Katrina Monroe's The Rack
Someone burned down the library. It was quite the spectacle. All those books flapping like firebirds against a sky white with ash… Bunny made ash angels while I stood and watched, a black parasol poised over my shoulder.
Now I’m confined to the basement. My rack takes up most of the space. Bunny’s desk was sacrificed to make room for my cabinet of curiosities, which scraped the ceiling as it was moved in. To liven the place up a little I had a painting commissioned. It’s called The Creation and depicts a much livelier version of myself, reaching out to touch a disembodied hand that’s purple and bloated with decay. It’s hung on the ceiling, just above the rack, where author Jonathan Maberry stares at it inquisitively. I recently read his novel FALL OF NIGHT, and figured he’d enjoy it more than most.
Gone are the fancy leather clasps, replaced by simple, nylon rope. Most of the rack’s table has been cut away, leaving just enough to support the victim—er, interviewee’s—midsection, lower-back to shoulders. Maberry’s arms and legs are suspended. His knees twitch with the pressure.
I sip coffee from a mug shaped like a severed-head. A gift from a prior client. I test the wheel’s hold. “I've yet to meet someone from Pennsylvania who hasn't either written a zombie novel, or dreamed of doing so. Is it something in the water? Do they indoctrinate you from the cradle?”
Maberry smirks. “Well, it’s a Romero thing. Both sides of the zombie genre came to life (pun intended) because of him, and George was a resident of Pittsburgh. He kicked the whole zombie thing off with back in 1968, and it’s hard to even calculate how much of an impact that’s had on the pop culture world. Everyone knows zombies. They’re massive in movies, books, games, TV, toys, and everywhere else. I was in the audience at the Midway Theater in Philadelphia on October 2, 1968 to see the world premier. Sure, I was ten years old, and sure, I snuck into the movies, but damn it if I wasn’t there. Scared the bejeezus out of me, too. Now I’m working on an anthology with George called , which are all stories that take place in the 48 hours surrounding that first landmark film. It’s a gas to share that project with George.
“But let’s not forget that Romero also gave us the ‘fast infected’ in . People think that started with 28 Days Later, but they’re dead wrong. debuted in 1973. So, yeah, Romero started all of that in Pennsylvania.”
“Zombies.” Bunny giggles. “Funny word. Zzzzzooooombiiieeeee.”
Smoke inhalation has done strange things to the girl. I don’t hate it.
Maberry’s wrists are red and irritated from the rope. They wouldn’t be, of course, if he didn’t struggle. Nylon is my gift to him, and he can’t even appreciate it properly.
I yank the wheel until it catches on the next step. Maberry’s arms hug his head and he makes a small gagging sound.
Coffee’s cold now. I frown. “Does being a multiple-award winner change how you approach new work? Is there more pressure to succeed, or do you settle back and think 'I got this'?”
He grumbles, so I turn the wheel a little more. His knees and elbows threaten to bend inward and his face reddens. “Funky question, because no writer I know –and I know a lot of them, from Stephen King to R.L. Stine—is ever totally confident in what they write. There are always doubts and fears, always insecurities, always trepidations. That’s part of being a writer because the process is very personal and it invites a kind of curated intrusion into our hearts and minds. At the same time, becoming successful is very validating. It whispers in your ear that you can do this. Not that you will do it easily and not that good writing is a given. It says that –here, you have proof you can do it well; and then it challenges you to do better. The goal is to never ever rest on your laurels or coast in gear because you’ve reached the level where you get handed an award. Nope. The key is to always look for ways to improve your craft, up your game, reach the next level while always, always, having fun.”
I nod. Writing is a bit like the torture arts that way. Though I’ve never been awarded for the intricate positions I’ve bent my clients into. They’re quite lovely if one ignores the screams of pain.
I hand my cup to Bunny who is in no rush to refill it. She’s fascinated by the way Maberry’s chest rises and falls in staccato rhythm.
“You're pretty well-known for your fight scenes. Given your martial arts background, that's no surprise. What are your biggest peeves when it comes to reading other writers' sub-par fight scenes? What's the worst you've come across?” I ask.
He blows a strand of Bunny’s hair out of his face. The exertion forces him to pause before answering. “Poorly written fight scenes make my colon ache. Good fight scenes are based on an understanding of psychology, physiology, choreography, physics, anatomy and the law. You have to grasp certain realities. You have to understand what’s possible and what’s not, and you shouldn’t assume that you can, will or should get away with throwing any old bullshit onto the page. A bad fight scene spoils the suspension of disbelief we need in order to sell a scene to the reader and put them right there in the middle of it. A bad fight scene lacks tension because implausibility and inaccuracy do not make the heart race or the blood boil. Do the research, find out what is and is not possible, talk to an expert, do your damn homework. I mean, do you think I write about parasitology, molecular biology, transgenics, particle physics or microsurgery without asking an expert? Research is a key factor in writing, and you owe it to the reader to get the details right.”
Sounds like that ‘write what you know’ idiom is total bullshit. I make a mental note to bring in whoever coined the phrase.
I check the knots on his bonds and, satisfied they’ll hold, I lean into the wheel turn, watching with lurid interest as his feet and hands turn red, then purple, and—he yelps—something in his shoulder pops.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “It’ll pop right back in.”
His face pales and he bites down against the pain.
“Careful, now. Don’t want to take the tip of your tongue off.” I grin. Back to it. “What's the biggest difference you've found writing novelizations of established universes and creating your own? How does it change your approach?”
His answer comes out punctuated by rapid breath and soft groans. “Writing franchise work and writing totally original stuff are both fun, but in different ways. With totally original work I’m free to create the world out of whole-cloth, people it however I want, and essentially play god with the lives of every character. I can go full George R.R. Martin and kill anyone I want, or I can spin a disaster around and give it all a satisfying and (relatively) happy ending.
“Franchise work always comes with restrictions. When I started writing comics I could not, say, suddenly turn The Punisher into a wisecracking gumshoe any more than I could make Peter Parker world weary and cynical. Those characters were invented and developed by other people and I have to respect the work that’s already been done. The same goes for the prose world. I’ve written stories in the worlds of Sherlock Holmes, the Wizard of Oz, John Carter of Mars, GI Joe, The Wolfman, the Deadlands role-playing game, C. August DuPan, Planet of the Apes, Aliens, True Blood, and more. I’m writing a novel now about Dana Scully as a teenager for a series I created called X-FILES ORIGINS. Those are all established worlds and a writer should resist the urge to go in and totally shake things up and reinvent them. That tends to come off as arrogant and it’s a slap in the face of both the creator and the die-hard fans. The trick is to respect the subject matter, to know the subject matter, and then to write a story that fits as seamlessly as possible into that world. My story, The Cobbler of Oz, was actually accepted by the L. Frank Baum estate into the official chronology of Oz because they felt it really suited the tone and respected the audience.”
I scribble The Cobbler of Oz in marker on his arm, to remember for later. I’m always on the hunt for a new story in worlds I love. It’s almost a shame I have to—
Bunny covers her ears as another pop echoes from somewhere in Maberry’s shuddering body.
—but if I didn’t, then who would?
“Aside from your Joe Ledger series currently being adapted for film…” I pat his arm in congratulations, earning a cry and a scowl. “…which of your other projects are you dying to see on screen? Any that you think wouldn't translate properly?”
“V-Wars is in development for TV and is likely to sell to a market overseas, such as the BBC. Discussions are ongoing. And I’m in discussions now for an option on my upcoming young adult space travel novel, MARS ONE, which will be released by Simon & Schuster in April. Apart from that…geez, there are so many projects I’d love to see adapted for big or small screen. I tend to visualize my stories, which is why I love writing comics as well as novels. I even storyboard some of my projects. I’d love to see my first three novels, THE PINE DEEP TRILOGY (Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song and Bad Moon Rising) adapted for TV. I think my middle-grade sci-fi/horror/fantasy series, THE NIGHTSIDERS, would work well either as live-action or anime. And I have a new series debuting in 2018, WATCH OVER ME, about a teenager who wants to be a bodyguard and who confronts some dangerous issues in high school. And about a million other short stories, comics and novels that I’d like to see go into production.”
It all goes on his arm in a hastily scribbled list. I don’t have television down here, yet, but I’m in talks with the gardener who knows a guy who might be willing to trade cable for a little prick and poke.
Even though I’ve run out of space on his arms and am hesitant to move onto his legs, I ask, “What are you working on now?”
“At this writing I’m a few days away from wrapping DOGS OF WAR, the 9th in my Joe Ledger thriller series. I’m simultaneously writing DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, the teen Dana Scully novel. I have several novels backed up behind that, including a standalone horror novel called GLIMPSE, and a few short stories. And while all that’s going on I’m editing a handful of anthologies: V-WARS: SHOCKWAVES (volume 4 of my shared-world vampire apocalypse series), SCARY OUT THERE (teen horror), THE X-FILES: SECRET AGENDAS (volume 3 of all-new stories of Scully and Mulder), ALIENS: BUG HUNT (stories of the Colonial Marines), BAKER STREET IRREGULAR (alternative Sherlock Holmes stories, co-edited with Michael Ventrella), JOE LEDGER: UNSTOPPABLE (an anthology of Ledger stories written by a slew of my bestseller friends), and NIGHTS OF THE LIVING DEAD. No, I don’t sleep. Yes, I drink a lot of coffee.”
I drop the marker. It’s useless. I could fill a dozen bodies with Maberry’s projects and still be writing when the ink dries. But I can relate. I don’t sleep, either. It’s the screams.
Without a word of warning, I turn the wheel, hard. The rack shakes with the force of Maberry’s relentless struggles. His strangled cries sound far-off. The rest of the color falls away from his face just as he passes out.
I’ll wake him up soon. But first—
I retrieve the marker. “What do you think, Bunny? Forehead bullseye or glasses?”
Jonathan Maberry is a New York Times best-selling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning suspense author, editor, comic book writer, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator and writing teacher/lecturer. He was named one of the Today’s Top Ten Horror Writers. His books have been sold to more than two-dozen countries.