Interview with: Stephen Gilbert

How was Twilight - The Awakening originally conceived as part of a wargame campaign?

I originally planned the book with the intention of making the high points (the fight scenes) into battle reports to be played out in miniature using a set of rules I devised expressly for this purpose. The reader would have read the story, and then it would have cut away to a table top game, complete with photographs and game narrative. The main plot would then pick up again at the end of each battle. The idea didn't pan out when I lost contact with the games company originally interested in my idea, and so I ended up making the story a full blown novel instead. Interestingly, there is one whole battle scene in the book which was fought out from start to finish on the table top. I had to re-write it for the finished work.

Gaming zombies and writing about them - what's similar and what different?

Hmmm, that's an interesting one. Yes, ever since I saw my first George A. Romero movie in the cinema as a kid (I snuck in) I was hooked on the genre. Now, years later, I very much enjoy playing zombie style skirmish wargames using 28mm miniatures. Writing about zombies is really just an extension or addition, if you like, to my fixation.

When setting up and playing a zombie wargame, the focus is on painting the miniatures in a way which brings to life the vivid images of both star and screen. Trying to create those stark scenes of a terrible dark future world where humanity has become all but extinct amidst vast hordes of terrible monsters is not always easy.... I hope you see the connection there between the 'good people'minority (those with morals and ethical codes), and the rest of the populace (who really do, in many ways, remind me of zombies).

Painting miniatures and making terrain features for my zombie games is a lot harder in many ways than simply writing about them. In miniature, the models often tend to look too shiny and colourful. When you write about them, the images I try to give the readers are usually bleak, washed out, and colourless. Altogether drab and dreary.

Also, the main characters and heroes tend to die much too frequently for my liking. At least in my stories, the characters tend to hang about until I've at least had a chance to flesh them out a bit first. *laughs*

Another difference is tone. I find there tends to be a lot of humour injected into stories created on the table top. The stereotypical annoying 'suit and tie'pushing women in front of him when the zombies attack whilst he tries to make good his escape. Players always enjoy it when these types get their eventual come-up-ance. The screaming girl who stands stark still amidst a horde of danger and alerts every zombie for miles around exactly where their next free meal is located. Even the Rambo type characters, armed to the teeth, always eager to increase the death toll in the wake of destruction they cause around them. These characters could almost be classed as monsters with guns in their own right, though they seldom realise it. *chuckle*

For the story line to live and breathe (no pun intended), you have to be a lot more subtle about things. Individual emotions and personal motives become a lot less important, and escape and survival ultimately becomes the most important factor involved. Group motivation and inter-independence is the key. Simply surviving becomes far more important than 'zombie bashing'and battle field prowess.

The similarities probably stem from the same source; a deep desire to see the stories we watch in the cinema continue to their logical conclusion. Movies always seem to end with a few of the heroes fleeing almost hopelessly in a small helicopter, or driving away in a car almost empty of gas. What becomes of the helicopter and crew flown by that pregnant woman? Will she land the machine intact? Will they find somewhere safer than the place they were hurriedly forced to vacate? Will the car run out of gas a mile down the road? Or a hundred miles? And what then?

When I write about these things I take the story WAY further, and let the readers follow their beloved heroes. Letting them know all the mundane stuff the two hour movies simply don't have time to go into with any depth. A zombie wargame revolving around a woman's need to find a packet of cigarettes would be pretty dull to play out. Put that same scenario into a book, and suddenly the whole dimension changes.

Why do you like zombies so much?

Zombies are us. Only altered. I sometimes think the most frightening thing on this planet is the human being. Take a human, change his eyes and make his face a bestial distorted mask of hatred, and you have a true monster.

Zombie scare the living cr@p out of me to be honest, because I only have to sit in a train station and look around me. You only have to shop in a busy supermarket, or walk through rush hour city traffic to see similar 'mental zombie'scenes unfold on a daily basis.

Where did the ice age theme come from?

Ah yes. I set my story in a near future post-apocalyptic world where an unnaturally induced mini ice age has just set in. This in turn blankets everything with frost and snow.It fit the stark and macabre nature of my theme perfectly. Not only do my hero survivors have to fight for their lives against the mass hordes of the living dead, they also have to combat the elements. It turns the very planet into a faceless monster in its own right.

Do you plan on writing more zombie genre and why?

Yes, Twilight - The Awakening, although a complete novel in itself, leaves many questions unanswered and a few cameos deliberately incomplete. These will be picked up in the concluding story which should be completed by Easter next year. I have a few other projects to write in the mean time which take priority for the present.

Why do I feel I want to write more on this theme? Not because I feel the story needs a finite ending. Rather I have more to say on the subject. I've barely touched the surface of what's out there to explore. I think the second part of the story will open a few eyes with unexpected turns and twists. Actually, I look forward to scaring more readers with what's coming next.

What movies/people influenced you most in the genre?

Without a doubt George A. Romero is the undisputed master of this genre. His insight into the human psyche and how people react (especially with one another) under extreme conditions is a social study in itself. Night of the Living Dead (actually, the colour remake is better), Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and the rest are my source books for never ending inspiration. Films like 28 Days Later and the remake of Dawn of the Dead take the subject a step further. They also expand the idea in interesting ways as well. They inspire me in my own games and my novel writing. Even in my wargame battle reports, which I usually write for my own amusement if nothing else.

Perhaps strangely, another huge influence on my zombie writing would have to be the black and white graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn. These are simply exquisite books (I'm fortunate enough to have them all in hardback) and sum up just about everything the zombie mythos is all about. They are not, however, for the light hearted or younger reader.

If you could be in a zombie movie what kind of character would you be and why?

I'd be one of the heroes because at least that way I'd have a chance to survive. *laughs* I'm always amazed at how dumb many of the heroes are in the movies. I like to think that, just perhaps, I'd have what it takes to stay alive and help the others. Of course, the reality is, I'd probably be one of the useless types, wheezing and panting to run away as fast as my legs could carry me. Screaming like a defenceless victim at the first zombie who came strolling my way. I'd like to be one of the last ones still alive and standing at the end of the shoot. Self preservation kicking in there *wink*.

If you were to die in a horror story how would you like to go?

Naturally, in my nice comfortable bed at a ripe old age. Far away from any zombie hordes, preferably surrounded by lovely women, lots of whisky and nice food, having had a fulfilled and rewarding life. That probably wouldn't happen so: I guess I'd like to go out as a hero defending others I care about, knowing I had helped keep them safe. I'd prefer not be bitten. I'd use a grenade or something and take as many dead 'uns with me as I possibly could.

Where do you see horror novels/movies taking zombie gaming?

Probably moving more towards zombie themed computer games: Resident Evil, and that sort of thing. Companies like Fantasy Flight Games seem to be leading the way in this already, and hopefully others will follow suit. There is something nice about seeing your favourite games rendered to miniature for the table top gamer to enjoy as well.

As for the horror novels and movies, I think there will always be at least a few wargamers and role players out there interested enough in the genre to make up their own games. Making their own wargame and role-playing rules. Converting terrain pieces to re-enact their favourite novel and movie moments. People like me, who want to do more than just read what's available, and create adventures for themselves.

Thanks for speaking with us!

© 2009, Gabriel Landowski