How to Bring Steampunk Zombies to Life
By Trenton Mabey
Creating believable characters is a challenge for any writer in every genre. Whether you are writing books or screenplays, characterization is a key component to the successful engagement of your readers. You want your audience to relate to the characters, feel their emotions, to cheer their victories and despair in their defeat. It is just as essential to develop your zombies, as it is to develop the heroine or villain of your tale. Zombies are not two-dimensional creatures set within the story purely to cause unrestrained destruction. While absolute devastation might be the purpose and ultimate outcome of the zombie infestation, with proper development, you can really bring your zombies to life.
What about steampunk zombies? Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and ripe with undead possibilities. Generally set in the 19th century, the Victorian era of exploration and innovation, when steam was queen and gas lamps lit the streets of cities like London, Paris and New York, steampunk explores the historic time period between the Industrial Revolution and World War I. Imagine an alternate timeline where steam technology explodes into endless possibilities, of airships traversing the globe and submarines trolling the depths of the world’s oceans. Now add a sprinkling of zombies.
Three of the most recognizable elements of any steampunk story are airships, gears, and goggles. Zombie airship pirates anyone? Maybe the zombies won’t be wearing goggles and flying airships but adding zombies into a steampunk world allows the heroes to use the basics of the steampunk technology to deal with the evolving zombie problem. Before you begin the first draft, begin the development of the zombie character by answering this simple question; what is the origin of the zombies?
One of the critical components of the zombie tale is the origin story. How did the zombies rise from the dead, was it a mystical or a scientific process? Establishing the basis for the dead rising is the foundation for the development of the zombie as a character in the story.
The mystical process of raising the dead as zombies has origins in African folklore and the voodooist practices of the Caribbean isles. Zombies raised through magical means provide the writer with limitless opportunities of developing the personality of the zombie including the intelligence and mobility levels. Mystical zombies may be supernatural and their abilities extend beyond the range of normal humans. Here area a couple of story ideas to get you started on your own mystical zombie steampunk story.
1. A lot of steampunk is set in Victorian London or other European settings but what about the United States. The 19th century in America was a time of rapid development and change. Expansion of the territory led settlers and schemers, gold miners and gold diggers, to the west. The western migration displaced Native American tribes and sent them either to reservations or graves. Imagine a Native American medicine man with the power to create an army of zombie warriors. A struggling town must contend with the undead led by an innovative blacksmith with a talent for creating steam-powered weapons.
2. The African continent, also called the Dark Continent, still held the European powers enthralled during the 19th century. Europeans navigated the continent searching for valuable resources, trade routes and missionary opportunities. Mount Kilimanjaro was “discovered” by Europeans in 1848. Africa has a diverse landscape and countless indigenous tribes. What if zombies raised by a local shaman hunted a steamboat expedition up the Congo River?
3. An airship pirate band land on an island in the Caribbean to find fresh water and game. The crew drinks from a spring that has been poisoned by deadly sulphuric gasses leaking from the island volcano. The captain strikes a deal with a voodoo witch to transform his dead crew into a crew of zombie pirates with the intelligence of a human but the morals of a zombie.
The scientific possibilities of bringing the dead to life extend to some of the first science fictions stories. The origin of the science fiction genre has its beginnings with one such story, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Considered one of the first modern science fiction stories, the tale centers on the trials of Dr. Frankenstein and the consequences of his scientific method of animating an undead creature. Not strictly a zombie story, Frankenstein is like a distant uncle to the modern zombie. The mad scientist is a common character in steampunk stories; crazy tinkerers who mess with scientific processes and chemical elements. Picture the basement laboratory complete with chemical filled beakers and steam-powered machines capable of infusing life into a corpse. Steampunk science is rooted in 19th century scientific discoveries. Though alchemy fell into obscurity with the rise of modern chemistry during the 18th century, steampunk allows for the continuation of alchemical practices with elements not on the standard table of chemical elements like aether. Aether is considered a fifth element and one of the components of the philosopher’s stone. It is a mysterious element that can be integrated into any steampunk zombie story due to its unknown nature. Maybe aether is the vital substance needed to reanimate the dead. Here are a couple of story ideas.
1. Weaponized zombies. An expedition into the heart of the African jungle uncovers a mysterious element rumored by the natives to restore a person to life. A Confederate scientist experiments and uncovers the process for infusing this element with a blood-based chemical into recently killed soldiers bringing them back to life but with loyalty to the Confederacy. He creates an army of zombies to fight in the American Civil War.
2. Vaccines were first introduced during the 19th century. These included vaccines for cholera, anthrax, and the plague. What if one of the experimental trials for humans went horribly wrong? How would 19th century society deal with a zombie problem?
3. A mad scientist inserts mechanical gears and steam engines into dead bodies, reanimating the corpses.
This last idea I used in a recent Sherlock Holmes anthology. I used a mixture of the scientific and mystical process to bring zombies to life.
Knowing the origin of your zombies allows a writer to explore how the zombies interact with the environment of the story and why they react to different elements. A zombie created by mechanical means might react differently to the sound of a gunshot than a zombie raised by magical means. Thoughtfully developing the origin story of your zombies will create more menacing and convincing zombies for your human characters to escape or destroy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Trenton Mabey is a freelance writer, poet, and photographer living in Arizona. He is working on an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University. He was recently published in the Star82 Review and has a story in the forthcoming An Improbable Truth: The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Mocha Memoir Press, due out in October 2015. He has written several steampunk short stories and is working o his first steampunk novel. His writing is influenced by mythology, Asian philosophy, and a small dose of insanity.
He can be reached on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/trenton.mabey and his website: http://trentonmabey.com .
Excerpt From “The Case of the Rising Dead” by Trenton Mabey
“Don’t dally doctor, we must be off,” said Holmes as he lifted himself out of the carriage and dropped out of sight. I scrambled to my feet and hoisted myself out of the carriage. A wave of heat greeted my face just as I cleared the door. I suddenly realized that the carriage was on fire! I quickly jumped to the safety of the road and moved away from the wreckage. Holmes was kneeling down next to one of the horses, a pitiful whinny of pain emanating from the creature. The other lay next to it, unmoving.
I looked around for the driver but I could not locate the man. Movement caught my attention, a shadow moving into the trees, hunched over and dragging something along the ground.
“Holmes, there,” I said, pointing towards the figure. As Holmes stood to give chase another hellish scream rent the air stopping us cold. An apparition from hell stepped from behind the burning carriage. It stood staring at us, clenching and unclenching its hands. Its long hair hung limply, framing a nightmarish face; bloodshot bulging eyes, gray lips, black tendril lines stretching up and across its face. The carriage fire cast a reddish glow on its face. It raised its head to the sky and let out another scream.
Holmes grabbed a burning piece of the carriage, holding it in a fencer’s stance. I moved to the left in a flanking maneuver, keeping my pistol trained on the creature. The creature was clearly no longer human and stared at each of us for a few seconds, hands still clenching and unclenching. I cocked my pistol, ready to fire. Suddenly, the creature rushed Holmes. He jabbed with his flamed weapon but the creature batted it away and tackled him to the ground. It appeared to possess incredible strength. Holmes threw it off and scrambled to his feet. The creature stood to make another charge at him, but I fired my revolver. Just a warning shot above its head. The creature ducked to the ground, looking around wildly. I cocked the pistol again and its eyes stared into mine for a half second before it darted away, running faster than expected.
Holmes and I gave chase across the field and into the woods beyond. The moonlight that filtered through the trees barely provided enough light to follow the trail of our attacker. The cracking of branches and crunching of autumn leaves sounded ahead of us. We moved quickly but the creature moved with supernatural speed. Continuing on our path, the sounds of our prey diminished in the distance. A cart trail appeared in a clearing running perpendicular to our path. We stopped to listen but could hear nothing, our purpose lost. We slowly returned to the burned out carriage aware of the slightest sound in the darkness. Holmes walked back to the injured horse.
“Doctor, your services are needed,” he said.
The gunshot rang out loud in the silence of the night.
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