Everything New Is Old
By William Vitka
What was the last great monster you saw on film or read in a book? What unforgettable monster did you dream about? Have nightmares about?
Was it a new creature? Or was it a new take on an old concept?
Likely, it was an old concept spun in a new way. The zombies on "The Walking Dead" have been seen thousands of times. The graphic novels grew in popularity because of the artwork and the writing. The show remains popular as hell because of the way the story unfolds – very human drama framed within the apocalypse.
"Twilight," of course, was a different take on the lustful vampire-werewolf hierarchy we've seen rumbling around the sexual undercurrents of lore. The movies/books were and remain popular because young people have notoriously terrible taste. (I kid, I kid.)
Then there's the dirge of exorcism movies ("The Last Exorcism: Part 2" … Really? Really?!). The found-footage flicks ("Paranormal Activity," "Cloverfield," "Super 8," et al who've modeled themselves after "The Blair Witch Project"). Jesus Christ, make it stop. As soon as a topic gets mildly popular, it's ripped off and repeated and diluted. I don't think that's a shock to any of you. And since that's sadly the case, how do we find truly new horror fiction?
For me, I found it through John Carpenter's "The Thing" … Which is borderline asinine to say since it's a remake of a novella adaptation ("The Thing From Another World" which is based on "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell Jr. – both of which I love.)
But let me explain: When I was growing up in the 80s, old SciFi from the 50s and 60s was my imagination fuel. I read and watched as much as I could. Ray Harryhausen movies. "The Twilight Zone." Books by Phil Dick and Robert Heinlein. I couldn't get enough. Eventually, I saw "The Thing From Another World." Yeah, on the face of it, it was just a guy-in-a-suit monster movie. But it took place in the snow. I hadn't seen that before. And the music, ooooh, that was scary.
My dad handed me a book that contained Campbell's novella (which I still have). I devoured it. And then I couldn't sleep. Hoo boy. This story wasn't just about a giant bug. Or a spaceship attack. Or colonizing a planet. Or the undead. Or even a monster lurking in the shadows … It was all about a shapeshifting monster lurking inside people. It could change them at a whim. It could turn them into utterly psychotic beasts with a million eyes or a million tentacles or both. One cell was enough to get inside you. And then it took you over. Then you were The Thing. But you could stay hidden and even your family wouldn't know it wasn't you …
The idea blew my twelve-year-old mind.
Then when I was fifteen, I watched the movie and it blew my mind into a million different pieces.
The obvious excitement and tenacity with which John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster and Rob Bottin and Kurt Russell approached this revolutionary, yet simple, idea caused me to look at source material in an entirely different way. "The Thing" changed me on a fundamental level. (If you want to pretend that's a pun, go right on ahead. I won't stop you.)
When I decided to write my own novel, I spent a lot of time thinking about my sources of inspiration. (This was six years ago, though the damn thing only came out this past November.) I love zombies. Romero zombies. So I needed to rewatch "Night Of The Living Dead." And the basis for NOTLD was Richard Matheson's 1954 novel "I Am Legend," so I needed to reread that. And the core of "Legend" is a strikingly awesome idea: Explaining the supernatural with Science.
That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to explain zombies with Science. Or at least try. Because almost all zombie fiction, movie or novel, tends to shrug and blame radiation or a mysterious virus.
This is spoilery, if you care.
I created a monster from two known bugs: Toxoplasma gondii and syphilis. I had them mesh together to form a new, super parasite. Effectively an insane STD. One that infected humans. The first stage was a shambolic Romero-esque kind of zombie. But then, the thing starts to mutate the human form. I reasoned that since this parasite was strong enough to take over a body, it could really take over a body. Change it. Shape it. Turn it into a machine for propagation.
Enter the Stilt-Walker: A human stretched out like a racing hound. Roaming towers of flesh. There's certainly a touch of Campbell's novella there. As well as more than a touch of that Carpenter-Bottin flare for gore. I thought about what else I would want to see.
A dystopian future where it was either raining or snowing and sales droids hawked wares at you while you checked for messages on your holographic datapad.
When it was done, and I stood back and looked at what people were saying, I realized: Ye gods, I've written a Pulp novel. An over-the-top little drunken joyride of chaos and monsters. This isn't really new. They've been doing it since the 30s! But I'm perfectly all right with that.
No, it wasn't new. Not in the way I've been talking about in this piece. It was just a new mixture of disparate elements.
So I'll try again. And again. And again.
For me, the quest is always to tell a new story filled with new ideas.
The question is simple: What's next?
Speak up in the comments about what incredible, original Horror and Science Fiction you've found recently.
William Vitka is a journalist and author. He's written for CBSNews.com, Stuff Magazine, GameSpy, On Spec Magazine and The Red Penny Papers to name a few. His debut novel, INFECTED, was published by Graveside Tales in late 2012. His anthology of short stories, THE SPACE WHISKEY DEATH CHRONICLES, was published at the crack of 2013 by Curiosity Quills. He lives in New York City.