“Chew” is a revenant’s tale focused on depredations committed by soldiers in post-war, occupied Germany. What drew you to that time and setting for this story?
Zombies in fiction tend to populate the future, the near-future of nuclear holocausts, and suburban Americana. I wanted to write the historical zombie instead. I’m fascinated with post-war reconstruction—or lack thereof!—and with Stuttgart, which has been the center of post-war atrocity legends for a long time. This also hearkens back to wanting to write a zombie story in the first place. It’s the idea of post-war rebuilding connecting to rebuilding the body of the zombie; a Frankenstein who once rebuilt doesn’t act as planned or desired.
It’s accepted as “common knowledge”—though as with all common-knowledge and post-war propaganda, it’s got to be taken with a grain of salt—that Allied soldiers in Stuttgart after the war committed mass rape. Exactly who did what is pretty amorphous and subject to argument; the difficulty being that rape in that context at that time wasn’t taken with particular seriousness.
But I’ve been drawn to that story and that setting for a while. It’s easy to write a WWII story, especially one set in Germany, and have it be an easy-out in terms of insta-setting. It evokes an immediate response of pain and despair. But that doesn’t mean WWII is not what it is, a giant psychic scar, and thus an opening for horror and the numinous. Just because the war’s over doesn’t mean the scar is gone.
What is the significance of Elke’s revenge taking such a visceral form?
Well: she’s a zombie. Zombies eat people.
Okay, that’s not entirely accurate. Zombies tend to be viral, they’re infectors, they partially consume for body horror. Elke consumes the American soldier, and it’s meant to be bestial, to be an unbirthing. I love cannibalism. Elke eating the American is incredibly physical and visceral, but it’s innately spiritual too: as she says, she is taking him with her. Any afterlife she goes to, he’s going too. Before she died, he imprinted himself on her in a way that she took as permanent and she’s clawed back that permanency to extend to even after the grave.
I don’t believe in rape as a permanent narrative disfigurement that someone else is able to inflict, and I don’t like rape as a narrative shadow touching someone’s life forever. But Elke sees it more in that vein. So she doesn’t just disfigure in return, she diminishes her attacker and absorbs him both physically and spiritually. The emphasis is on the physical because that’s what is immediately more horrifying to Anton.
Why Juicy Fruit gum?
Gum is an American talisman to me; Juicy Fruit particularly so. I workshopped this story with George R.R. Martin at Clarion, and he noted that the story’s got a very American aggressor, that the antagonist isn’t—as some Stuttgart stories tell—Tunisian or Moroccan or comfortably “other.” He’s American in a setting where the usual dish du jour is American martial heroism. This isn’t to say he represents America; just that he is reactively American.
Also, Juicy Fruit was my favorite chew growing up. Juicy Fruit is terrifyingly chemical. To me it tastes indescribable.
Can you still chew it without thinking about this story’s ending?
Yes, because by the time I get to swallowing it, I’m just thinking about my grandmother again, who told me that would kill me.
What work can readers expect to see from you next?
I’m still stuck on the historical dead: I’m working on an undead detective story sequence. It’s vaguely Heathen-Army-Of-865-meets-Miss-Marple. So expect some Norse shambling horrors, plus a touch of Agatha Christie.