Once again, bear with me while I exorcise a few more AUTUMN memories. As with previous instalments, there may be spoilers here…
As I mentioned in last week’s post, by the time I’d finished writing the second AUTUMN novel, I was already plotting the third. THE CITY had opened up the story dramatically, and it was becoming clear to me that by killing off 99% of the population by the end of the first page of the first book, I’d given myself the mother of all blank canvases to work from. That said, AUTUMN: PURIFICATION was originally intended to be the end of the series, and it does bring the story of Michael, Emma and the other original survivors to a conclusion, albeit a temporary one.
THE CITY ended with all the major characters in one place (for the first time), trapped underground, and it would have been easy to write something along the lines of Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD. I knew I wanted to take AUTUMN in a very different direction, though, so I needed to get everyone out of the bunker they’d fought so hard to get into. I’d also started to take a fair amount of flack from people who weren’t at all impressed with my take on zombies. They didn’t like the idea of a zombie story without any flesh eating, divorced from many of the usual clichés of the genre. In response, I wanted to open the third book with a bang, hoping to demonstrate that even though my living dead creatures had started off relatively tame, they were now anything but!
I’d originally introduced the military into the second book for a number of reasons, primarily to subvert the usual ‘here come the soldiers to save the day’ expectations. I thought it would be far more interesting to portray the soldiers and their officers as a spent force, as helpless as the survivors on the surface, perhaps even more so because of their reliance on breathing equipment and hazmat suits to stay alive. The sheer volume of dead flesh amassing on the surface above them begins to cause real problems – blocking exhaust vents and the like – leaving the military leaders with no option but to order a cull of the bodies. And, in the best traditions of the genre, things don’t go to plan. Before long, the survivors are on the run again.
For me, the most important aspect of PURIFICATION was that, for the first time, I was able to think about the post-post-apocalypse: i.e. what happens when the initial threat to survival is dealt with, and the few people left behind start to pick up the pieces and rebuild. I originally wrote the book in 2004 and I became fascinated by the idea of what happens next, after the point when most films and books end. The length and scope of AUTUMN gave me room to experiment.
To add a more plausible slant to proceedings, if that’s at all possible in a zombie story, I took the decision to introduce a group of survivors aiming to repopulate the small, craggy, and entirely fictitious island of Cormansey. By moving the action to a more confined, relatively controllable location, with a finite dead population to deal with, it allowed the story to move on. The ‘harvest’, for want of a better word, of the dead on the island is as harrowing as you’d expect for the characters involved, and yet it proves to be strangely therapeutic in some ways. For the first time, they become aware of the massive void where their old lives used to be. Peter Guest typifies this when, after helping remove a host of bodies from the island’s village store, he finds a small toy similar to one his late son owned. It’s a small trigger, but it unlocks a huge amount of emotion in the man. Similarly, others look through glossy magazines and remember how the world used to be, how it’ll never be again. I’ll talk more about these themes when I get to AUTUMN: AFTERMATH next month.
I had an absolute blast writing PURIFICATION. The story flowed like never before, and I was able to introduce many new characters with the help of additional ECHOES. If you’ve read any of the interviews I’ve done over the years (or if you read last week’s AUTUMN: THE CITY feature), you’ll have probably seen that I used to work for a high street bank, managing staff in a processing centre in the middle of Birmingham. Last week I mentioned how that place was the inspiration for Donna Yorke’s office in the second AUTUMN novel (and more than a few of the zombies!), but the location played a part in the development of book three. The processing work we did at our centre was outsourced to similar –but much cheaper for the bank to run – sites overseas. Whilst the offer of relocation to Sri Lanka was there, it wasn’t something I seriously considered for more than half a second (not for a minimum three year term, and definitely not with a very young family). So I took redundancy along with a few thousand other folks around the country, and the bank was remarkably decent about it. We were given over a year’s notice and yet, within a few weeks of the announcement being made, work started to migrate away from our site. There then followed a bizarre period of several months when we were fully staffed yet underutilized. I took advantage to write a huge chunk of the first draft of PURIFICATION and many ECHOES whilst sitting at my desk!
In terms of the book’s locations, this time they were almost completely fictitious. That said, there’s one scene which takes place in a small school. It was based on the primary school which all my kids have attended (the youngest only left this summer just gone). It’s a great little school, tucked away from the road behind a church, and it was the ideal place for Jack, Donna, Clare and a couple of terrified soldiers to hole-up, having become separated from the rest of the convoy of survivors. The school itself made another unnamed appearance several years later in DOG BLOOD, the second HATER novel, as the school Danny McCoyne’s children attend. He returns there looking for Ellis, and finds the playground awash with blood and the classrooms inhabited by a pack of vicious, feral kids. It’s a lovely place really.