1. Please tell us about The Company of Death. What's it's premise?
It’s high-concept, so…strap in. In the near-future, the zombie apocalypse apocalypses, and civilization falls. The vampires who have always secretly lived among humanity make themselves known to the world and offer protection for humans in nomadic communes in exchange for keeping them as blood slaves. In America, an organization called the Life Preservation Initiative believes that if humans are complacent slaves in communes, they will never work toward eliminating the zombie threat, so LPI task force teams are dispatched across the country to destroy the communes and liberate the humans as phase one of taking back the world from Undeath.
Meanwhile, the Grim Reaper, Death himself, isn’t doing so well; so many people are un-dying that hardly anyone left in the world is dying anymore. Greater Cosmic Powers are displeased with his performance, and when he fails to take LPI operative, Emily Campbell’s life, it is the last straw, and he is stripped of his powers. This means no one in the world can ever die again, only un-die, and Undeath will never be defeated. Humanity is doomed.
Due to Death’s intervention, Emily becomes the first talking, thinking zombie, and is stranded alone with him in the middle of the Mojave. She offers to help him get his powers back if he’ll help her cross the country to New York where she can get a cure to turn her human again. A buddy road trip ensues. Also, there are robots.
2. Could you tell us a bit about its protagonist, Emily? What makes her tick?
She is a 25 year old disaster bi from Southern California. When the zombie outbreak happened two years prior, she was living with her parents, mired in student loan debt and working a thankless IT job. She greatly admired her father, who was a happy-go-lucky but crooked used car salesman, often emulating his strategic methods of dealing with people and ironic sense of humor. She had an antagonistic relationship with her mother, who she often felt she had to take responsibility for. Her mother pressured Emily to believe her value came from how men saw her, pushing her to be “pretty” to be considered desirable.
As a result, Emily developed a complex of desperately needing complete control over her own body at all times, which, combined with her confusion about her biromantic asexual orientation as she grew up, led her to have trouble developing and keeping relationships. All of these issues manifest in an intense disgust for vampires when she learns how they use humans as blood slaves, and a judgmental attitude toward any humans who willingly choose that way of life. She eagerly joins the LPI, wanting to destroy the vampires and save the world from undeath. She has a lot of flaws and room to grow, and makes a big step toward becoming a better person by the end of Book 1.
3. The world has been taken over by vampires and zombies. How did that happen?
I know exactly how it happened, but I’m not sure the information will ever be revealed in the book. I’m not a fan of information exposition dumps in books that don’t emerge organically out of the interactions between the characters or to drive the plot. And no moment happens in books 2 or 3 where the History of How It All Began wound up fitting in. Both of those books are still in the editing phase, though, so there’s a chance it could be added in. I could insert a character who doesn’t know how it happened needing another character to tell them the story, but that’s often a terribly contrived form of information delivery. If I’m advised by my editor to include the backstory, I’d rather just slip in hints about the outbreak here and there so that the reader has to piece the whole thing together themselves.
Either way, though, I don’t think it’s actually important for the reader to know. It doesn’t matter exactly how it happened; what matters is how people deal with it. Obviously, I understand readers WANT to know because they’re curious, but that seems like a bonus feature special content sort of thing to me, not something that necessarily belongs in the text itself (Unless, of course, my publisher’s editor decides otherwise). I suppose this is a long way of saying that answering this question might be a spoiler, so I’m not going to tell you right now. But here’s one hint: It’s the vampires’ fault.
There is a line in Book 1 that does give you the information that vampires and zombies have “always existed,” but it wasn’t until two years prior to the book’s start that the zombies suddenly were able to take over the world. It’s also shown in Book 1 that the zombie outbreak was the reason the vampires revealed themselves to humanity in order to assist their mutual survival. To ease your frustration though, I will tell you that there is a “story time” scene in Book 2 where the characters do hear an origin of how the first zombie came to be in ancient history.
4. Death is a major character in this book. What inspired you to include them?
He is the whole reason this book exists. When I came up with the idea for the story, it was because I wanted a book that featured the Grim Reaper as a main character that wasn’t a comedy or parody, and I couldn’t think of any. One where he was the One and Only Death in existence, not one of several reapers in his world, or a human who had become Death somehow.
And also one where he was the classic skeleton in a cloak with a scythe, not some biblical-esque angel or other form of presentation. I came up with the story for my trilogy in 2010, and at that time, I could not find a single existing non-comedic novel that had this kind of Death as a main character. So I started thinking, if I were to write a story for this guy, what might that look like? What could happen to him that would be an interesting adventure? And the whole rest of the premise of the world and plot and other characters rolled out of that.
As for why I wanted a story about him in the first place… he is my favorite character concept of all time, and I adore stories that follow a “Death and the Maiden” motif. For instance: The Phantom of the Opera, my greatest love. Characters like the Phantom--or many of our favorite vampires, or even just the dark brooding gentlemen in all those other Gothic tales we love--they’re all just reinterpretations of that Death character representation. So of course I wanted to go for the Big One that inspired them all.
5. Are the vampires sexy or horrible in this world? Why do them that way?
I would say neither. They aren’t monstrous to look at like some more gruesome iterations of vampires (though there is no mistaking them for human), but they aren’t supernaturally alluring, either. Any sex appeal they have is due to their individual personalities, not any special vampire abilities. The fact that they are powerful and immortal is certainly seductive to many humans in this world, but that has nothing to do with how they look. I didn’t intentionally choose to do them this neutral way, but perhaps it came about because I am an asexual person who isn’t sexually attracted to anyone, so it wasn’t natural for me to write my vampires as intentionally sexy?
As a society, though, the vampires are presented as the antagonistic force in the book because of the way they use and abuse what’s left of humankind after the zombie outbreak, and that’s pretty horrible, attitude-wise at least. They are opportunistic and selfish, prioritizing their own need for blood and survival over what’s best for the rest of the world. There are only a few vampire exceptions who don’t subscribe to the widespread vampire way of life. These few are the ones willing to sacrifice their comfort and power in order to actively attempt to end the zombie threat. Vampire vs vampire conflict has always been one of the most interesting storytelling tropes to me.
6. What inspired you to do a zombie apocalypse novel?
When I was trying to think up an interesting story for Death as a character to have an adventure in, the idea of him combating Undeath seemed like the perfect fit. What would be the absolute worst situation for Death to face? The end of dying, right? So if everyone in the world was un-dying, he’d be screwed.
Also, I’ve always had a huge aversion to zombies. I absolutely hated watching zombie movies. Zombies are so freaking scary and gross and horrible. They never stop, they just keep coming and coming and coming and they’ll get you eventually no matter how hard you fight; if the world is overrun by them, there’s ultimately no getting away. As a person with anxiety, it’s like my absolute worst nightmare. And they say write what scares you, right?
7. Could you tell us a bit about the secondary characters?
There are five central characters in the book, and three of them have point of view sections with the narration switching between them, but as the protagonist, Emily gets the largest portion. As her traveling companion, Death is mostly presented through her point of view.
The others two POV characters are the people who join up on her and Death’s road trip along the way. Someone once compared their traveling group dynamic to Wizard of Oz, and now I can’t unsee it. Scott is a 23 year old human dude, and Leif is a 450ish year old vampire dude (who looks 23ish). The fifth character is Scott’s traveling companion, Carol, a gynoid (which just means female-presenting android).
As a young middle class straight white man from SoCal, Scott’s lived his whole life in a sheltered privileged bubble. The zombie apocalypse thrusts him into a harsh reality where he is having to learn to question his priorities and outlook on the way he’s lived and interacted with people. He starts the book a bit behind the adjustment curve of the rest of the population because he’s been protected in a robotics plant until four days before the story starts. He’s an introverted academic who was used to thinking he was the smartest person in the room, looking down on most other people (including his own girlfriend), but is now suddenly in a situation where he finds himself useless in ways that most matter. He’s one of those young people who always subconsciously thought himself immortal until he needs to rely on others (mostly Carol) to preserve his life. In this five-man-band, he is the token mortal.
Carol is a robot that was modified by Scott’s sister from a military android model. The original model was developed as a super soldier and zombie killer, but were ultimately ineffective against the zombies. Carol still has many of the weapons and features from the battle android, but possesses an illegal AI that gives her a full range of human emotions and free will. Scott’s sister also rebuilt her body to be more aesthetically attractive in a feminine way and eliminated some of the features and functions that made her less-human. In my mind, she looks like a stockier version of a mix between the androids in the 2004 I Robot movie and the Svedka robot. She and Scott were left behind when his sister and her team flew to New York, and they are trying to cross the country to rejoin them.
Leif is one of those vampires I mentioned above who are the few exceptions to the general vampire society. He wants to put an end to the system most vampires follow where they treat humans like cattle. But his motivations for doing this are somewhat selfish; he wants the glory of being the one to save humanity (because he has Issues, which get revealed more in Books 2 and 3, but it’s shown in Book 1 that he has a frustrating pattern of feeling like a failure). Even though ending the vampire’s system is also Emily’s goal, Leif would rather use her and her friends in harmful ways to be the sole hero than work together with them. They don’t know this, though, and he spends the book trying to earn their trust for his own gain. He’s also pretty sassy and is probably my favorite character in the whole thing despite appearing the least. He’s the most fun to write because his voice is so distinctive; even though he has his dark moments, he’s such a jovial personality. He also (like most of my vampires) is bi. So are Death and Carol technically, for that matter. Or pan, to be more precise. Actually, pretty much every major character in this trilogy wound up being queer in some way except for Scott.
8. Would you say this is horror, fantasy, sci-fi, or a kind of mix?
Definitely a cross-genre mix of all of the above. I usually call it a “near-future apocalyptic dark fantasy.” It has so many horror elements, but I don’t know that it counts as A Horror Novel, because I think the definition of horror is that it scares you. My book has some horrific and tense moments, but the point of it is not to scare you, and I wouldn’t say it’s a scary book overall.
It’s a monster mash, and I wanted to include all my favorite things, so I have the paranormal monsters (zombies, vampires), the fantastical monsters (personifications of cosmic elements, horsemen of the apocalypse), and the sci-fi monsters (sentient robots). Of course, these are all monsters with feeeeeelings, and the main ones are all ostensibly good monsters. So if a monster is friendly, does that still make them horror? I’m shrugging as much as you are.
9. How has the fan response been so far?
Pretty great! It was the best-selling release of all time from my publisher, Falstaff Books. I’m just happy people are taking a chance on a book that’s so weird and niche. A lot of people who watch my Vampire Reviews webseries have picked up a copy just because they know me and want to support. But so many of those who have read it mention how they also love the monster mash concept and can relate so much to the characters. People have even made fanart, which is the absolute best thing, and I can now die a happy author!
10. What can we expect from you next as a writer? Do you have any goals?
Books 2 and 3 in this trilogy are in the pipeline and set to be released from Falstaff Books. I’m also working on revisions to an unrelated contemporary novel I wrote last year about a YouTuber dealing with online harassment. After that, I have a couple novels that have been fully outlined for ages that I just need the time to write. One is a scifi about robots with feelings and the other is a vampire murder mystery.
THE COMPANY OF DEATH is by Elisa Hansen, one of the authors of the Twilight parody Awoken (where a young teenage girl falls in love with Cthulhu). She is also a well-loved web reviewer of vampire fiction under the stage name the Maven of the Eventide. Her persona there is a perky Goth who fangirls over vampire fiction while also giving incisive commentary on the feminist, racial, sociological, or even environmental subtext of things like Daybreakers or Kindred: The Embraced.