Dead-eyed, sore-covered and mindless, wandering an urban wasteland driven by an insatiable hunger, methamphetamine addicts are the closest real-world equivalent to fiction's zombies. So what happens if you take those tweakers and make them the sole survivors in a world overrun by actual undead? That's the premise of Colorado author Peter Stenson's debut novel Fiend, a book that takes the stock zombie mythos and twists it some unusual ways. Take, for instance, the fact that the meth heads of Fiend have no choice but to stay high to stay alive. Faced with this existential dilemma, Stenson's protagonists are forced to grapple with both the drug-fueled savagery of their fellow survivors/addicts and the hordes of flesh-hungry monsters everywhere, making for a taut, gripping read. We caught up with the author in advance of his appearance on Thursday, July 25, at the Tattered Cover LoDo to talk about the book, his influences and the surprising number of similarities between tweakers and zombies.
Westword: What can we expect from Fiend?
Peter Stenson: They're kind of saying "Walking Dead meets Breaking Bad" and I definitely get it because there's zombies and meth, but I think the comparisons stop there. Myself, when I was younger, I struggled with addiction. A long time ago, twelve years ago, those two things kind of conflated. I was a runaway, I was in this hotel lobby in San Francisco and everyone just looked completely dead. That was kind of the genesis of the story. I thought it would be weird and interesting to look at a world where quitting drugs was not an option, and just see how that would play out. That was the genesis for the book, what I was trying to look at. As far as a tagline, sure, "Walking Dead meets Breaking Bad" works for me, but I think it's more than that. It has that whole addiction side that I don't think they get into quite as much in Breaking Bad.
Can you explain how this idea that quitting drugs is not an option plays out in the book, if it's not revealing too much of the plot?
Yeah, I think that realization comes pretty darn early for my point-of-view character -- probably thirty or forty pages in, and I think a reader can figure it out in ten. Basically it's not one of those zombie stories that goes into an explanation of why this happened. The two main characters come out of a bender and it starts right away with their experience with a zombie, then they're on the run from that point. As they're still trying to get more methamphetamine, they're realizing that the only people left that haven't turned are fellow addicts. They're thinking maybe it's something in the air, some neurotransmitters clogged, whatever. I didn't know the science behind it, or what would cause some mass epidemic like that, but I figured there's a whole lot of bad shit in methamphetamine, there's probably something in there that could stop something. [Laughs.]
As far as a plot point, it works twofold. One the one hand, they're addicts, so they're going to do whatever they have to do to keep manufacturing drugs, or keep getting drugs. It takes it up one notch when their survival is literally contingent on getting those drugs and keeping them going. It becomes a limiting variable both figuratively and literally.
It's an interesting twist. I've definitely seen the trope in zombie fiction of some kind of drug that can stop the zombie plague, but usually it's cast as some sort of pharmaceutical macguffin. This is a real drug that people are familiar with that itself is kind of deadly. You've set up an interesting dilemma, since you have to stay high to stay alive, but the drug itself will kill you or drive you nuts before long.
Right. That's what's being explored in the book. People are doing bad things to each other and all the normal stuff you'd see in an addiction story, but it becomes, I think, pretty clear that the bigger threat is the drugs. Maybe not the bigger threat, but the quality of life is so shitty that it's not much of an option, at least for some of the characters.
Horror has a long history of using the supernatural or monster-type elements as a metaphor to talk about some aspect of the human condition. It seems like you're doing that here, using a zombie apocalypse to look at the personal apocalypse of drug addiction. Was that the intention when you sat down to write the book, or was it a natural outgrowth of the story you wanted to tell?
A little bit of both, if that makes any sense. The obvious metaphor or allusion is when you see someone in the throes of methamphetamine addiction, it's bad. They literally look -- they could be an extra on AMC. They look bad. That's the literal part of it, as far as it being a bit of an epidemic. I'm from the Midwest and I'm sure it's big everywhere, but it's huge in northern Minnesota.
As far as methamphetamine production, what it turns you into, quality of life, thought process -- whether you're eating flesh or just getting more, you have one thing on your mind, it doesn't matter about anything else. That was the way it was intended, but it ended up working out a little better than I though as far as how well they correlated and played off one another. It was kind of a happy accident how well it worked out once the writing started.
It's kind of amazing how many similarities there are once you think of it. It's almost weird that it hasn't been done before.
Exactly. I think a lot of the reviews are like, "Why hasn't anyone done this before?"
Are you a big horror fan in general?
I am. I would have to say it's definitely more movies. As far as reading, my horror knowledge base is pretty abysmal, but I've seen pretty much every movie. I pay however much extra to get HorrorNet and IFC Midnight and all of those. I think that probably comes from my mom. She worked at a church her whole life, went to seminary school, but it's like as soon as it comes dark, she puts on horror movies. It's really weird but I spent my youth doing that with her.
Do you want to mention any of your favorite zombie films, or any that influenced the tone of the book?
Sure. Obviously you start with Romero's stuff. Rewatching them again, they're not quite as terrifying as they were. That was the first scary movie -- Night of the Living Dead -- and I remember that kid, down in the cellar, stabbing her mom. That shit freaked me out, and I had to pay homage to that in the first chapter of my book. Any time you invert the innocent child thing, it's terrifying and I tried to do that right at the beginning. As far as my favorites, Shaun of the Dead -- I just think it's so funny, so clever. 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later those are just so good. I recently watched Zombie Strippers. [Laughs.] It was definitely interesting. But Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later, those are my favorites for sure.
It seems like 28 Days Later, with its bleary eyed, sore-covered, hyper-speed zombies is particularly appropriate. They seem kind of methed out.
Yeah. They're definitely more of the schizophrenic, raged-out -- well, obviously Rage -- but more of the aggressive type than a Romero type zombie, which I think is good.
Is there anything else about the book you'd like people to know?
I was hoping to create something that would cross genres, and I think for the most part I did. I got my MFA at Colorado State when I moved out here five years ago. There, they are always pumping literary short stories, blah blah blah, marital type stuff. That didn't necessarily interest me. The character development and all of that does; that's what I'm drawn to when I read. When I was a kid, or when I'm reading for fun, what I want is something with an actual plot that doesn't suck so bad. I tried to merge those two things. I hope when people read it, they're getting the human story of doing whatever it takes to survive, and the stuff about addiction and what it can do to you. But at the same time, they're leaving their light on, because I think at times the book is really damn scary.
What else have you written? This is your debut novel, correct?
I had twenty or so short stories and essays published in literary magazines. Then there are three novels or so that are fucking horrific sitting on a computer somewhere that never really went anywhere. This one just came out really quick, I don't know why. It was just like a perfect storm, of being fed up in grad school, my brother-in-law was living with us and I wanted to get out of the house and go write. It just came out. It was about a month of writing and I had a draft I was happy with.
Is any of that material horror? Or is this your horror debut as well?
No, definitely my horror debut. Everything else is kind of in a literary vein.
What's next for you? More horror, or will you be looking at a more literary work?
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Both. I finished up more of a literary novel. We're going to send that out pretty soon, we're just waiting for this one to come out. It's literary but it's still about all the things I'm interested in -- weird relationships, sex and affairs and stuff like that. I'm probably more excited that I just finished up the first draft of a superhero, my kind of take on that. They're real outcast type of superheroes, like a guy whose chest hair shoots a couple feet and another guy can smell really well. It's just weird superhero stuff and about the rising Right. It's set five or ten years in the future and deals with the conflation of religion and politics. It's kind of a satire, but with action. It's not quite as dirty and vulgar as Fiend. I'm definitely excited about that. I'm just trying to rewrite some scenes in there and then show it to my agent. That one's fun. I tried to tone down some some of the vulgarity and make it more PG-13, which for me is probably still pushing an R, but usually I'm an NC-17 type.