David Dunwoody’s Empire takes place in Jefferson Harbor, Louisiana, about one hundred years in the future after a massive zombie outbreak. The U.S. government has given up on the area, preferring to concentrate protection on the places they still have under control. Sounds fairly typical of a zombie novel, but Empire has two key features that set it apart from other undead scenarios:
- The zombies are anything but shamblers & real pain in the ass to kill – you have to cut the heads off & burn the entire corpse just to be sure they don’t get up again.
- Death is pissed off that people aren’t dying the way that they’re suppose to, so the Grim Reaper himself arrives to put nature back in order.
I read Empire a very long time ago, when it was first edition, and couldn’t stand the fact that Dunwoody dared to mix the supernatural with zombies. It didn’t even matter to me that it was picked up by Permuted Press, but I was hard-up for zombie horror, so I bought the book. While there were some factors that added a minimal amount of cheese to the plot (the Baron, for instance – even harder to take than Death running around with a scythe), Dunwoody managed to pull off this original apocalypse with a cast of characters that haven’t known much else than struggling for one more day in an undead world.
I actually liked it enough to recommend it to my fellow zombiephiles in person, before I had begun writing reviews. When I saw the buzz about Empire’s End…a fucking sequel, written YEARS later?! Needless to say, I had some questions for David Dunwoody…
Q. I almost laughed when I first read the product description for Empire, before I read the book. How did you come up with the idea of Death intervening in a zombie apocalypse?
A: It started with searching for a “versus” concept for a zombie story. At the time that I was beginning to outline EMPIRE, I was working on short story ideas to submit to Permuted Press (who ultimately published EMPIRE as well). I eventually hit upon the idea of the Grim Reaper as the undead’s arch nemesis. I enjoyed writing Death so much in the story “Brownlee’s Blue Flame” (THE UNDEAD: FLESH FEAST) that I decided to incorporate him into EMPIRE. Ideas snowballed from there.
Q. I make it no secret that I hate when authors spring a sequel on what I thought was a stand-alone, especially when a large amount of time has passed since the first book was published. Why a sequel, and why so long between books?
A: The main reason for the gap between the books was the acquisition of EMPIRE by Simon & Schuster and the first book’s re-release. EMPIRE’S END was actually written in 2008, shortly after its predecessor first saw print. While EMPIRE had a conclusion, some questions still remained about both the undead and the Reaper. The sequel sets out to answer all those questions while upping the ante in terms of horror and action. Lots more zombies and cities full of victims just waiting to be pounced upon.
Q. I honestly thought Empire crossed into the bizarro genre at times. Will the sequel be more realistic or more of the strange & unusual?
A: In terms of my own stories, I believe in trying to surprise the hardcores who’ve seen it all – in this case, zombiephiles – and that motivated the strange nature of many of the zombies and humans as much as it did the inclusion of the Reaper. And of course those zombie animals!
EMPIRE’S END has aberrant zombies like the Omega, who actually eats other undead and is able to home in on the Reaper’s location; and the “featured” rotters, a pack of former sideshow curiosities. There are also a lot of weird and heinous humans…but this isn’t quite our world. The story presents an America that has been besieged by zombies for a century, and people are basically being born into the apocalypse. I think that plus the presence of the Reaper takes things into a dark-fantasy realm. Nonetheless I aim to keep classic flesh-munching action in there.
Q. Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
A: Sometimes, when thinking about all the different possible permutations of an idea (e.g. the living dead), it’s hard to pick & choose what to use and what to shelve. I have almost a compulsive tendency to venture down every road, so I have to force myself to save some of the wilder ideas for their own stand-alone stories.
Q. Lots of authors use zombie fiction as a soapbox for social commentary. Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
A: Great question, and something I think about a lot. One can’t help but muse about human nature and society at large when writing apocalyptic fiction. I try not to use it as a bully pulpit, or to enforce stereotypes, but I’m sure some of my personal beliefs come through. There’s definitely a sense of spiritual ambivalence – even God seems aloof and disinterested in the first book. And when it comes to the politicians or the soldiers or the outsiders, there’s a great deal of moral ambiguity. Very few are goody-goody crusaders or evil assholes. But you do need a few of those, in the end, because it’s fucking great when they get torn apart.
Put simply, I think an apocalyptic crisis would strip away pretenses of God and law and reveal each person for who they really are. That’s what you get in EMPIRE.
Q. Do you have anything else that you want to say to your fans? Where can zombiephiles go to find out more?
A: I appreciate everyone who has checked out EMPIRE or any of my other works. You can find out more about EMPIRE and all the stories related to it at EmpireNovel.com, and at the Empire page on Facebook (just search “David Dunwoody’s EMPIRE”). My main site is DavidDunwoody.com, and there you’ll find links to free stories and all of the zombie and non-zombie stuff I’ve put out in the last few years. Thanks Ursula!