Fiend author Peter Stenson on the surprising similarities between tweakers and zombies
Dead-eyed, sore-covered and mindless, wandering an urban wasteland driven by an insatiable hunger, methamphetamine addicts are the closest real-world equivalent to fiction's zombies. So what happens if you take those tweakers and make them the sole survivors in a world overrun by actual undead? That's the premise of Colorado author Peter Stenson's debut novel Fiend, a book that takes the stock zombie mythos and twists it some unusual ways. Take, for instance, the fact that the meth heads of Fiend have no choice but to stay high to stay alive. Faced with this existential dilemma, Stenson's protagonists are forced to grapple with both the drug-fueled savagery of their fellow survivors/addicts and the hordes of flesh-hungry monsters everywhere, making for a taut, gripping read. We caught up with the author in advance of his appearance on Thursday, July 25, at the Tattered Cover LoDo to talk about the book, his influences and the surprising number of similarities between tweakers and zombies.
Robbie Lane Peter Stenson, zombie fiend.
Westword: What can we expect from Fiend?
Peter Stenson: They're kind of saying "Walking Dead meets Breaking Bad" and I definitely get it because there's zombies and meth, but I think the comparisons stop there. Myself, when I was younger, I struggled with addiction. A long time ago, twelve years ago, those two things kind of conflated. I was a runaway, I was in this hotel lobby in San Francisco and everyone just looked completely dead. That was kind of the genesis of the story. I thought it would be weird and interesting to look at a world where quitting drugs was not an option, and just see how that would play out. That was the genesis for the book, what I was trying to look at. As far as a tagline, sure, "Walking Dead meets Breaking Bad" works for me, but I think it's more than that. It has that whole addiction side that I don't think they get into quite as much in Breaking Bad.
Can you explain how this idea that quitting drugs is not an option plays out in the book, if it's not revealing too much of the plot?
Yeah, I think that realization comes pretty darn early for my point-of-view character -- probably thirty or forty pages in, and I think a reader can figure it out in ten. Basically it's not one of those zombie stories that goes into an explanation of why this happened. The two main characters come out of a bender and it starts right away with their experience with a zombie, then they're on the run from that point. As they're still trying to get more methamphetamine, they're realizing that the only people left that haven't turned are fellow addicts. They're thinking maybe it's something in the air, some neurotransmitters clogged, whatever. I didn't know the science behind it, or what would cause some mass epidemic like that, but I figured there's a whole lot of bad shit in methamphetamine, there's probably something in there that could stop something. [Laughs.]
As far as a plot point, it works twofold. One the one hand, they're addicts, so they're going to do whatever they have to do to keep manufacturing drugs, or keep getting drugs. It takes it up one notch when their survival is literally contingent on getting those drugs and keeping them going. It becomes a limiting variable both figuratively and literally.
It's an interesting twist. I've definitely seen the trope in zombie fiction of some kind of drug that can stop the zombie plague, but usually it's cast as some sort of pharmaceutical macguffin. This is a real drug that people are familiar with that itself is kind of deadly. You've set up an interesting dilemma, since you have to stay high to stay alive, but the drug itself will kill you or drive you nuts before long.
Right. That's what's being explored in the book. People are doing bad things to each other and all the normal stuff you'd see in an addiction story, but it becomes, I think, pretty clear that the bigger threat is the drugs. Maybe not the bigger threat, but the quality of life is so shitty that it's not much of an option, at least for some of the characters.
Horror has a long history of using the supernatural or monster-type elements as a metaphor to talk about some aspect of the human condition. It seems like you're doing that here, using a zombie apocalypse to look at the personal apocalypse of drug addiction. Was that the intention when you sat down to write the book, or was it a natural outgrowth of the story you wanted to tell?
A little bit of both, if that makes any sense. The obvious metaphor or allusion is when you see someone in the throes of methamphetamine addiction, it's bad. They literally look -- they could be an extra on AMC. They look bad. That's the literal part of it, as far as it being a bit of an epidemic. I'm from the Midwest and I'm sure it's big everywhere, but it's huge in northern Minnesota.
As far as methamphetamine production, what it turns you into, quality of life, thought process -- whether you're eating flesh or just getting more, you have one thing on your mind, it doesn't matter about anything else. That was the way it was intended, but it ended up working out a little better than I though as far as how well they correlated and played off one another. It was kind of a happy accident how well it worked out once the writing started.
It's kind of amazing how many similarities there are once you think of it. It's almost weird that it hasn't been done before.
Exactly. I think a lot of the reviews are like, "Why hasn't anyone done this before?"