V-Wars: On Writing The Vampire Wars
I love vampires.
Okay, I’m a horror writer, so that’s probably not a stretch, but really, my connection runs deep. And I like my vampires scary.
If I were a twelve year-old girl I’d be totally fine with the sparkly vampires of recent years, and I don’t sneer at them –after all they’re perfectly suited for that demographic. Any adults who complain should check again to see to whom those books are marketed.
If I were a woman I’d probably delve deeply into paranormal romance. I have plenty of author friends who write those books, and I’ve even read a bunch without worrying that my testosterone would be drained away. I even read the entire Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris and loved the True Blood series HBO did based on them. Heck, I even wrote a short story (“The Million Dollar Hunt”) set in the world of Sookie Stackhouse.
But again…I’m not really the target demographic.
There are times I like funny vampires. Flicks like Love at First Bite, Fright Night (the original, please), Vamps, and the ageless Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein. Or, if I wanted some drama with my comedy, I’d pop in Innocent Blood or any episode of Buffy or Angel.
But really…I like my vampires to be scary. I like ‘em to be mean, and I like ‘em to be hard to kill.
I’m probably best known as a ‘zombie guy,’ having done thrillers (PATIENT ZERO, CODE ZERO), straight horror (DEAD OF NIGHT, FALL OF NIGHT), Steampunk zombies (GHOSTWALKERS: A DEADLANDS NOVEL), short stories (“Chokepoint,” “The Wind Through the Fence,” and a couple of dozen others.), novellas (“Family Business,” “Jack and Jill,” “Dark of Night”), young adult (the five-book ROT & RUIN series), nonfiction, ZOMBIE CSU: THE FORENSICS OF THE LIVING DEAD, essays (for TRIUMPH OF THE WALKING DEAD), documentaries (ZOMBIES: A LIVING HISTORY, on The History Channel) and comics (MARVEL ZOMBIES RETURN, ROT & RUIN: WARRIOR SMART, MARVEL UNIVERSE VS. THE PUNISHER and its sequels).
But I started out as a vampire guy. That’s really my first love.
My favorite horror movie for decades was Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA, and my personal collection of vampire movies on DVD and iTunes numbers in the hundreds. No joke.
A little backstory. I was a nonfiction writer for most of my professional career, focusing on magazine features, movie and restaurant reviews, how-to articles, travel pieces, and more. About twelve hundred articles and three thousand columns over twenty-five years. My first dozen books were nonfiction, mostly college textbooks and how-to books on martial arts and self-defense.
My first book to hit big, though, was about vampires. In 2000 I published THE VAMPIRE SLAYERS FIELD GUIDE TO THE UNDEAD (Strider Nolan Publishing), written under the pen name of Shane MacDougall. It was a nonfiction exploration of the myths and legends of vampires around the world and throughout history. It was a real doorstopper of a tome, clocking in at nearly seven hundred pages and chockfull of illustrations. It wound up outselling my other nonfiction books by a huge margin.
I wrote the book because, as I said, I love vampires. My spooky grandmother used to tell me wonderful stories about the beliefs people had –and in some cases still have—about those predator monsters. There are hundreds of vampire legends and, as it turns out, not one of them resembles the ‘Hollywood vampire.’ No opera cloaks, no fear of the cross, no dread of sunlight. They were so different from one another in aspect, powers, nature, vulnerabilities, causes, and so on.
I’ve always wondered why writers seldom, if ever, tapped that deep, deep well of creative potential and instead replayed the same faux vampire myth over and over again. It annoyed me. More so since I kept trying to find fiction that used folkloric versions of vampires as source material.
Finally, my wife, Sara Jo, told me to stop complaining about not finding that kind of novel and simply write the darn thing.
So I wrote it.
Having absolutely no experience in creative writing, I approached the daunting task of writing a novel. I had already done the research on the subject matter for my nonfiction book and was deeply read in horror fiction. So I gave it a shot, figuring that if nothing else I’ll get it out of my system. That book quickly grew into what was clearly going to be a trilogy of very thick novels about a troubled little town in rural Pennsylvania that runs afoul of several different species of vampires. And, by the way, werewolves and ghosts. Because…why not?
The first novel, Ghost Road Blues, got me an agent, and my agent –the formidable Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc.—sold all three novels to Pinnacle Books. That absolutely took me by surprise. I really had no idea if my fiction would be of interest to anyone but me and my very patient wife. Those books came to be known as the Pine Deep Trilogy.
Then Ghost Road Blues was nominated for two Bram Stoker Awards –Best Novel and Best First Novel. I lost Best Novel to Stephen King, and there is no shame at losing to King. However, I won the award for Best First Novel.
That was a watershed moment in my life, because until then I wasn’t sure if I was going to pursue fiction or go back to nonfiction. Talk about validation.
Shortly after Ghost Road Blues sold, Sara Crowe brokered a deal for me to write a series of nonfiction books for Citadel, which is a sister company to Pinnacle under the Kensington Publishing umbrella. One of those five books was a kind of encyclopedia of the weird called The Cryptopedia, co-written by David F. Kramer –and that won a Stoker Award for best nonfiction. Another of the five was the aforementioned Zombie CSU. But the other three were about vampires: Vampire Universe, They Bite (also co-written with Dave Kramer), and Wanted Undead or Alive (co-written with Janice Gable Bashman).
My fourth book was not about vampires, though. That was Patient Zero, a weird science thriller pitting Special Ops against terrorists with a zombie plague. It launched the popular Joe Ledger series and the eighth in that series, Kill Switch, debuts in April. The series is also in development for film. I should note, however, that the fourth book in the series, Assassins Code, does, in fact, deal with vampires. They are not, however, supernatural. I used genetics and the distortions –natural and deliberate- in recounting history to explain the monstrous nature of these particular blood drinkers.
Since I also write comics, I did a vampire miniseries for Dark Horse. Bad Blood is one of the darkest things I ever wrote. It deals with a young man who is dying of leukemia and who is attacked by the king of the vampires. Because of the chemo drugs in his system the vampire lord becomes sick and all of the vampires –who have been in hiding for over a century—wonder if all humans are now toxic to them. Bad Blood won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Graphic Novel.
I’ve since written all kinds of things dealing with all kinds of monsters, including werewolves (THE WOLFMAN), ghosts, aliens, secret societies, and more.
However, I keep returning to two monsters. Zombies and vampires.
In both cases, I tend to look for scientific explanations for how such monsters could exist. In Patient Zero, Dead of Night and Rot & Ruin I’ve come up with different scenarios using transgenics, virology and partisitology. I use a network of brilliant scientists who help me keep the science as rock solid as storytelling will allow. And it’s more plausible than you might believe. Plausible to make me uncomfortable, truth to tell.
The same goes with vampires.
Sure, the bloodsuckers in the Pine Deep novels are supernatural, but not in Assassin’s Code. And definitely not in my new series, V-Wars.
V-Wars was my first-ever project as editor. IDW, the comic book company, started a line of prose books a few years ago. After I contributed a novella to GI Joe: Tales from the Cobra Wars, edited by Max Brooks, the good folks at IDW asked me to pick a topic for a book they wanted me to edit and co-write. I pitched a ‘shared world’ concept, and that caught fire.
The premise is this: a virus is released by melting polar ice, and it triggers some dormant genes (junk DNA). These genes were once responsible for the phenomenon of vampirism, but over the centuries all vampires had been hunted to extinction. The gene had become recessive, until the virus. Now a percentage of the world’s population is undergoing genetic changes –they’re becoming vampires. And (as I began to explore in the Pine Deep novels) these infected become the kinds of vampires common to their ethnic roots. We have Chinese vampires, Native American vampires, revenants from the U.K., and more.
To build this world, I invited seven of my colleagues to write novellas. I handpicked writers whose styles fit this world and yet were highly individual. Each writer told a story set in a different part of the outbreak. In V-WARS you’ll find chilling tales by Nancy Holder, John Everson, James A. Moore, Scott Nicholson, Gregory Frost, Keith R.A. DeCandido, and Yvonne Navarro. I wrote a ‘framing story’ called Junk, which wraps around the other tales. And the introduction was written by Dacre Stoker, grandnephew of Bram Stoker! I mean…that’s some vampire coolness right there.
IDW released the first volume in hardcover a couple of years ago, and the company’s CEO immediately asked me to do more volumes and to do a comic.
Who am I to say no?
The second volume, V-Wars: Blood and Fire, including wild stories by Nancy Holder, Yvonne Navarro, James A. Moore, Gregory Frost, John Everson, Keith R.A. DeCandido, and Scott Nicholson. And in early 2016 we’ll have volume 3, V-Wars: Night Terrors, with stories by Larry Correia, James A. Moore, Jeremy Robinson, John Everson, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Hank Schwaeble, Scott Nicolson, Marcus Pelegrimas, Tim Waggoner, Scott Sigler, Weston Ochse, and vampire rap by Sam Orion Nova West-Mensch
V-WARS is pure vampire mayhem. Smart and scary. I’m currently editing stories for the fourth volume.
I did three story arcs in comic book form with wonderful artist Alan Robinson and stunning covers by Ryan Brown. The variant covers, by the way, were done by Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The first arc was collected in V-Wars: Crimson Queen and the second two in V-Wars: All of Us Monsters.
But V-Wars keeps growing. In January, IDW Games will release a V-Wars tabletop board game, written by award-winning game designer Rob Daviau. His previous games are legendary and include Risk Battlefield: Rogue, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Risk Legacy, Risk Star Wars, Star Wars Epic Duels, Clue: Harry Potter, and more.
And now IDW Media is out shopping a V-Wars television show, with a stunning pilot written by Tom Schlattmann, former head writer for Dexter.
What makes the series so exciting? It’s easy…there’s no limit to the kinds of stories you can tell. We have straight horror, politics, gender issues, racial conflicts, religious conflict, shadow governments, and terrorism both foreign and domestic. It allows the writers to come at the story from so many different perspectives, and it’s allowed me, as editor and co-writer, to keep it real. The books don’t forward a specific social or political agenda. In fact, the contributors in the V-Wars series run the gamut of political stances from far right to moderate to far left. The stories reflect those different points of view. And the characters, both human and vampire, are not black or white in nature. Some of the vampires are good guys; some of the humans are scumbags. Each character follows his or her own nature, influenced of course by their politics, religion, nationality, cultural experience, and power of choice. It’s a complicated series and the readers have really responded very strongly to it.
I’m about to start writing the framing story for the fourth volume. Will it be influenced by global and national politics? Yeah, of course it will. Will it take sides? No, that’s for the reader to do.
Will the vampires be scary? Yeah, a lot of them are. Not all, but enough. Certainly enough to satisfy my longstanding love of dark monsters. And of the people who fight those monsters.
Yeah, I love vampires.
I love all kinds of vampires.
Come on and try the V-Wars books or graphic novels. Or the game. However you approach that world, go on and take a nice juicy bite.
Jonathan, thank you very much for sharing your writing talents with LitPick!