What goes bump in the night? Author Ilsa J. Bick may have the answer; it could be The Changed, the children who turn into the living dead in her latest novel, Ashes. These little monsters may have you hiding under your covers after Ilsa talks about the history of children falling victim to the supernatural in fiction.
Ask me about zombies, and I’ll flash to the afternoon an inmate looked me in the eye and said, blandly, “Doc, one of us is leaving this place with a toe tag—and it isn’t me.”
Now I wasn’t some cherry. Working in a women’s prison and emergency rooms, I’d sat with murderers, treated psychotics, been threatened, had people wave around some pretty interesting weapons. (The first thing I learned working the ER? Someone, please, check that woman’s purse before I walk in the door. Honest to God, I didn’t know they made Bowie knives that big.) Yet that woman freaked me out and I left that job sooner rather than later. I have thought of her often, though, because I do want to understand. Not always a pleasant task: sociopaths and predators are so different that if you muck around in their heads for long, you pay a price. With enough time and distance, I’ve come to believe that what made my blood go cold was my sense that if I stayed, this woman would find a way. Once set on its path, nothing would change her mind and we’re not talking revenge here or rage or domination. Those are things I understand, emotions I can identify. Whatever was going on with her was in another language I couldn’t allow myself to learn and one best left in the dark.
So how does that—and she—relate to zombies? Plenty, I think.
I once read somewhere that every city breeds the serial killer it deserves. You could say the same about societies. Every civilization has its stories of the supernatural, the uncanny, and the battle with the monstrous. Those Nazis sure thought they were right, but so did the Crusaders. Yet certain universals cut across cultures and times.
First off, most monsters are easy to identify, what with those fangs, sores, claws, hair, strange eyes, etc. Second, monsters refuse to play by our physical or cultural rules. They come back from the dead; sleep by day and walk by night; can’t be killed except by extraordinary means; possess superhuman strength. In fact, when you stop to think about it, there is very little that separates a monster from, say, a superhero, something that’s often reflected in the storyline of characters like Superman, Spiderman, Batman, the Hulk. One man’s hero is another’s villain or monster, but those are other stories for another day.
Bare bones here and no pun intended: monsters are the ooky unconscious on steroids. What’s really terrifying about zombies is a) they usually roam in packs and b) they just won’t quit. In a way, zombies aren’t very different from Terminators, Jason, Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Chucky, or Star Trek’s Borg. All they want is what they want, and they won’t stop until they get it. There’s no reasoning with them either because zombies don’t speak. Even if they did, the experience would be a little Wittgensteinian: whatever a zombie (or Jason or Ghostface or Borg) might say, you could never understand because your frames of reference are completely different.
Some have suggested that the Changed of Ashes are zombies. Okay, I can see that. While the Changed aren’t the walking dead or shambling, half-rotted corpses, they’ve got some zombie-like qualities. Specifically, they don’t speak; they eat people; and they just won’t quit. But have you wondered why, in Ashes, only teenagers and young adults change? Yes, yes, there’s science in there; what I say about the brain is real. But why only kids?
Well, let me tell you.
Grown-ups have a very long history of transferring their anxieties and fears onto children and adolescents who then are frequently associated with, become stand-ins for, or change into aliens and monsters. Think about the Red Scare and the arms race, and then read John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (or watch the equally fine film, Village of the Damned) or just about any science fiction or fantasy story featuring kid and adolescent protagonists. Serious lit goes there, too. Anyone remember Lord of the Flies? Even a book like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time eventually posits a child—Charles Wallace—as a threat. Similarly, go to any multiplex and you’ll see scads of films devoted to monstrous teenagers.
Ashes takes that conceit one step further. The Changed don’t just change. Sure, they get fried. But even after the Zap, they grow and become and evolve because, despite everything, the Changed are still only teenagers.
And they’re not even the scariest monsters walking those woods.
If it’s true that many writers explore what frightens them most, then I guess what terrifies me are the monsters-in-waiting across the table, on the sidewalk, in that car. People I call neighbors, relatives, lovers, friends. I meet them in the market; we chat in the gym; some bid and make seven-no-trump. They are people whose language I speak and as familiar as the face staring from my mirror, just as they—and I—might be the stuff of nightmares.
That’s what scares me. When logic fails and civilization crumbles, I am frightened of the moment when an inmate’s unfathomable tongue becomes known, and she and I understand each other.
When her dark language and mine are one.
-Ilsa J. Bick