When James Chambers wrote the zombie novella The Dead Bear Witness in the late-’90s, stories about the undead were as uncommon as, well, survivors in a George Romero movie. There was only one Resident Evil game, and no movies; there was no Walking Dead, in print or on TV; and not much else when it came to the “living impaired.” My how times have changed. In the following email interview, Chambers talks about Corpse Fauna: Volume 1: The Dead Bear Witness (paperback), a collection of his narratively connected novellas and short stories that’s not only being reprinted, but is the first of four related volumes that will ultimately put this zombie saga deep in the ground.
Let’s start with some background: For those who missed the original edition, what is the Corpse Fauna saga about, and what is The Dead Bear Witness about?
Corpse Fauna is about a small number of humans struggling to survive in a world overrun by the living dead — and to understand what has happened, why the dead walk, and what they’re planning for the ultimate fate of the world. The name is a nod to the life that flourishes on dead bodies: carrion beetles, maggots, and other creepy crawlies. Events are chronicled in a series of novellas and short stories, which have evolved organically since I wrote the first story in the series, “The Dead Bear Witness.” That one is about Cornell, a charismatic bank robber, a sort of modern-day John Dillinger, who finds himself in prison when the dead plague begins. Caught up in the competing efforts of the warden, Lane Grove, who sees the living dead as fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy, and Klug, the head shot-caller among the prisoners who is plotting a jailbreak, Cornell finds himself walking a thin and dangerous line.
Where did you originally get the idea for the Corpse Fauna series?
It started with Zombie Hell. That was a comic book project I planned to do with writer Christopher Mills back in the late 1990s when we produced another horror comic book, called Shadow House, which featured my series “The Revenant” and Christopher’s “Nightmark.” We had a great time writing and publishing Shadow House, working with artists Dan Brereton, Pat Broderick, Fred Harper, and Kirk Van Wormer, and hoped to do more, similar projects, but Shadow House never quite gained the traction it needed in the market and our follow-up projects all moved to the back burner. But I had already plotted my story for Zombie Hell, about an old prison inmate who’s about to be released after completing his sentence only to find the dead have taken over the world and left him nowhere to go. That character, Old Corntooth, appears in “The Dead Bear Witness,” but the story grew and became much larger than him alone. The basic idea of looking at what happens when a prison becomes a sanctuary, when freedom can quickly mean death, when the state of the world makes the old rules obsolete, is still at the heart of the story but expanded.
And what inspired it?
That came from a love of stories about the walking dead and a wish that more of them existed. This was back in 1997-1998, before zombies surged to popularity. At that time, it was entirely possible to have seen all the zombie movies and read all the zombie books and comics. The good stuff, at least, amounted to little more than George Romero and Lucio Fulci movies, the comic book Deadworld, and Skipp and Spector’s Book Of The Dead anthologies. Of course, that all soon changed, and the living dead are just about everywhere now. But before that if you were hungry for these kinds of stories you had to make your own.
So aside from horror, are there any other genres, or maybe horror subgenres, at work in Corpse Fauna: Volume 1: The Dead Bear Witness?
It’s also very much a hard-boiled crime story about a group of inmates plotting a jailbreak. The living dead are fun and interesting but not as interesting as living people under great pressure and in tough, bizarre situations. Grue and gore aside, the psychological aspects of the story interest me most, and that’s what gives The Dead Bear Witness its momentum and tension. It’s an examination of how Cornell, a unique kind of criminal, responds to and changes in circumstances way beyond his control that will kill him if he makes a single misstep. There’s deceit, betrayals, and plots within plots, and a little gun play as well. But it comes down to a pulp fiction blend of crime and horror.
Corpse Fauna: Volume 1: The Dead Bear Witness is not your first published work. Were there any writers who were a big influence on these stories but not on anything else you’ve written? And I’m including in that the other books in the Corpse Fauna series, which we’ll be getting to in a moment.
The biggest writing influences on this story in particular were George Romero, who gave us the template for the modern stories of the living dead in the films he wrote and directed; Stuart Kerr, who wrote the Deadworld comic book series; and Carl Sifakis, a crime historian and writer, whose books about American crime, prisons, and criminal slang provided essential insight into the underworld and its culture. Romero and Kerr produced the stories that originally made me a fan of what we call in a broad sense zombie fiction, although I like to make the distinction (as Romero did) between proper zombies in a Voodoo sense and the living dead or the dead reanimated on a mass scale by other means. If I hadn’t loved that stuff early on I probably never would’ve written “The Dead Bear Witness.” And I wouldn’t have written a story about criminals in a prison absent the fantastic reference material Sifakis wrote.
What about movies, TV shows, or other non-literary influences; did any of them have a big influence on Corpse Fauna: Volume 1: The Dead Bear Witness?
I guess I already sort of answered this one in the last question since Romero wrote movies, but that’s how the living dead go! There were precious few literary stories in this territory at the time I began writing “The Dead Bear Witness.” Skipp and Spector’s Book Of The Dead anthologies were about it and then Brian Keene published his landmark novel, The Rising, in 2003, which is part of what kicked off the whole resurgence in popularity. Though I didn’t read the latter until after “The Dead Bear Witness” was published. The novella really is a love note to those films and comics that I loved. There was a very long period where it seemed like Romero was done with the Dead films and no one else was going to take up the mantle. A lot of years passed between Day Of The Dead (1985) and 28 Days Later (2002), Zak Snyder’s remake of Dawn Of The Dead (2004), and Romero’s own Land Of The Dead (2005), the three films that kicked off the present, seemingly endless parade of walking dead movies and television shows. Even The Walking Dead comic book series only debuted in 2003, and the TV show launched in 2010. It was a very different landscape in this regard when I wrote “The Dead Bear Witness.”
Now, this is not the first version of Corpse Fauna: Volume 1: The Dead Bear Witness to be published. Compared to earlier editions, what does this new one add or change, and why did you think those things needed to be added or changed?
The biggest change to this version compared to the original is the expansion to include much more characterization of Della, a crucial character who had less of a presence the first time around. She gets her own chapters in this edition, and I got to spend much more time exploring her character and her experience as a nurse, not an inmate, trapped inside the prison — and as a woman in a situation where almost everyone else around her is a man. She’s a major character in the overall Corpse Fauna story, and I wanted to breathe more life into her so that everything she goes through later on will resonate more with the reader.
Along with this new version of Corpse Fauna: Volume 1: The Dead Bear Witness, you have a new version of Volume 2: Tears Of Blood coming out after the first of the year, as well as the new books Corpse Fauna: Volume 3: The Dead In Their Masses out next summer, and The Eyes Of The Dead slated for next Halloween. First up, did you make similar changes to the new versions of Tears?
Yes, very similar changes. It’s funny how these things work out! The first version of Tears Of Blood was written in response to a prompt from the editor who published The Dead Bear Witness and wondered if someone could write a story that might show how some people would actually be better off after the living dead overran the world. That inspired the character of Vale, who found out she was much stronger and more independent than she ever imagined once she had to face the new, horrible reality. But the first version of that book — which was actually written for a different editor and published by yet another one — spent very little time on what her life was like beforehand, so I expanded Tears to include a major section that essentially follows Vale through the early days of the dead plague and takes her up to where the story originally introduced her. It’s a very different reading experience now that the reader is in on the contrast and the transformation as well as the aftermath.
And then is The Eyes Of The Dead the last book in this series?
As of now, the fourth book is intended to conclude the series. For as long as I’ve been writing these stories and seeing them published and then out of print, published, and then out of print, I’ve been working toward a definite conclusion. There is a reason the dead rose. They have a purpose and a goal. In The Eyes Of The Dead, we’re going to find out what that is and whether or not they achieve it, and all the major characters — Cornell, Della, Vale, Birch, and Christopher — will come together for the finale.
As you know, some people like to wait until every book in a sequence is out, and some then read them all in a row. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait to read The Dead Bear Witness?
I encourage readers to dive right in and not wait. I approached writing these stories more as a chronicle than a series, so they all stand-alone very well and deliver complete stories. They’re not cliffhangers where you’re breathlessly waiting for a delayed conclusion. They’re all different in tone to some extent as well. Readers might even enjoy the short break between books. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and then it’s like getting back together with some old friends. But it’s fine, too, if readers prefer to wait and then binge. They will read together like that just as enjoyably.
Earlier I asked if any movies, TV shows, or video games had been an influence on Corpse Fauna: Volume 1: The Dead Bear Witness. But has there been any interest in adapting this story, or this series, into a movie, show, or game?
There hasn’t been any serious interest in these books from other media. Their difficult publishing history may have contributed to that as each time the series seemed to be gaining traction, the publisher folded or otherwise dropped the ball. I’m very optimistic about this new incarnation because the people at eSpec Books are simply the best. They are absolute pros, and they’re putting their all into making these books the best they can be. They’re committed to seeing the series through, and I could not be happier about working with them. So, fingers crossed, we’ll be able to take these things much further this time. And, as an aside, I write in detail about the series’ crazy history in my afterwords for The Dead Bear Witness and Tears Of Blood.
If an adaptation did happen, what format would you prefer?
Given the nature of the series, a television show would work best, but I wouldn’t be upset if they were adapted into a movie. In fact, I can envision a clear path to condensing the entire series down to a single, very tightly plotted film. I would love to see a game version. The rules of the living dead in Corpse Fauna are different than any other zombie world, so there’s a lot of potential there for creating original scenarios for either a role-playing game or a strategy game. It would have to be much more story-driven than the typical first-person shooter.
The biggest problem with adaptation, though, is that there are already so many things out there in this arena that I wonder what the interest level is now or will be going forward.
What I’d most love to do with these stories is adapt and continue, or expand on, them in a graphic novel format.
I like your idea for a game version, but if Corpse Fauna: Volume 1: The Dead Bear Witness, or this series as a whole, was to be made into a TV show, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
I could see Patrick Wilson doing a phenomenal job playing Cornell, especially after seeing his performance in Bone Tomahawk. He’s capable of playing a charming but dangerous kind of person, of portraying the right mix of innocence and violence. I’d choose Brad Pitt for Birch, but only because Lance Henriksen [Aliens] is now the wrong age for the character. Imagine a mix of Pitt’s roles in Seven Years In Tibet and 12 Monkeys, and that’s Birch. Deborah Ann Woll for Della because I’ve so much enjoyed her performance as Karen Page on Daredevil. For Vale, I think Morgana O’Reilly would kill it. She’s a New Zealand actress who starred in Housebound, and has a great range, which Vale would need, especially to shift from sort of underdog to victor. She’s got the resourcefulness. I’d choose Idris Elba [Hobbs & Shaw] for Klug because no other actor has the gravity and screen presence needed to play that character. [Guardians Of The Galaxy‘s] Michael Rooker for Sheriff Tom Weichert; he’s just a perfect fit for that mix of menace and authority. [Fargo‘s] Steve Buscemi for St. Bianco, which requires a very weird but Zen performance. And the Red Man…hmmm, that’s a tough one. I’d go with Anthony Carrigan, who played Zasz on Gotham, but he also played a very sinister Satanist in a horror film called Satanic.
Finally, if someone enjoys Corpse Fauna: Volume 1: The Dead Bear Witness, which of your other, non-Corpse Fauna books would you suggest they check out while waiting for Corpse Fauna: Volume 2: Tears Of Blood to come out?
For horror readers, On The Night Border, published by Raw Dog Screaming Press, would be the best book to pick up next. It’s a collection of fifteen of my best horror stories, with several published there for the first time, and it’s a great showcase for the variety of horror I write. It even includes another story of the living dead, not part of Corpse Fauna, and one with a very, very different take on the whole idea of the zombie story. My novella collection, The Engines Of Sacrifice, is also good choice; four Lovecraftian stories set in different time periods.
For readers willing to branch out to other genres, I’d also suggest my novella, Three Chords Of Chaos, published by eSpec Books, which is a dark, urban, bad-ass faerie tale about an exiled faerie musician who learns he can regain his power in the mortal world by playing music for live audiences and then plots his revenge against those who exiled him. As Publisher’s Weekly said about it: “Music lovers who enjoy the fusion of pop culture and faerie magic will empathize with Gorge and Delilah [the main characters].”