A project I was struggling with for the last few months is my latest entry to Wrath of the Damned. The story, “The Desert Stretched Before Him,” came out okay, but it took a long time to write and it ended up being long – like 9,500 words long.
If you haven’t read it and you care to, or you like me at all, jump over and give it a go before continuing here. The rest of this post contains spoilers about the story.
The writing of the story itself was intriguing for me. The theme comes mostly from when I read “Dune Messiah,” the sequel to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece “Dune,” way back in high school. “Messiah” is set on Dune, the desert planet that’s central to the entire space-faring society described in the novels, and concerns greatly the somewhat-nomadic desert tribes of people who live there.
At the conclusion of the novel, the leader of the tribe is blinded while warding off an attack from whoever happens to be fighting them that week (it literally could be anyone). Rendered a burden on his people, he takes a weapon and heads out into the desert – to die. That always resonated with me.
I wanted to apply that idea – that a person would put the needs of his group ahead of his own, and accept a death on his feet fighting rather than slowly wasting away as a burden – to a Wrath story. Zombie fiction sometimes deals with the “infected,” a person who is bitten and, as we all know but characters rarely do, is on their way to becoming more than just dead, but a very real threat to remaining survivors. This lack of knowledge consistently leads to carnage, but it’s cliché and predictable.
Instead, my character, Brad, heads out into his own desert, rather than risk the lives of his people.
But there are no such deserts in the Midwest, and specifically none in Michigan, and one of the things I (usually) strive for with Wrath is an authentic feeling, and that often requires real places. Besides that, at the end of the world where there are no people, everyplace can be a desert.
So the story was set in an urban area I could get behind – Detroit. Specifically, the survivors hole up at Joe Louis Arena. The only problem: My real geographic experience with Detroit is limited.
I hate to admit it, but I’m a suburban guy. I’m not happy about it. My time in Michigan has been almost completely suburban, apart from a short stint in a Detroit neighborhood when I was really little and a summer spent working in Grand Rapids. (Full disclosure: My apartment was in Kentwood, a GR suburb. Lame.) And while I did live for almost a year in a real urban setting, that real urban setting was Chicago.
Therefore, I took to the Internet. With the help of Google Earth, I was able to map with extreme accuracy the path of the main character through Downtown Detroit from Joe Louis to (somewhat meanderingly) Hart Plaza. It worked pretty well and I was able to establish the area in the story to a degree that made me pretty happy.
Here’s a Google Earth video I made of the path, complete with markers noting where some of the major plot points occurred. I think you might need the Google Earth app in order for it to work, though.
In creating the path and researching Downtown for the sake of the story, I was reminded of a similar process James Joyce engaged in during the writing of Dubliners. Not to compare myself to Joyce in any way – his process used letters in the mail and friends in the city to verify his information and was much, much more arduous; not to mention I’m writing horror fiction about zombies, and he’s James Joyce.
But there are parallels in the process. Joyce was relentless in his correspondence to make sure that he recreated the city in literature as it appeared in reality, to the chagrin of his publishers and their lawyers. And he had to do so from overseas, removed from the city he was trying to capture, which adds to it this voyeuristic longing to see the place, to be part of it, to know it and make others know it.
Okay, so imagine some low-level semblance of Joyce’s need to immortalize Dublin about a hundred years ago. That’s kind of how I felt.
And of course, there’s an interesting element in thinking about Detroit devoid of life. The city’s on this cusp right now – failing, emptying of people, and in urban decay as it has been for years; but also ready to be reborn, with a recent election of a new city council, various programs attempting to pull it back up, a recent Superbowl and a lot of national attention recently. Two very different ways to look at the city – and despite being a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested frozen nightmare for Brad, Detroit isn’t necessarily cast that way in the story, at least visually, and the whole thing is spiritual and ultimately positive.
“Desert” is, after all, a desolate vision quest for a doomed man in a doomed city. But neither are, necessarily, beyond saving.
So back to the techno-savvy way of walking through a city. It’s definitely strange to do things this way. The ability to virtually wander around Detroit for the purposes of fiction was convenient, but as to authenticity, I feel a little weird about it.
But I did end up in Detroit not long after for, conveniently enough, a hockey game. We walked from near the Renaissance Center to the Joe, past Cobo and Hart Plaza, so I got the lay of the land first-hand, even though it was dark. And I got the layout of Joe Louis, which was very cool on account of I hadn’t been there in a while and the interior pictures on Google were lacking.
It’s a far cry from Joyce’s postal reconnaissance and I feel kind of bad about it being so easy. But I enjoy the fact that I, like Joyce, have been able to find some process in which to make a city into something more than a setting at least in this one story – with a little (or a lot of) help.