at the movies, I thought it was actually kind of interesting and really got into it, especially when I started doing research on real wolves. The animal is so unlike the werewolf; there is nothing in common. The myths about wolves are bizarre, because they have nothing to do with the actual animals. Of course they’re dangerous, but there are only a few instances of actual wolf attacks. Wolves would rather run away and they are not particularly deadly predators. Mostly they eat field mice. They do hunt caribou, but it’s this bizarre ritual where they will spend days looking for the weakest caribou and then running around it because they’re afraid of its antlers. So the idea that wolves are these bloodthirsty monsters that are lurking just outside your village in the woods, waiting to eat passing travelers is bizarre and has nothing to do with reality.
I wanted to look at how human beings and wolves had lived together and separately over history and figure out where that myth came from. So a lot of Frostbite is really just my looking at what happens when you take a human being and force them to think like a wolf; thinking in that pack mentality and thinking about alpha wolves and who’s got dominance and so. It was just fascinating, this idea that we’re still animals at heart and to break us down to that point is kind of terrifying. We live in this built-up civilization but it’s really just frosting on the cake. The cake is still underneath and it’s just as powerful as it ever was, so the myth of the werewolf is all about that losing that control and losing that veneer of civilization and not being able to control yourself and that is a really powerful idea for a story.
What made you go into Eskimo folklore? Or the use of silver?
I was pulling my hair out, because there were so many elements to that myth. You’ve got silver and the moon and the transformation that only happens at a certain time and what kind of weird gypsy curse is going to lead to this? I just had to keep going back and back and back further and further in history. At some point, you’re just going to have to come up with some cockamamie explanation and sell it and if it worked, I’m really glad, because I was worried about that. I just thought because this is a myth about our ancestry. It’s about our primal nature and I wanted to look at its beginnings. I’m not as much interested in how the vampire curse got started, because I don’t think the vampire is a bestial monster. It’s about an ancient monster. I think the vampire is more living amongst us, whereas the werewolf is hearkening back to a much older time; a time before history and before we were recognizably human, so it was really interesting to me to keep going back and back and see how this came to be.
You also came up with the wonderful idea of a werewolf hunter who actually uses colloidal silver to become a werewolf hunter on a cellular level.
I was looking at silver and why it would be dangerous to werewolves and the thing is, silver is incredibly non-toxic. You can’t really poison yourself with silver; well, you really can if you really try (don’t try this at home kids), but it’s not poisonous for the most part. It can almost be beneficial; I don’t think colloidal silver will cure anything but it will keep water fresh and so on, but you will turn blue. It’s the one big problem with ingesting silver, is you turn blue and it’s bizarre and permanent and the people who suffer from it, it’s such a sad story, because you can’t go out in public again. People would love at them but all they were trying to do is be healthier and now they’re stuck with this forever and it’s tragic. I think any good monster hunter has to have an element of tragedy to them. But if you’re going to be hunting werewolves, who are allergic to silver, and every molecule in your body is infused with silver, you’re pretty good to go. In Frostbite, I have werewolf hunters who were very smart and devious people who had all these wonderful traps and things, who were complete failures. They had no effect on the werewolves at all so I had to come up with somebody who is going to take it one step further; a guy who’s going to go a little crazy but in the process make himself able to hunt these things and that was the solution I came up with and I’m kind of proud of that one.
You had previously said you could easily write a dozen more zombie books, but you’ve also expressed a desire to leave the zombie genre behind for now. Once you move on to a new series, do you prefer to leave the previous one behind?
I could write a lot more zombie books. It’s a genre that at first glance looks very limited. Zombies are not terribly interesting on their own; they do one thing, they do it very well which is that they eat people but there isn’t far to go from there. George Romero wisely realized early on that zombie movies are more about the survivors than the zombies, and I’ve tried to play with that by adding new kinds of zombies and playing with the whole myth and that was fun, but it’s still more satisfying to tell stories about the survivors.
Do your publishers have an idea what they want from you next?
I’ve been very lucky in that regard. The books sell well enough on their own, so that I don’t get a lot of pressure, but there is a lot of interest and they always want to know to know what’s coming up next. There have been a couple of times when I’ve had an idea and they’ve said, ‘No, we’re not really interested in that,’ but that’s fine; it’s a business and they have to make decisions like that, but as far as the monster books go, the vampires and werewolves and everything, they’ve been open to them and said, ‘Yeah, it worked last time; go for it!’ So they don’t tell me what to write and I’m also grateful for that. Frostbite and Overwinter went off in some strange directions but there was never any doubt; they just said, ‘You know what you’re writing; go ahead and write it.!’
Having established yourself as a successful horror writer, what made you move outside that comfort zone with your recent fantasy series written as David Chandler?
I don’t think anybody imagines themselves to be a horror writer. You just imagine yourself writing stories. I have a bunch of science fiction novels on my hard drive. They’re not any good, so I’m not going to be publishing them, but that was something I wanted to do. Certainly horror novels were something I wanted to do as well and that worked out and I’m very grateful for that, but I also want to write fantasy novels. I’ve loved those genres since I was a kid. I’ve even got a mystery novel waiting to go.
If I recall correctly, you do have a sci-fi novel out there, 'Live from Planet Dirt'.
Oh yeah, it’s still out there somewhere but I wouldn’t call that establishing myself.
So do you still want to take on science fiction at some point?
I would love to, but science fiction is in a weird place right now. There’s a lot of great stuff happening, but it’s a market that seems to be shrinking. I don’t know why that is, but it would be fun to write one and see what happens. Maybe I’ll write one and put it on my website. One really neat thing would be to do an experiment (and again no publisher is ever going to go for it), but you release a science fiction book as a PDF file and ask people to pay for it. Probably most of them would end up not paying for it one way or another, but you ask them to and see what happens. Real science fiction fans are very computer literate and are perfectly happy reading e-books so it might be an interesting way to see how those two things can work together. Right now, e-books are still kind of in their infancy, but science fiction fans love futuristic stuff so it would be interesting to me to see if science fiction could have some kind of renaissance on e-books, whereas every other market is still struggling with that.
Has Hollywood started knocking on the door yet, as far as feature adaptations of your work?
Every book I’ve ever written has been optioned as a film. A lot of people have been working on these things, so it’s not like they’ve just optioned them and forgot about them. But honestly, just knock on my door. I’m here waiting, and these books would be perfect for movies; they’re yours for a song; let’s get to work. That’s how I see it, but in Hollywood, everything is dependent on a hundred different people being in the frame of mind on that particular morning. It’s like winning the lottery: you’ve got to get every number in the right place and that’s so frustrating for a writer. But I would absolutely love it if something happened.
'32 Fangs: A Final Vampire Tale' went on sale April 24th from Broadway Paperbacks/Three Rivers Press
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