Jeff Chapman comments on Eric Ortland’s “A Thousand Flowers” and asks Eric a few questions about the story.
I’m not a fan of stories about zombies, those creatures that go around mindlessly eating any flesh that comes within their reach, so I plunged into Eric Ortlund’s “A Thousand Flowers” (The Midnight Diner, Volume 3) expecting to be grossed out. My stomach never turned. “A Thousand Flowers” is a different breed of zombie story. There is a bit of gore: a zombie chews off part of a man’s arm and the protagonist blows off part of a zombie’s head with a rifle, but Ortlund dishes the gore tastefully and, in the case of the zombie head, beautifully. Ortlund’s story is not about violence and running for your life but forgiveness, redemption, and the nature of our society.
“A Thousand Flowers” begins with the protagonist/narrator and his traveling companion speeding along a road in the prairies of south central Canada or the north central United States. The zombies have already taken over and the towns the pair come to are all deserted. Other than the search for supplies, the pair have no destination. The protagonist finds his companion annoying and pathetic. He assumes the man would not survive without his guidance and he has no other friends available so he tolerates him. The companion tells a story about seeing a field of sunflowers with all their heads tracking the sun. The narrator associates the sunflowers with the zombies whose faces are round and edged with tentacles like starfish. Their mouths are also round, lined with bony teeth and four tongues. Ortlund repeatedly employs sea imagery in his landlocked setting. The narrator associates the zombies with starfish, describes fluid spurting “from the coral of the cartilage making up [a zombie’s] face” (p. 10), and talks of “yellow fields swarming around the barn like sharks surrounding the last survivor from a ship” (p. 12). The zombies and sea imagery seem out of place on the prairies, or is Ortlund suggesting that the narrator is out of place, a remnant from a civilization whose time has passed. The narrator notes that the zombies follow paths that he cannot see and that they have destroyed all the road signs.
The protagonist’s annoyance with his “friend” reaches a head after a brief standoff with a zombie. The narrator strikes his companion in the face with the butt of a rifle. The next day, the zombie’s take the companion or does he join them.
“Yes,” he said, his face still broken. “Yes, you go now. Iss is right.” Then he pulled his arm away, the stump already writhing with things uglier than maggots.
I turned and ran (p. 12).
The protagonist wanders aimlessly then decides to follow one of the starfish zombies. When he arrives at their meeting place, he finds something wholly unexpected, ritual and transformation.
I asked Eric a few questions about “A Thousand Flowers.”
JC: What was the inspiration for this story?
EO: Randomly enough, I was moving through my day, half-thinking about zombies (not sure what that says about my psyche). I found myself wondering what it might be like if zombies started to regain consciousness without losing their zombie “nature.” After all, zombies can be pretty scary, but they’re also one-dimensional: they stagger and moan and eat and that’s it. But what would it be like if a ravenous animated corpse started talking? Then it occurred to me that that would be an awfully interesting parable about what St. Paul calls the law of sin and death.
JC: Why zombies? On what issues does writing about zombies give you insight?
EO: I find zombies uncanny and oddly revelatory because they are simultaneously unlike and like us. What could be more different from me than a walking, hungry corpse? On the other hand, any good zombie movie won’t waste much time collapsing the difference between the zombies and the remaining humans, who will act in increasingly selfish, ravenous, and thoughtless ways. And noticing this dis/similarity raises, in turn, huge questions: what does it mean to be alive? So my heart’s beating and the thing shuffling toward me is clinically dead: how much of a difference is that? What does it mean to eat and consume in a non-zombie-ish way–in a way that is meaningful and (for lack of a better term) sacramental, instead of mindless and unsatisfying and endless? What does community look like, outside of preying on each other?
The attraction (for me) to this kind of world is that it makes death palpable and ubiquitous, forcing the question of what it means to live (in some meaningful sense) in a world like that. And I can’t help suspecting that, for all its dissimilarities, the world we live in is actually pretty similar.
JC: What sort of reaction do you hope readers will have to the story? Do you want it to make them uncomfortable?
EO: I’m not interested in gore or producing nausea in an audience. There’s plenty of other ways to be nauseated, if that’s what you want. I was aiming at a certain sort of atmosphere–I was hoping the hopeless and lostness of the normal world falling apart would come through. And I was hoping the feeling of death would come through. I tried to keep the details to a minimum, but I did want to create the feeling of death, its depth and totality, surrounding you–and not just for its own sake, but because, when we confront death, I think we’re very close to the secret of life. As a Christian, I claim to be following someone whose most significant action was dying! I remember C. S. Lewis saying that one of the things he loved in George MacDonald’s writing was the theme of Good Death–a death which liberates and transforms. But it’s death, all the same, unmitigated in its horror and coldness and finality. I wanted to evoke that as strongly as I could, and hint that death is the only way to (true) life.
JC: Please talk about the connection you make between sunflowers and starfish.
EO: Well, the experience described in the beginning about seeing an entire field of sunflowers, all looking at the sun, and being a little freaked out by it, actually happened to me, when my wife and I were driving through North Dakota. The image always stayed with me, and wound up being useful in the story. The starfish image is used only to be descriptive–just trying to make the monsters vivid without being too gross. The connection between the two is mostly for convenience in description.
JC: What is the nature of the protagonist’s redemption at the story’s conclusion?
EO: That’s a good question. The main character’s redemption–and that of his companion, as well, now that I think about it–is a re-adjustment to the world around him. He gradually has every option cut off; the new, dead world is constricting him ever more tightly. But through an unusual experience, he stops running and confronts what he sees, even though he still essentially has no options and will probably soon be dead. But I think God often (always?) calls us to something literally impossible. Again, the more the world of the story differs from the “normal” world, the more the two resemble each other–in my mind, at least.
Jeff Chapman writes fairy tales, fantasy, and ghost stories and hearing the expression “just a fairy tale” rankles him. His works have appeared in Golden Visions Magazine, The Midnight Diner, Mindflights, and Residential Aliens. He lives with his wife and children in a house with more books than bookshelf space. To learn more, stop by his blog at http://jeffchapmanwriter.blogspot.com/.