On Friday, Cowboys and Aliens was released in theaters. I haven’t seen it, so please try not to screw with me with comments like, “Oh, my God! I can’t believe Harrison Ford is really Daniel Craig’s father!” I’m on to you, cheeky bastards. Still, the mental image of adventurous gunslingers chased by high-tech spaceships is a great one and got me thinking about the mixture of genres. It’s something that’s had my attention ever since I saw Back to the Future, Part III that mixed time travel with westerns, and at times poking fun at the western. Moving closer back to literature, we see this a lot with the mash-up novel introduced with Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and followed by a deluge of imitators hopping onto the wagon: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina, Little Women and Werewolves, etc.
Done properly, cross-genres can make for fantastic literature and fresh storytelling. You have to be careful not to overdo it. If you mix more than two genres, you risk ending up with something mushy and incoherent. The more genres you try to combine, the more this problem is amplified. A good way to start is to take to genres that are polar opposites. Let’s see if we can mix romance and zombie fiction. You’ve got the intimacy of romance and the bloody gore of the zombie.
First we need to define these two. What makes romance fiction what it is? The two basic requirements are the development of a loving and affectionate relationship between two people and an optimistic ending. Zombie fiction is an offshoot of apocalyptic literature. It’s the traumatic and shocking occurrence of the undead overwhelming civilization. They each deal with a different level of the hierarchy of needs developed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow (it is sometimes called Maslow’s Triangle). The foundation of the triangle is physiological needs. Everyone needs food, water, air, sleep; the things that allow us to function biologically. The next level above that regards safety where the character needs to defend his property or his job. It’s also the level in which characters try to keep from being subdued by the elements, from being subject to disease…from being eaten by zombies. Once you’ve established biological needs and safety, then you can go on to love and belonging with friendship, family and sexual intimacy; things that you see in a romance story. Above that, you have self-esteem and then self-actualization.
Now let’s see if a zombie romance can work after all. The zombie element fuels the setting, the story arena. It’s not set in a world where people churn out poetry and love letters on an hourly basis but rather a world in which you are a menu item. For the sake of this exercise, let’s say that the story begins about six months after the apocalypse. The first thing we have to do in a romance is establish the couple. Do they know each other already or have they yet to meet? In this case, I think the latter is a nice challenge for a writer to try and overcome. It’s tough enough to meet your soul mate in the normal world. How do you find that same person when the world is turned on its head? The answer, of course, is simple: coincidence. In this zombie world, random chaos is the norm, so random meetings are equally mundane.
Our lovers – we’ll call them Ted and Angela – meet while scavenging for food in an abandoned grocery store. Each is part of a different camp of survivors but for now they’re trapped in the store as a pack of zombies are lured in by the tasty aroma of rotting meat in the butcher’s shop. Ted knows that chicks dig it when you save them from the undead, and he helps Angela flee from the store. Stunned that they’ve found other people, Camp Ted and Camp Angela unite in order to better their chances of survival. As the story unfolds, they bond over activities such as gathering water or cooking dinner for everyone else; in a setting like this, you know that Ted and Angela won’t go out to a club or a movie. Eventually, for all the bonding that we have between them, there’s got to be an event or conflict that threatens to split them apart. Again, think setting appropriate. I don’t think Angela will care that Ted had a girlfriend before the apocalypse (the girlfriend is probably dead or undead anyways). Romance stories need some sort of physical intimacy, so I’ll have Ted and Angela sneak off into the woods for some, uh, “quality time.” Of course, this is a stupid thing for them to do. You never go into the dark woods during the end of the world because there’s a chance of zombies lurking around. And in this case, there are. Ted and Angela are separated as they run from the zombies. Ted returns to camp, grabs a shotgun and goes back into the woods to retrieve Angela before a terrible fate befalls her. He kills the zombies in his way, finds Angela and they live happily ever after, which right now is a very relative concept.
This is not a terrific story, but it does serve as an adequate example for our purposes. Notice that the story revolves more around the romantic elements than the horror ones. You cannot strike a perfect balance when you cross genres. Going back to Cowboys and Aliens at the beginning of this post, we ask, “Is this a science fiction western or a western with elements of science fiction?” In the 1950s, John Wayne starred in a film called The Searchers, considered to be the greatest western ever. In the film, he plays Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate soldier looking for his abducted niece. Now, imagine Ethan is an alien. The film plays out exactly the same way, except that Ethan is green and bleeds orange. In this case, The Searchers is still a western because the science fiction elements do not take precedence.