This year marks 25 years since the release of the controversial classic, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I’ve read a number of articles online about how Pat Bateman has become such an iconic character and rehashing the themes of materialism that got the novel so much acclaim. Still, every article I read seemed to come up far short of explaining the impact that American Psycho should have had on the world of fiction.
For me, as a writer, I always had this desire to go beyond telling a story. I wanted to create fiction that said something about the world. That’s part of what drew me into zombies, too. Those old Romero tales often had something to say about the society we inhabit. Bret Easton Ellis is among the very few writers, that know how to write a thrilling, gory, horrifying novel and have it really make a statement about society at the same time.
Reading American Pyscho was life-changing for me. I’d always read books by great authors like Salinger, Faulkner, Vonnegut, Bukowski, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and Ray Carver. The writing is incredible, insightful and inspring. But as my life went on, I grew tired of picking up a lot of newer works of literary fiction and just being bored or disappointed with how dull the stories were. I’m at the point in my life where I need a little excitement too. Perhaps Hollywood has finally succeeded in shortening my attention span. I can’t read a book that’s thoughtful, just because it’s thoughtful anymore. Maybe you can, and I commend you for that.
As a result, I started reading more in the horror and sci-fi genres, and enjoyed so many of the great page-turning novels by new authors that have come out in recent years. As exciting and entertaining as some of these books might be, I would occasionally get to the end and wonder what the point was. It’s great to write an action-packed novel, but what is it really if it doesn’t say anything? There’s that feeling of emptiness again. Questioning why I spent 8, 10, or 12 hours of my life I can’t get back.
I guess, like a typical American, I wanted it all in one book. Entertain me, scare me, make me laugh, disgust me, make me think, make me turn page after page and want to read more. When I finally found that book in American Psycho it changed the way I wanted to write. There are a lot of other novels like those by Cormac McCarthy and Chuck Pahlaniuk among many others that had a similar effect. However, American Psycho stands out in my mind as the one book that had the greatest influence on me as a writer. The moment where I realized I could write the kind of story I want and still say what I want as a writer at the same time.
This was a big obstacle for me. I have always loved zombies and zombie movies, and writing post-apocalyptic novels just feels natural to me. But… I knew before I ever put a word down in my first book I was going against some social stigmas. There were those who would think… you wrote a zombie novel… those are for stupid people. Meanwhile, I believed some zombie fans would think, this zombie novel doesn’t talk about guns and the government enough. I thought there are people who won’t even pick my book up based on the subject matter, and those that do like the subject matter might not enjoy the book. Both of which might very well be true. It seems that way sometimes at least.
As a writer, I didn’t think there would be an audience for zombie fiction with themes and symbolism and things like that. Even The Walking Dead seems to be dumbing itself down on television lately and relying on shock value and cliffhangers to carry their audience. I sometimes feel like I’m in a reading slump when I hit two or three books in a row that just say absolutely nothing. Life is too short for bad books. I want to feel rewarded when I finish reading a book, not empty.
For being brave and talented enough to toe the line, horror writers and literary writers should both appreciate the kind of impressive, genre-bending work that is American Psycho. Slashers don’t need to silent, unemotional thugs, and zombies can be more than just zombies. These manifestations become even more horrifying when you can easily see how they reflect our current reality. Literary works can be compelling, gripping and exciting, as long as you care as much about entertaining your audience as you do about your themes. This is what Bret Easton Ellis taught me as a writer. It’s the reason his themes still stick with us, and why Patrick Bateman still scares us 25 years later.