Creative Colleagues: Stephen D. Sullivan

Steve Sullivan

Stephen D. Sullivan

Each week (sometimes twice), I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work and, if I’m feeling wicked, deeply personal issues. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.

Steve’s one of my annual friends, since at best I see him for a couple of hours at Gen Con. I knew of him before we met, since I’d followed his Twilight War comic before I went to work at TSR, but even then we missed each other by a few years. He’d left the company before I joined, so our first meeting was probably shaking hands at a Midwestern convention, or possibly at a volleyball party.

Steve joined my old writers’ group, the Alliterates, shortly before or after I’d drifted west with the exodus to Wizards of the Coast, so really we got to know each other through the Alliterates’ mailing list and an occasional encounter at conventions. That was enough for us to discover our shared passions for Universal monsters, kaiju, and a hundred other nerdy things. Check out his CV for more evidence of his professional nerdery.

Steve recently published his novelization of the the first movie to feature the walking dead, White Zombie. And yes, it’s the film for which Rob Zombie named his famous band.

1. What drew you to novelize a movie over 80 years old?

I’ve enjoyed doing movie adaptations, but the trouble with doing, say, Iron Man is that at the end of the day, some mega-corporation owns your work and gets most of the benefit. You don’t even have any say as to whether the book stays in print. So, it occurred to me, that if I found the right public-domain movie, I could do a really cool novelization and still control all the rights. White Zombie, a “Poverty Row” picture, long in the public domain, seemed a perfect mix—great story and well-known property. Its horror themes also fall in nicely with my upcoming Frost Harrow series. I thought it would be a good introduction/crossover book for my other work—as well as a good novel in its own right.

2. White Zombie wasn’t a critical hit upon release, but it made money and has become a cult classic. What do modern audiences see that the contemporary audience missed?

Bela Lugosi. Seriously, he’s the biggest thing White Zombie has going for it. It’s also got great style and mood, and it’s fairly lean and mean in its storytelling. But when the film came out, Bela wasn’t the kind of cult-favorite that he is now. So, Bela gets the fans through the door, and then they stay because the story is creepy and more than a bit twisted (lots of psycho-sexual subtext).

White Zombie3. In a film known at its time for over-the-top performances, how did you make the story accessible to contemporary audiences?

I’ve tried to meld a really modern narrative style—single POV for each chapter, multiple POVs in the book—along with the original dialog. But, any new moments I created had to mesh seamlessly with the existing work. Hopefully, readers won’t notice where the public domain White Zombie ends and my work begins. (And, if you really want to know which is which, you can pick up the edition of the book that includes the recreated movie script.)

So, when you pick up the book, you should expect the style of a modern read along with the creepy mood and content of the original.

4. How on earth did you capture the performance of an actor as iconic as Bela Lugosi? Which of the other actors posed a challenge in translating a film performance to prose?

Well, the idea is to come as close to putting the movie onto the printed page as you can. Part of that is sticking with the original dialogue, and—since Bela is speaking that in the film—quite a lot of it naturally sounds like him. What I didn’t do was try to reproduce his accent. As an editor, I helped Paul McComas and Greg Starrett capture a Bela-style accent in Fit for a Frankenstein, but that’s a comedy. White Zombie is straight-up horror/melodrama. Doing the accents from the film might have pushed it into parody, and I didn’t want to do that. So, I’ve reproduced the manner in which Bela and the other actors speak, but not their accents.

As far as dialog challenges, Bela and Dr. Bruner were the hardest. Both have somewhat eccentric speaking styles, and Bruner often repeats his own dialog, in a kind of eccentric stutter, in the film. I tried to streamline all that and make it easier for a modern audience to read. Hopefully between the streamlined dialog and my descriptions, I’ve painted a picture similar to what you see in the movie.

5. What moment from the film becomes even creepier on the page?

I think that Madeline being a zombie is creepier in the book than in the film, because even though White Zombie is a pre-code movie, it’s still fairly tame about her enslavement. I haven’t really shown much more than the movie did, but I’ve tried to make sure that some of the subtext becomes obvious to the readers. Also, there’s a very creepy scene/chapter from a zombie’s point of view (POV). The movie didn’t need to go there, but because of the narrative structure I chose, I had to. I’m pretty proud at how that chapter turned out (and the rest of the book, too).


You can snag a copy of White Zombie at Amazon and scan for incoming monster attacks at Steve’s blog.


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