Life is short and eternity is forever, and it’s impossible to gauge the consequences of anything that we undertake — but I can honestly say that way back in 2007, when my agent first approached me about writing a Star Wars zombie novel (as we were referring to it way back then), I had no idea of the far-reaching implications of such an enterprise.
All of which is just a fancy way of saying that I am profoundly grateful for everything that’s happened since I sat down with a notebook and a pen and started writing the book that would become Death Troopers. At the time, for example, I had no idea that the incredible armies of the 501st (Vader’s Fist! Represent!) would invite me to become an honorary member, to put on armor myself and appear as an infected Stormtrooper for the book trailer that my publicity team would film, semi-secretly, in the uppermost maintenance levels of the Random House building one Saturday afternoon in Manhattan. Or that, this past summer, I’d find myself touring the archives of Industrial Light and Magic in San Francisco while meeting with design and creative teams at LucasArts in the Presidio.
What a long, bloody trip it’s been.
What I’ve discovered along the way is that writing horror in the Star Wars universe warps the way that you look at the entire world — assuming that your world is Star Wars, and George Lucas’ vision shaped your nascent imagination from when you were knee-high to an Ewok. This experience might be fairly compared to volunteering at the county morgue: eventually everybody goes home smelling like a corpse. Thanks to Death Troopers, the franchise no longer holds up a simple nostalgic mirror of the wide-eyed seven-year-old that I was when A New Hope first came out back in 1977. Similarly, my one innocent memory of The Empire Strikes Back no longer take me back to the summer of 1981. In fact, when I go back and watch these films now, with my eight- and ten-year-old children sitting next to me, especially this time of year, around Halloween, I find myself thinking instead of the scenes that could have been — horrible, subversive moments of sheer terror — moments that my warped imagination have already begun to insert in between these legendary frames of those movies, even if my additions to them would be inevitably left on the editing room floor.
Consider, for example, the following scenario: a brief ten-minute Joe Schreiber interlude from A New Hope, a version that could have been.
Upon coming back to the family homestead in Tatooine and finding the charred and skeletal remains of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, Luke buries what’s left of his beloved aunt and uncle. Later, as darkness descends, he opts to spend one last night on the moisture farm before leaving forever. It’s getting late, and in his shocked and grief-stricken state, Luke decides he’ll have better luck leaving in the morning.
That night, as he shuts the power down one last time, with the desert wind rising up outside like the scream of madwoman, Luke begins to hear something else coming from inside the compound. Between the thudding of his heart, other noises echo from from the far side of the empty residence — scraping sounds, along with something that sounds like dragging, unsteady footsteps — drawing steadily nearer.
We track Luke down the silent hall, as he peers into the different chambers, one by one. He’s exhausted, winnowed down to bare nerves by everything that’s happened. Gradually, though, he smells something, the sweetish-rancid stink of scorched flesh and seared hair, but passes it off as his imagination, a nightmare echo of the day’s events, his mind playing tricks on him. But as he turns back to bed, the noises start again, closer this time. He checks again down both hallways — nothing there.
He turns for bed —
— and finds himself staring face-to-face with the hideous empty eye sockets of Aunt Beru. The blackened ribbons of flesh pull back from what’s left of her grinning jaw, as Luke feels Uncle Owen’s spade-claw hand behind him, digging into his shoulder. The voice of Owen-thing in his ear is like broken glass digging through charcoal.
“You didn’t bury us deep enough, Luke.”
You know. That sort of thing.
Or consider another lost moment from later in the film, when Luke, Han, and Leia are trapped in the trash compactor, with that slimy tentacled cephalopod — an unspeakable, Lovecraftian horror that Wookieepedia helpfully informs me is called the Dianoga — wrapping itself around them and sucking them down.
In the lost segment of that scene, the Dianoga yanks Han below the surface — and for the first time we see what it really looks like down there, Han’s eyes bulging as he gapes at the nauseating human logjam of swollen half-eaten corpses that the thing below the surface has been gorging itself on all these standard years. As the walls of the compactor close in, Han reaches out desperately to grab the only thing he can find to jam between the walls, a gnawed-clean shinbone of one of the bodies. Han yanks it from the thing’s waterlogged flesh…starts back toward the surface — and feels a hand close tight around his ankle, drawing him back down.
I could go on and on.
To me, one of the truly timeless and universal aspects of Lucasfilm’s sandbox is the ease with which it may be expanded, in any direction, to explore whatever peculiar obsession might pique your interest. That’s the reason why the kids who were playing Star Wars 30 years ago grew up and had kids who are now playing Star Wars today. Being the twisted individual that I am, I loved writing Death Troopers and Red Harvest precisely because it gave me an officially licensed opportunity to pit my Kenner Star Wars action figures against the hideously malformed Rob Bottin-esque G.I. Joe doll whose face I melted with a butane torch in my garage when I was 12 years old, and to toss them all into one gory, heart-pounding, slightly over the top blitz on the senses of the Star Wars universe, and get paid for it. Everybody wins.
Of course, these lightspeed jumps to the true dark side of Star Wars don’t need to be limited to the printed word. Personally, I would love to design a Star Wars horror video game — something truly and desperately unnerving, involving lots of empty spaces, malfunctioning technology, atmospheric sound, and a steadily shrinking cast of characters, as the survivors aboard, say, a GR-75 medium transport, are trying to grapple with whatever’s founds its way on their vessel. Let’s say the crew brought aboard a Jedi Knight — or someone who initially identified himself as such — but ever since he’s stepped inside the main hatchway, members of the ship have been turning up tortured, hideously mutilated, their bodies twisted into sickening human puzzles, maimed and flayed…but not always dead. In fact, they’re almost all able to utter a few last desperate words. Meanwhile, our “Jedi” himself is nowhere to be found.
But he’s around. Oh yes, I think if you look around, you’ll find him.
I also think it’s high time to vindicate the Star Wars Holiday Special with a cheerful little Halloween edition. Here’s a thought: we could set it on the planet of Odacer-Faustin, long before it became home to one of the most notorious Sith Academies in the galaxy…where the natives of that cursed planet had the odd seasonal ritual of digging up the rotting corpses of those who had died during the past year and “dancing” with their decaying bodies through an entire night of total blackness. (This idea, by the way, is based on the real-life ritual of famadihana in Madagascar, where people dance with the shroud-wrapped skeletons of their ancestors, a practice that you probably won’t see in any of the Madagascar movies). ANYWAY, in my version, any corpse that is forgotten and left behind from the dance would eventually claw its own way out of the tomb — although its idea of celebrating the season would be decidedly more murderous than those of the living.
Finally — and I’ve been advocating this for years — every time Halloween comes around, I invariably think of how much I’d love to see a Death Troopers haunted attraction. Imagine boarding a full-sized replica of an ostensibly abandoned Star Destroyer, creeping down the concourses and through the various storage areas and laboratories, trying to piece together the unsettling clues of what had happened there. First you would only encounter empty rooms — and gradually the manifestations of the Blackwing virus would begin to present themselves — until ultimately the unlucky visitors would realize that they aren’t alone here at all, not even remotely. If the 501st were involved (and how could they not be?), you could run the whole thing for charity. The t-shirt concessions alone would spectacular.
So yeah — I’m the guy who spoiled Star Wars for the non-zombie crowd, and if you’re among them, you have my sympathies. But I can’t honestly say I’m sorry. After all, I’ve been holding onto this melting-face G.I. Joe for a long time, just waiting for the opportunity to introduce him to whatever’s lurking on-board the various sub-levels of the Star Destroyer, behind the canisters of black liquid and the back storage area.
You know — the one that’s not quite empty.