For the third in my series of Apocalypse Weird Q&As, I’m talking to Chris Pourteau, author of The Serenity Strain. I’ve read several of Chris’ books, including his Pennsylvania fan fiction, Gettysburg and Susquehanna and he’s an excellent writer. I’m really looking forward to reading The Serenity Strain.
Hi Chris, welcome to the site.
Tell us a little bit about your Apocalypse Weird book, The Serenity Strain.
Well, it’s a contemporary dystopian horror novel set in Houston, Texas. Basically, three huge hurricanes hit the city, causing massive damage. Remember Hurricane Katrina and the chaotic breakdown of society in the weeks after? Ramp that up on steroids!
Before the hurricanes hit, a university researcher who’s trying out a new gene therapy to help control impulsivity—the root of problems like ADHD, addictions, and some violent crime—is weeks into his Phase 1 trial with his test subjects. Nicknamed the Serenity Six (named after the virus that’s introducing the therapy to rewrite their genetic makeup), the test subjects are murderers, the worst of the worst. (The thinking is, if it can modify their behavior, Serenity can help millions of people.) The therapy starts to go wrong (of course! It’s the Apocalypse!) just as the storms wreak havoc across Houston, Conroe, and Huntsville (north of the city, where the Texas State Prison is located).
One family, on the cusp of finalizing a contentious divorce, is thrown back together by circumstance, and they end up facing the evil forces in the novel. So there’s tension all over the place. Between the disaffected husband and wife (and their teenaged daughter, caught in the middle of their vitriol); between the Serenity Six and their victims (surprise-surprise, they escape prison); and all to the delight of one particular evil being that I’ll leave a mystery for now. In short, TSS is a nail-biter!
The Stand and 28 Days Later are both mentioned in the book’s description. Are there any other books or films that influenced your post-apocalyptic vision?
I saw a movie when I was a kid—and many times since—that really shaped my vision for what a dystopian Apocalypse should be: The Omega Man, a ’70s flick, with Charlton Heston. It’s based on the classic I Am Legend, a novella by Richard Matheson (remade as the not-as-good Will Smith movie in 2007; and originally made as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in 1964). Omega Man isn’t the best movie ever made and definitely dates me, but when you see or experience movies or books as a kid, it’s like a first kiss—whatever the inherent “quality,” it’s unlike anything you experience afterward, and it sticks with you.
The movie is about a colonel, named Neville, who survives a viral apocalypse that creates a community of night-dwelling religious fanatics led by Anthony Zerbe’s character, Matthias. They wear black, hooded cloaks (very monkish, in keeping with the fanatic theme), and basically are trying to snuff out all that remains of humanity and its “adherence to the wheel”—man’s inventions that, ultimately, led to his own demise in viral form. Neville is the last representative of that world, so Matthias and his followers are constantly trying to kill him. That’s the gist of the movie.
As I think about your question, that movie (and Matheson’s story) very much influenced TSS. When the Boss character shows up, it’s with great disdain for man’s reliance on his inventions—cars, for example, to flee the bad weather, which are compared to tombs, since many people end up trapped in them and drowned by the hurricanes. Until this moment, I hadn’t really made that connection with Omega Man, so thanks for the question!
Other books—many contemporary dystopian books, like Nick Cole’s The Old Man and the Wasteland or Edward W. Robertson’s Breakers series, or TV shows like The Walking Dead come to mind. But, like that first kiss, The Omega Man is a pretty fundamental inspiration I think.
What made you pick Houston, Texas as the location for your book?
This is a simple one. I know the city. Wonderment tasked me with writing a 65K-word novel in two months—faster than I’d ever written anything before. So, I focused on what I knew, from the way I structured the novel (I stole my own template from Shadows Burned In, my first novel, and structured TSS in 3 parts with 7 chapters each), to central conflicts (divorce, for example, which I’ve experienced) to the setting. I’ve lived in and near Houston—particularly West and North Houston, where the story specifically takes place—since I was in high school. In other words, I fully embraced the writer’s adage, “Write what you know.” Because, frankly, I didn’t have time for anything else!
Your “big bad”, Id, sounds like trouble. How did she come about?
Oh, man, you gave it away! 😉 But it’s cool. Still, I don’t want to say too much about her specifically, but a little background on me can help answer your question. I’m a licensed professional counselor. That means I have a master’s degree in counseling and I went through the Texas state licensure process (securing 3,000 supervised hours in the field) to become a professional counselor. So, I’m well versed in psychological theory and behavioral models, from Freud forward. When I decided the crux of the story would be Serenity going bad—that is, the gene therapy meant to curb impulsive behavior would actually cause the opposite to happen—my counselor self found that an interesting opportunity to explore human behavior within the context of amorality. Hmm. Sex. Food. Any desire anyone could want, and no conscience or consequences for sating that hunger? Exploring that fascinated me as both a writer and a counselor.
The SuperEgo (the social voice) that usually keeps those primal urges in check and the Ego (which negotiates between the ultra-moral SuperEgo and the appetite-driven Id) are turned off. So—if that happened, if there were no moral or social consequences for behavior, and then society breaks down in the wake of three massive hurricanes—what kind of supernatural being might be attracted to that? And that, as Forrest Gump would say, “is all I’m gonna say about that.” Your readers will have to meet Id when they read about her. 😉
Five words that describe your particular Weird Apocalypse…
Primal. Visceral. Emotional. Heroic. Bildungsroman (it’s a literary term that’s worth looking up).
A big thank you to Chris for taking the time to answer my questions. His Apocalypse Weird novel, The Serenity Strain, (and five other Apocalypse Weird novels) is available now on Amazon.
Get a FREE copy of my short story, Only Friends by subscribing to my newsletter.[“Apocalypse Weird Q&A: Chris Pourteau” by Philip Harris first appeared on Solitary Mindset on 25th February 2015]