Zombies have devoured all areas of pop culture in the last few years that toothless retreads make the genre feel like it’s decaying pretty fast. But a clever concept — such as with Peter Stenson’s new shockingly personal crystal meth-meets-zombies book “Fiend” — has the power to refresh the old corpse and get it back to its best shambling form.
The easiest way to describe “Fiend,” which we gave MTV Geek readers a taste of last week with an exclusive excerpt, is to say it is “Shaun of the Dead” meets “Trainspotting.” A couple of meth head buddies are still spun from the drug when they discover the world of hell they’d been existing in just got worse. After an encounter with a little girl zombie dining on a Rottweiler, the pair realize “Chucks,” due to the chuckling noise they make, have taken over. And in a poetic twist of fate, the ones immune to the zombie infection are junkies. But instead of trying to get clean, they must pursue more crank to survive.
Although “Fiend” certainly has comedic moments, it is not to the detriment of its horror. That’s the “Shaun of the Dead” comparison as Chase and Typewriter, like Shaun and Ed, become unlikely heroes during the apocalypse. And there is KK, the ex-girlfriend from rehab that the protagonist Chase has to save and win back.
His first published novel, Stenson knows zombie fiction. Set in the Midwest, where he grew up, there are iconic individual zombies along with hordes, large set pieces, reluctant allies and sleazy humans that relish a burning world. But the author also knows the language and world of the user. “Fiend” is as much as story of addiction, and (lack of) recovery, and it is a personal one since Stenson himself is a recovering meth addict.
This week Peter Stenson takes “Fiend” to San Diego Comic-Con on a noon panel on Saturday (Room 23ABC) titled “Apocalyptic/Zombie: It’s the End of the World as We Know It ” where, along with other zombie authors — and moderated by yours truly — he’ll talk about zombies in entertainment. But first, the Denver-based author joined MTV Geek for a long conversation about his book, addiction and Comic-Con.
MTV Geek: Have you always been a fan of the zombie genre?
Peter Stenson: As far as reading, no. That coincided with AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and branched out to read the graphic novels and Max Brooks’ “World War Z.” As far as movies, yeah. My mom would let me watch “Night of the Living Dead” when my dad was gone, and it was the scary movie when I was young. So I have always been into zombie movies.
Geek: Is “Night” still your favorite, because “Fiend” pairs well with “Shaun of the Dead”?
Stenson: I would agree with that. I thought “Shaun of the Dead” was hilarious when I first saw it. I forget how old I was when it came out but I was real impressionable and soaked that s**t up; I loved it. That would be a top one and “28 Weeks Later.”
Geek: Because of the genre’s popularity, are you prepared to being compared to those just trying to cash in on zombies?
Stenson: I wish, to a certain extent, it hadn’t taken two plus years to publish it. Right when I sold it, I wish it had come out so it would have been a little more ahead of the curve that way. I think some people will say he’s just cashing in on the zombie craze. Fine. But I think with “Fiend,” the parallels between addiction and the zombie apocalypse are perfect — perhaps too perfect. I think it is a different enough story with backbone and meaning that it’s not just point-A to point-B. It is filled with enough new things and bringing something to the table, and is a good addition to the zombie genre.
Geek: What is it about zombies that does it for you personally?
Stenson: I’m from Minnesota, and there’s not that many people. I live in Colorado, and there’s just not that many people, and there’s nothing more terrifying to me than big crowds – like you watch on TV and those soccer riots where people are getting trampled. That freaks me out, so zombies speaks to that: A horde of my worst nightmare coming at me. I’ll take any sort of other supernatural or anything else versus a mob mentality. And then it scares me to no end because the dead should be dead. The perversion of the whole Christian myth, this is that to the nth degree gone haywire.
Geek: When did the idea of combining zombies with drugs, and your own story of addiction, coalesce?
Stenson: I was in undergrad, like 10 years ago or something, and I was writing a lot of drug-type short stories. I struggled with addiction in my teens, and I had a Native American teacher who told me about this reservation and a hotel she stayed in that was so nice. She goes back six months later and it was disgusting. Crank had just made its way to that particular reservation, and she said it was the scariest thing ever. That struck a chord with me. When I was 17 I ran away to San Francisco and was in this bad scene. I was in a hotel with all these Phish kids – I thought I was a hippy — and we were all just f—ing dead. Everyone was all spun or whatever. It was a feeling then that, I don’t know if it was our soul, but we were just dead. So it’s like those two ideas, when my teacher said that, started to fuse together. It was percolating in my mind but once I read “World War Z,” the actual ideas started to formulate and I started to put together logistics. That was three or four years ago, but once I sat down to write it, it came out really quickly.
Geek: So Chase and the other addicts, are they the real zombies?
Stenson: Yeah. I wanted the zombies to be an actual threat, but with the majority of the book, and the deeper moments, are about – this sounds corny – but the zombie within with the addiction and all that. They’re the same mother f—ers whether they’re conscious of it and trying to get spun or are the Chucks.
Geek: Did the opening scene with the little girl and the dog come from an experience while you were using or just your creativity?
Stenson: That was more the latter. But there were plenty of times when … I don’t know if you’ve messed around with the horrible substance that is methamphetamine or any upper, but you get really paranoid. I’d spend time looking out of windows and you were always thinking there was someone out there, so that part came from reality. As far as the little girl, you watch any horror movie … they just freak me out.
Geek: What aspects were drawn more from your personal experience?
Stenson: A lot of the Chase stuff was drawn from my own experience as far as being a trust-fund kid gone to s**t, or a privileged kids in that stratosphere. As far as Typewriter, I knew a guy who did money order fraud and he used a typewriter and it was the one possession he would lug around. I guess a lot of the drug stuff was personal experience. In St. Paul, Minn., in the early 2000s, there was a pretty decent size population from Laos and Vietnam, and that was who I would usually get crank from back then. Oh, and my parents looked the same. My mom read the book and said [as described in the book] that, “My hair does not look like ‘dehydrated piss.’”
Geek: Was it difficult to go back and re-open this dark chapter? Especially when you discuss Chase’s enjoyment of getting high?
Stenson: It definitely was. I’ve been sober coming up on 10 years this summer. I do the 12 steps and stuff like that, and I remember the bad stuff and talk about that. But I don’t spend a lot of time talking about the good times, and there were certain passages in “Fiend” where I’m trying to recreate what it was like when you get that hit, and for that split second where everything is OK and all worth it – and it doesn’t matter what you’ve done. That s**t is not something I like to think about. When writing the book, I found these old trance CDs I had as a kid and put those on and got back in the moment, and drank too much coffee and chewed too much Nicorette. It was like, for a split second I was back there and you could taste it back there in the back of your throat. That was not … I was going to say it wasn’t fun, but in a perverse way it was. But not something I’d want to do on a regular basis. As far as the darker stuff, it was not the most fun to relive. But I think there is a certain therapeutic quality to that.
Geek: Did anyone worry about you going back to that world or encourage you to write a “nice” zombie story without the meth?
Stenson: I think a little bit. My wife loves my writing but cringes at some of the metaphors and similes, and the way I describe certain things. That’s more her worry. When I write, I try my best to leave it at the coffee shop where I write. When I wrote “Fiend,” I was just gone from the house all the time. I can’t write at home and I was just gone. I was in my own personal experience remembering that s**t or in my fictional world. It absolutely consumed me unlike any other manuscript I’d written. To a certain extent, if you stay in a place like that too long, bad things can happen. It’s not necessarily a place I’d want to spend in months on end.
Geek: When you do something cool like this, people want to talk about it, but are you cool with people also wanting to talk about your personal history since that is so tied into “Fiend”?
Stenson: I think I am. It was a gradual process. At first, before I signed the paperwork, the publisher was asking all sorts of personal questions, and I was like, ‘Dude, you don’t need to know this s**t.’ And I didn’t want to disclose I continue to have these issues – I’m not using but continue to be in recovery. But this is my story, my path. I’m not necessarily proud of a lot of things I’ve done, but I’m proud of who I am now. I’m a good husband, a good father, decent employee. I’ve taken ownership of it. And there’s a lot of kids out there f—ing around with drugs … this may not be the most uplifting addiction portraits but maybe someone will say he got through that … but maybe this is a long-winded way of saying, yeah, I’m a little uncomfortable [laughs].
Geek: Chase is not equipped to be a leader but he is, and I found myself rooting for him to be a good one. Despite his history of using, I found myself hoping “this time” would be different for him. Was that what you wanted us to feel about the addict?
Stenson: Yeah. That’s the thing, if you have family or friends, you want them to get their s**t together. But at the same time you’re kind of resentful. They keep f—ing up. I wanted to show a realistic portrait of addiction in a fantastical world. [The addict] is going to keep doing things, worse things, and keep upping it and coming back with resolves: This time I’m going to keep clean or protect the group or lead us to a better life. Whatever the case, it’s a direct parallel, for sure. I wanted you to root for these people. I wanted them to be detestable, but have people root for them. Loving an addict is a s**tty thing and probably worse for the family, friend, wife or whatever because you keep getting let down.
Geek: The users in the book figure out that they not only don’t have to get clean, but they have to keep using. Is that the addict’s dream?
Stenson: Oh yeah, 100 percent. KK in the book has a line about ‘guilt-free using.’ In a really perverse sense, there is nothing more you would want than everyone cutting you off and there being no alternative, playing the victim card – anything to keep going. Because the mental jumping jacks you have to do to keep rationalizing, especially once you start going through treatments and you get 12 steps in your head, it makes it that much harder to drown out all voices. I went through treatment six times in three years when I was a teenager, and every relapse was worse. Even if I wasn’t buying into it, the recovery, you still have that in your head and have to use more and more. There is a dream scenario where suddenly you have no other option. In a lot of ways, that’s the perfect storm for an addict.
Geek: And what are you looking forward to at Comic-Con?
Stenson: I’m hoping to meet Max Brooks. I always like books with interweaving points of view, different characters relating the same event and I thought, from a craft standpoint, his ability to capture different voices, still in the first person without reading the same was impressive. I thought it was a really smart, wide-spanning story. I read it when I was getting my MFA and hadn’t seen genre done that well.