To be a good writer, it helps to have a grasp on human nature. Which bodes well for Malcolm Devlin’s weird fiction zombie novella And Then I Woke Up (paperback, Kindle). Though written before the current Covid-19 pandemic, in the following email interiew, Devlin explains how his story wound up being sadly prescient when it came to people’s reactions.
To start, what is And Then I Woke Up about, and when and where is it set?
And Then I Woke Up is set in an unnamed city and centers around Spence, who, having spent years surviving what looks like the zombie apocalypse out in the wilderness, now lives in a facility for the cured. Part of his treatment is to tell his story, over and over, but he’s not the most reliable of narrators and even the disease is not entirely what it looks like.
Given that the story involves a zombie pandemic, I’m curious if And Then I Woke Up is socially relevant or relates to what’s going on lately with the pandemic?
The novella was written and submitted before the real-world pandemic hit, and although I worked my way through edits over lockdown, I didn’t make many changes to the pandemic aspects of the story to try and make it more relevant.
Though it’s always interesting to see how stories adapt to current events. This one wasn’t meant as a comment on the existing pandemic, but it’s interesting to read it in those terms. There are some scenes where characters walk through a deserted city, eying people they meet with suspicion, and that felt oddly true as we went on our permitted walks during lockdown.
But the pandemic in the story is more of a vehicle to explore the way society becomes divided through narrative, and it’s a bit alarming to see it remains topical in those terms, considering the rise of the anti-vax movements or the strange Covid denier conspiracies which sprung up left, right, and center. When I first wrote the story, the idea that whole groups of people were vehemently denying aspects of reality was alarming in its own way. A working title in my head was Brexit Zombie Story, if that gives the idea any provenance.
So if it wasn’t inspired by the Covid pandemic, where did you get the idea for And Then I Woke Up?
There were a couple of things I was interested in. One, as mentioned above, was this idea of the way we can fall under the sway of certain false narratives, to the point that we actively perpetuate them rather than try and understand how they came about.
The second was the trend of zombie stories to veer into survivalist fantasies. Stories in which the “heroes” have complete license to mow down a “horde” of people they see as monsters. The two came together when catching some zombie themed TV show and wondering what people would think if the series had the balls to end with that old, much derided trope that “it was all a dream.” The more I thought about that, the more I wondered if it might actually be the more horrific outcome.
And Then I Woke Up sounds like a medical horror story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I don’t know if I’d describe it as medical. I think the science would need to be a bit more rigorous for that to be true. I tend to describe my stories as weird fiction, which has the benefit of covering a lot of bases without necessarily favoring one over another. I think And Then I Woke Up one starts off as one genre before wandering off on its own somewhere.
Speaking of your other books, prior to And Then I Woke Up, you published a novella, Engines Beneath Us, and two short story collections: You Will Grow Into Them and Unexpected Places To Fall From, Unexpected Places To Land. Are there any writers who had a big influence on And Then I Woke Up but not on Engines or any of your short stories?
That’s quite specific. I think And Then I Woke Up evolved from the sort of thing I was writing in my short stories, so I’m not sure if any one writer was a bigger influence this time around. So, not answering your question quite in the right way, but earlier work I’d say was influenced by folk like Robert Aickman, Aliya Whiteley, Philip K. Dick, Kelly Link, Alison Moore, Alan Garner, Magnus Mills, etc.
Having said that, some of the sections of this story needed a bit more action than I’m usually used to, so that involved stretching muscles that wouldn’t normally get used.
How about non-literary influences; was And Then I Woke Up influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
In terms of films, obviously George Romero’s original Dead trilogy is an inspiration. Even if this story isn’t technically a zombie story, I did want it to have the aesthetic of one. Romero did far more interesting and thoughtful things with the zombies than many of his successors and imitators. The original Night Of The Living Dead remains absolutely devastating. That ending. My god.
The idea of games is very interesting. Over lockdown we played quite a few games of Avery Alder’s A Quiet Year, which is a mapmaking game where you collaboratively tell the story of a community trying to survive after something has happened. The idea of conflicting narratives and societal collapse are very relevant to And Then I Woke Up, even if the game didn’t directly influence it.
More recently, we’ve played a few games of Cole Wehrle’s Oath. We’d like to play more but, thanks to lockdown and the arrival of our son, big complicated board games for more than two players are a bit of a challenge. Oath is genuinely fascinating from a storytelling perspective, ultimately being about how history is recorded, built-on and forgotten. Again, I can’t claim it influenced my writing in this case, but it’s a whole game about how stories can be used to supersede existing stories and that’s absolutely something I’m interested in.
It sounds like And Then I Woke Up is a stand-alone story, though I can also see you writing other stories in this fictional universe. What are you thinking?
At present, And Then I Woke Up is a stand-alone story. It feels to me as though it has a beginning, a middle, and an end and if I were to stretch it any further, I’d be repeating myself. I’m not saying I won’t ever come back to it, but right now I think of it very much as its own thing.
Earlier I asked if And Then I Woke Up had been influenced by any specific movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around and ask if you think And Then I Woke Up could work as a movie, show, or game?
Honestly, I don’t know. I think that’s for someone else to decide. I’d be delighted to see what anyone could make of it in any medium, but I’ve been very lucky to get this story this far, so I don’t want to push my luck.
It might be interesting seeing if anyone could make the story work as a stage play. It could be argued that much of the story takes place in one location with different versions of the same scenes being played out in different ways. I think that’s the sort of thing that might work very well in the theatre, where reality is always heightened to some extent at the best of times.
So, is there anything else that people interested in And Then I Woke Up should know before deciding to buy it or not?
The excellent cover is illustrated by the excellent Samuel Araya, which makes me absurdly lucky and would look very nice on your bookshelf.
Finally, if someone enjoys And Then I Woke Up, which of your other books would you suggest someone check out next and why that one as opposed to one of the others?
My second collection, Unexpected Places To Fall From, Unexpected Places To Land, was published late last year, creeping out into the world without anyone really noticing, and I’m uncharacteristically proud of it. It’s not entirely horror, but it’s quite strange and I think if you enjoyed And Then I Woke Up, then you might enjoy some of the stories here as well.