I’m no good with dates, but it must have been late 2005 or early 2006. I was outlining a web serial called Empire, while at the same time working on a couple of ideas to write up & submit to Permuted Press’ second Undead anthology.
One of the ideas I was working on was a “versus” concept. I was trying to come up with the quintessential nemesis for the undead. I think I first considered alien invaders, but I dropped that one quickly. Too sci-fi, and not antithetical enough. From there I thought about having a second virus come along to change some of the zombies, pitting them against one another, but again I wanted a greater contrast. I think I passed on zombies vs. demons too. I thought long and hard about ghosts vs. zombies, but wasn’t sure how to make it work (I’ve since figured it out, and have penned a couple different takes on the concept this year).
I don’t remember how it occurred to me that a zombie’s natural enemy, if the walking dead can have such a thing, must be death itself. Death himself. But it did, and so “Brownlee’s Blue Flame” came about. And when Permuted’s plans for a second Undead grew into plans for a second and third, I was able to place both my stories: “Brownlee” in Flesh Feast, and the genre-bender “The Abbot and the Dragon” in Skin and Bones.
As I said, I was also outlining Empire at that time. It was set in 2112, and the virus had supernatural origins and properties, but the story still didn’t feel unique enough. If I was going to write a novel-length zombie tale, I wanted it to be something that would really surprise zombie devotees. And so I decided to plug the Reaper into the formula. From there Empire blossomed, with a greater potential to blend dark fantasy and hardcore action-horror. And because the story was connected to “Brownlee,” it became connected to “Grinning Samuel” from the first Undead, as well as other stories gestating in my mind. A mythos was growing.
The Reaper of “Brownlee” and Empire starts out as a stoic servant of the cosmos, a mere record-keeper watching life come and go. Over the course of Empire - as he becomes outraged over the dead’s refusal to stay dead, and fearful for the safety of the child Lily – he begins to develop a will and personality all his own.
This arc will continue in the sequel, with the Reaper learning more about his own origins as well as his destiny (things hinted at in the first book). And, while he’s a pretty badass character (how could he not be, tearing across the badlands and cutting down rotters with a scythe?), he is also developing emotionally. In both books, I think that development is key to his badass quotient. Being exposed to anger, fear and pain may just make him even more hardened than he was in his previous station.
In Empire, Death has gone from a spectral bookkeeper to a supernatural outlaw. And he rides a pale horse.