Why Zombies in “Undead Client?

M.J. Downing

Now that my “UnDead Client” has hit the streets and some few folks are going through it, I know someone will ask me, “Why Zombies and Sherlock Holmes?” My first response would be to rephrase the question into, “Why zombies and the Whitechapel Murders?” which were more numerous and of nearly the same kind. I turned toward zombies, first, because of their violence, because of murder, the vicious killing of one human being by another. Face it: if I were sitting in Corey Austin’s back yard just outside of Missoula Montana and a grizzly bear or mountain lion came along and killed me, Corey would not say to my wife, his sister, “Your husband was just murdered by a wild animal!” No. He would not use the word “murdered” unless Corey knew that the bear or lion had thought about killing me, maybe written Corey a note that promised revenge by taking the life of his beloved brother-in-law. Killed and murdered are different because of intention, and that is why it had to be zombies, for me, in my “UnDead Client.”
Some will argue, though, that zombie have no intention. They just stumble around with an auto-pilot hunger for brains. That’s what zombies do, right? We’ve all seen it. They don’t have a desire to kill you or me, per se. It just happens with zombies. They kill. But, you see, zombies don’t just happen. Like the Reavers in Joss Whedon’s Serenity and Firefly stories, Zombies were once human and made into murderous creatures. They were made zombies because of someone else’s intention, whether it is a matter of a voodoo priest desiring a slave to carry out his worst intentions or a government plot that goes insanely wrong in a way that makes its victim kill other humans without reason. [There’s a deeper metaphor in the zombie’s desire for brains, which I will take up later, in case anyone is reading this with a critical mindset.]. Yet, there it is again: intention, unreasoning murder. Those ideas are at the root of the terror that we feel in stories about zombies. That’s why I turned to zombies in my Holmes and Watson story about the “Whitechapel Murders.”
Zombies are the perfect weapons of terror. For, if you want to bring down a society, simply introduce zombies into it, with the power to transmit their brain-killing plague to other people in that targeted society. You would create a way for the members of that society to kill each other. They don’t need training or weapons or a supply train. You don’t even need to transport them in to the society, really. All that is needed is the infection, the thing that turns them into mindless killers. Why waste the people on your side, when you can use the people of your enemies? They are the cheapest option, and they are completely expendable weapons.
Because of the Whitechapel Murders, especially those done by the Ripper, the year 1888 became a year of terror in London. The wide gulf of opportunity between the rich and poor classes made the people of the East End victims of the darker intentions that lay under the civilities of all societies: prostitution, drugs, gambling, etc. The gender inequality alone, since the victims were predominantly female, made for a mindset that simply accepted some people as victims. Their poverty made them expendable. All my reading on Victorian Britain showed me an age living with terror, much like we are.A police station was burned down, gangs of vigilantes roamed the East End looking someone to blame for the murders. The police could do nothing to stop the murders, and bigotry and xenophobia made the situation a powder keg ready to blow. I suggest that the terror with which we live shares the same sources as the ones I wrote about, though it has become more pronounced with our increased efficiency in communication technology. However, given Victorian social conditions, the murders, and the role of Watson and Holmes in opposing criminals, it had to be zombies, for me, as weapons of terror.
If someone you knew became a zombie, the first horror to face would be that you could not reason with them. They might look like persons you know, but they are not. That person you knew has been taken from you, indeed, from him or her self. It’s not the sort of thing we are able to deal with in a calm and rational way. It causes a delay in our reaction to danger, a delay that is long enough to get you killed or turned into a zombie yourself. Sure, a zombie is fairly easy to kill, as long as you don’t mind bashing in the skull or cutting off the head of someone you know or someone who has not been labeled your enemy.Before people can be made to realize the danger they are in, they can be killed or at least infected. Before they can make a choice in that matter, they lose themselves and join the ravenous crowd that will tear apart a social order.
Seeding zombies into a population will put it on the path to ruin, because the members of the society will have to fight themselves. Thus, the enemy who seeded the population with zombies only needs to sit back and wait, or tend his crops with nefarious care. While I was writing “Client,” I grew to see the notion of these weapons of terror as quite relevant to our times. People are shooting each other, even people who do not know each other, against whom the shooter has no ill will, except something based on a fear or prejudice. Popular opinion can replace facts in many disputes, and arguments become ad hominem rather that based on evidence. Denial of obvious fact threatens our very climate, simply because one interpretation of said facts harms another person’s ability to make money. It does not seem a slippery slope to say that our citizenry is in danger of turning into zombies, automatons whose actions are controlled by others. We bear witness to it on the news at intervals that are way too regular.
And, I knew that I would have to make my book center on Dr. John H. Watson, that honorable everyman whom Doyle gave us. Holmes is great, like superheroes are great. Watson, though, is a person who feels, and I needed to have a protagonist who feels in order to show why zombies are weapons of terror, in order to combat that trend in my own way. I hope, at least, that while enjoying the adventure of Client and the other books I have planned, I can start a dialogue of sorts about what it means to value people as partners, rather than treating them as objects. The Victorian Age mirrors our own in the way it objectifies people outside the norm as perceived by those in power. I should have plenty of things to write about in the 1890s that relate to the 2020s. And that, my friends, is why Sherlock Holmes and zombies have come together in Sherlock Holmes: Then Case of the Undead Client.

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