Of all the novels I’ve written that will never see the light of day, The Starving is probably the one that would have worked. It’s also the one I miss the least, and the reason for both these things is the same.
By the spring of 2003, I was immersed in a modern languages degree, the third year of which was spent abroad to practice the language in situ. I’d already spent the best part of a year polishing my French at Disney’s Cultural Chernobyl and now found myself in Andalucia, where I hoped to improve my rudimentary Spanish with a semester of classes at Granada University. Unfortunately, the university had other ideas.
On my first day of classes, one of the courses was cancelled altogether while the academic in charge of another absconded without telling anybody where he was going or why. A third class proved to be oversubscribed but, as the university had nowhere else to put me, they let me claim the credits without turning up. I was down to about three hours of study time a week when the war broke out.
He’s virtually forgotten now, but then-Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar was a minor partner in the invasion of Iraq in March of that year. It was an unpopular war in general, of course, but nowhere more so than in Spain, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets to voice their opposition. Just when I thought my week couldn’t get any easier, most of my course tutors went on strike.
It was brilliant. I was in my mid-twenties, at liberty in a beautiful city and with no commitments, for three months. What else was I going to do but write?
For almost as long as I had been writing, I had wanted to write a zombie story. This was still a few years before they hit the mainstream – there was no Walking Dead, no Warm Bodies, no Zombieland. The zombie was still a niche monster that had yet to stray from the sub-set of the horror genre it had occupied since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968. That was fine by me – a Romero tone was exactly what I was after, though I hoped to subvert a few of his tropes along the way. A few ideas had been percolating at the back of my mind for years and, now that I had the time, I finally sat down and put them together.
I used The Starving to impose a Third World crisis on contemporary Britain. Global food stocks have been dwindling for months, succumbing to a genetically modified strain of fungus that is steadily making its way up the food chain, from crops to livestock, with humanity next in line. As governments impose increasingly draconian rationing laws, food is now more expensive than gold and the first reports of human fungus victims are starting to surface.
Fleeing a riot at one of the last remaining ration stations, a group of strangers take shelter in an abandoned school building. (At the time of writing, it had become painfully apparent that the Columbine massacre was not to be an isolated incident and so the school in The Starving is reminiscent of a high-security prison, in which teachers deliver lessons from behind bullet-proof glass).
Isolated and starving, the group coalesces around Cross, a documentary photographer unwilling to accept that the worsening crisis is anything more than the project of a lifetime. He is at odds with Tyler, an opportunistic thug who sees the riots as his chance to get ahead of the pack. Caught between them are Arthur and Jennifer, a late middle-age couple searching for their missing daughter and Emma, a teenage activist looking for someone to blame amidst the chaos.
As the violence increases and their last remaining food runs out, they realise they will have to risk the hazardous journey across town to an army staging post, where fresh rations are due to arrive. But they quickly discover there are worse dangers on the streets than looters, and that the victims of the fungal plague don’t stop just because they’re dead. Here’s an extract:
“He must have been a big man, before the infection. Sheets of skin hung like empty sails from his frame, swinging to and fro as he lunged at them. Emma kicked off from the bench and rolled away, narrowly avoiding the blackened, twig-like hands that clutched at her. Cross jumped up as well, but tripped over his own feet and fell hard.
The man was surprisingly nimble and scrambled to stand over Cross before he could pick himself up. Emma was back on her feet again, meaning to intervene, but was overwhelmed by the sheer physical repugnance of the man.
His skin was pale and lifeless, sloughing from his face like melting wax. His scalp and chin were bald, the nutrients needed for hair growth long since diverted to feed the parasite that thrived within his flesh. His mouth was the worst. It opened and closed mechanically, a dark shapeless hole full of teeth where the gums had peeled away. The lips were missing, chewed off, Cross thought, as one frail hand clasped his ankle and the terrible head was lowered towards him, releasing gusts of breath that stank of moist compost. Dark tendrils shifted just beneath the skin, leaching blood from the main arteries. And, almost comically, a small orange flower protruded from behind one ear.”
So why didn’t The Starving make it to print? For once it was a case of sheer bad luck. After working on the manuscript for about six months, I sat down with a DVD copy of 28 Days Later, which I had missed on its original release.
It was exactly the same story.
Sure, the characters and the source of the outbreak were different but the plot was the same, right down to some of the minor details. In both stories, for example, the characters decide to risk the journey in search of military protection after hearing an emergency broadcast on a clockwork radio, whilst standing on a rooftop. That’s the sort of thing I could easily have changed, but the overall structure, pace and plot were harder to shift. Even the mid-point twist – the discovery that the army unit has gone rogue and poses a greater threat than the infected – was identical.
I toyed with a few different treatments but I already knew it was futile – I had been beaten to the punch and no matter what I did, The Starving would end up looking like a knock-off.
And that’s why it was easier to let this one go than any of my other never-to-be-published novels. Once I’d seen the story told (and Garland and Boyle made a slightly better fist of it than I would have), I lost the need to tell it myself.
It certainly wasn’t a total waste and I’ve been able to salvage those elements that were unique to my version. A slightly altered version of the infection, for instance, has worked its way into a new novel that’s in the planning stages. And I’m already tackling the great British zombie novel in the form of An Unwanted Miracle.