This submission breaks quite a few guidelines about starting with action and plot and inciting incident. It’s a well-written opening to a paranormal (thriller?) about the Undead. Have the Undead been done to death? Is this a zombie apocalypse too far? Read on:
Title: River of Souls
Language: US English
Synopsis: Freshly Undead and the only thing standing between his sister and foster care, Davin is desperate to stay out of the government’s “treatment” facility for the no-longer-deceased.
When the dead first began to rise, people thought it was a miracle.
The first person to come back was just 19, a little younger than I was at the time. He killed himself with a shotgun blast to the chest and was pronounced dead at the scene. No one — not the paramedics, not the family who found the body — could have mistaken him for a survivor, not with all the bits of meat tangled by buckshot inside his chest cavity.
So not quite 12 hours later, imagine their surprise when he woke in the morgue, gasping and gurgling as he tried to speak. Imagine his family’s confusion giving way to delight and hope. Our sweet little boy is back, someone probably said. We have a second chance to make everything right.
That’s what I assume, anyway. The news never really said. Before they had a chance to run with the story, to book his family on all the morning talk-shows or start up a bidding war for the rights to his memoir, the next corpse had awoken. And the next, and the next, and soon this wasn’t a human interest piece anymore, not a freak accident or a miracle.
It was an epidemic.
“I’m not saying these people — these Undead — are dangerous…”
The radio’s disembodied voice carries in the silence of the gas station. The radio itself sits on the counter, nestled between displays of lottery tickets and Bic lighters. One of the speakers is going out, so it crackles, but the sound is clear enough regardless. If you keep the volume low, you hardly notice it.
“I’m just saying, we still don’t know what they really are. What they’re capable of.”
“They’re sick,” another person on the radio is saying. “What you’re suggesting, would you say that about a cancer patient? Someone with a chronic illness?”
It’s a hot night, sultry with late-summer humidity, and the air conditioner is broken. It’s been broken for days, but the owner can’t be fucked to care. He’s not the one who has to work here, after all. The customers, when they come, are fleeting; they visit just long enough to pay for their gas or pick up a six pack. Nobody’s here long enough to notice the heat. Nobody except for me, anyway, and when you’re working the graveyard shift at a 24-hour Kwik-Gas, you’re in no position to bargain.
“Oh come on Marlene. You have to admit there’s a difference between a chronic illness and someone who can walk around with half their guts spilling out without feeling it –”
I’ve got the front door open, propped by a crate of Pepsi 2-liters. The light outside flickers, and I can hear its intermittent buzz, the song of crickets out in the dark. Otherwise, it’s quiet outside; it’s been quiet for hours.
Los Ojos is a sleepy town, a wide spot in the highway, a town with more dive bars than schools. Nighttime customers are rare. We get truckers occasionally, but the overnighters usually stop a few miles down the highway to the Flying J, where they can take advantage of coin-op showers that charge by the minute or order a cup of coffee from some tired middle-aged waitress. Or else they make it a little way further out of town, staying the night at the Indian casino resort about 40 minutes past on the interstate, sipping beers on the clock and feeding their paychecks through the slot machines.
On hot, quiet nights like this, it’s easy to believe that you’re the only person left in the world. It’s easy to imagine that the sun will rise in a few hours and the streets will stay empty, the windows will stay shuttered, the doors will stay locked and still. That the desert will reclaim the town, and Los Ojos will go feral with its abandonment. Like the aftermath of Armageddon.
But that won’t happen.
Here in a few hours, once we’ve passed through the quiet time, the sun will come up and people will awaken and the lights will come on. Everyone will get back to their jobs, and life will keep on going. Because we’ve missed our apocalypse; the zombies are here, but instead of tearing down civilization, they’re standing in line at the Social Security Office waiting for their checks like everyone else.
My 16-year-old sister, Zoe, is lounging by the drink cooler. She’s got the door propped open and is half-leaning inside, eyes closed behind her thick-framed glasses.
“Can you not?” I ask, mildly, and not for the first time. “You’re letting the cold out.”
“Actually,” she says, “there’s no such thing as cold; just an absence of heat. You can’t really let cold out so much as you let heat in. Thermodynamics and shit.”
“Fine. You’re letting the heat in, then.” I peer over the counter at her. “Either way. You’ll run up the electric bill.”
She shrugs, but straightens and withdraws from the cooler. She pulls out a soda on the way. “Can you comp me one of these?”
I nod in agreement and tap in the appropriate code into the register. Foam bubbles over the top as she opens the tab, and she quickly covers the frothing opening with her mouth, taking in a long gulping drink before foam can spill out over the linoleum. She finishes with a hiccup, grimacing, the now-mostly-empty can half-crumpled. She wipes her hand, sticky with brown droplets, on the hem of her t-shirt.
She responds with a middle finger and a smirk. She slides down against the glass, folding herself up on the floor, and digs a book out of her backpack. It’s titled Carnal Jesus: Understanding the Miracle of the Resurrection in Light of the Undead Awakening. On the floor next to it, where it spilled out of her bag, is a book titled Secrets of Lazarus: What Do We Really Know About the Reanimation Virus?
Editorial comment: I think it’s a great beginning. I like the short introductory paragraph, that flies in the face of most advice about “prologues”. Why does it work? Well, it’s short, for one thing (no labored exposition here), but it also creates a great hook. Contrary to most zombie stories, this one approaches the trope from a significantly different angle. These undead are not stumbling carnivores, perpetually in a (slow-) motion pursuit of the smorgasbord of screaming survivors. They’re viewed as medical miracles, at first, anyway. Then the isolated miracle becomes an epidemic, and we sense a shift in sentiment.
The rest of the extract is just scene setting, a description of the gas station in the graveyard shift, a desultory conversation with his sister (why is she hanging around the gas-station in the middle of the night?), but I think it works. We’re slowly drawn in to his world with nice observed detail: the crackling radio; “Can you comp me one of these?”; the lack of night time visitors because of the attractions further down the highway; even the more philosophical ruminations on the small town. This is a good example of a well-written slow build, where simple atmosphere counts for more than “flash-bang-wallop” on the first page, proving that there are no rules to a good opening, only recommendations.
However, it’s not perfect. Some of the text could do with sharpening up. You can probably do without “The radio itself…” and just substitute “It…” You could get away with “One of the speakers crackles…” All of “but the sound is clear enough regardless. If you keep the volume low, you hardly notice it” could be more economically paraphrased “.. but the sound is clear enough with the volume set low”, saving six words out of seventeen. Could it be published as is? I think it would be much, much better having let a decent copy-editor loose on it. Could it go out as is to agents? Yes I think it could. You’d be running a risk with a lazy agent who picked up on the slight wordiness and decided they weren’t going to engage with an author who might need quite a bit of hand-holding to get to a publisher-ready manuscript, but you might get lucky.
If I was a real agent and this landed on my desk I’d be intrigued enough, by both actual opening and premise, to ask for a full. The two key details I’d want to know would be: does the writing get any worse, in terms of redundancies and verbosity, and how does the main plot hang together for the rest of the book? My major concern with the premise, for example, would be that the undead would start to rot, particularly in high humidity environments. Short of keeping them all in air-conditioned facilities, how do you deal with this potential plot-breaker? The focus on the heat and humidity and the broken air-con unit, might be a nod to this subsequent plot development, for all we know at this stage.
So a qualified yes. This needs tightening up, definitely. I’d be disappointed if this were published as it stands. As an agent I’d be intrigued enough to want to see more (albeit with the caveats I mention above), which is precisely the reaction you want.
Thanks for posting.
Thank you so much for the quick response and feedback!
I’ll be going over this bad boy with a fine tooth comb (or maybe one of those razor combs you use to thin out hair) before it goes anywhere, that’s for sure. I’m glad it’s intriguing enough to incite some curiosity!
As to your question: There’s a drug that slows the being-dead process down to a trickle. Here quite soon, once our narrator dies, he’ll be in need of it — and much of the rest of the story is built around the dangerous process of getting the “miracle life extension” drug through illegal channels since he can’t very well go to a doctor without being found and being put into a facility.
Which, it occurs to me, is a detail very much needing to be evident in the pitch. That’ll take some working, also 🙂
Following up a year later to let you know that this book is being published by Trepidatio Publishing and will be out in August 🙂 Who doesn’t love a happy ending! Thanks for all you do 🙂
That’s great news. Congratulations!