Can one disturbed child send the whole world mad?
The Splits is the story of Michael, a very unusual boy growing up amidst a global zombie epidemic.
It’s also the story of the people around him. His worried mother Claire, and his aloof aunt Anna, who the disease seems to pursue.
Then there’s Lupe, a disgraced scientist whose disquieting research may hold the answer to defeating the infection.
Gradually these characters learn the secrets of the zombie disease known as ‘the Splits’. It is dizzyingly complex, composed of many ambiguous, shifting conditions.
And for Michael, the disease is much closer to home than he ever could have imagined.
Targeted Age Group:: 15 plus
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
World War Z is a good place to start. I wanted to tell an epic story through zombies like World War Z – but about our inner worlds rather than the concrete, geographical, political world. Rather than exploring the dynamics of the international order, I wanted to explore the psyche. The Splits was my original idea for doing that. People infected with the Splits are not just zombies, not just supernatural walking corpses. They also manifest as a supernatural spectral consciousnesses – as ghosts. That means you have to deal with their full humanity when tackling the disease. But this is very, very difficult to do, and it puts people in danger. Governments would rather not make the effort, and the book is about the people who realise it is the only way.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Some are based on me, some on people I know, some on historical figures and people in the news. They are all composites however, there is no exact replica of a real person.
I have a garden now, and often I sit there and think about how the plague began. The plants were put in by Patrick and they change with the seasons, but they’re also the same every year. In spring there’s a mass of alliums, in summer there are dark red roses, in autumn there’s a riot of anemones. They don’t care about the Splits. They’re not conscious, which means they can’t catch it.
The garden is the only place I let these thoughts come. My favourite spot is the bench at the back where the star jasmine climbs, In cold weather I take hot tea, in warm weather iced water. I look at the pointed leaves, the white flowers, and I ponder what is gone. My husband, my sister’s mind, the tranquil assumption that my son is safe.
At other times, in certain moods, I think about what the Splits has given me. A brief efflorescence as a journalist, a certainty that I am not sick. And now, it seems, a nephew. It has given me back Michael. Whether I like it or not. I think I do.
The sickness began in February 1969, in New York. There was a patient zero – a teacher lost his mind in a classroom – but like everybody else I didn’t take much notice. I thought it was a one-off. These things happen in America, right? Most papers gave the incident just one paragraph.
Now, of course, I know the story inside out.
The school was in Queens, the teacher’s name was Luke Mitchum, and he’d been explaining the structure of the atom to a twelfth grade science class.
There’s no account of the classroom. I imagine there would have been a window on to a campus or perhaps one of those wide, busy city streets. Freezing winter rain would have been streaking down outside and the daylight would have been no more than tarnished trickle. Inside, everything and everybody would have looked plastic under harsh fluorescent strip-lighting. But there’s no record of this.
What is captured is that the students noticed Mitchum looked unwell. His skin was clammy and he had an odd rash on his left eyelid – pallid and grey, rather than pink or red. Halfway through describing electrostatic force, he looked down, tilted his head to the side and stopped speaking. A student called Tina asked him if he was okay. He turned to her, stared intently, and after a moment came out from behind his desk.
“Suddenly he was right by me,” Tina said afterwards.
Most of the class took the opportunity to break into conversation, and few saw what he did next. He stretched out his hands and then with supreme speed, before she could even recoil, he grabbed her by the shoulder and the hair and buried his face in her neck.
“There was nothing elegant about it,” said Caleb, one of a handful who did see. “It was like he was biting into an Octuple Bypass burger.”
Caleb and his friends pulled Mitchum away at which he seemed to come back to himself, in a fashion. He spat out shreds of Tina’s neck, raised his hands in a gesture of surrender and mumbled an apology. Then he twisted out of their grasp, ran to the door and disappeared into the school.
Tina had fallen forward like a ragdoll, blood pooling on the floor beneath her desk. Everyone thought she was dead, or dying. But she lifted her hand and put it on the wound. The students took off their sweaters to make a soft place on the floor and tenderly laid her down. Her eyes were bright, she was very much alive. I imagine they may have whooped – Americans really do that. Or perhaps not. At any rate, she was taken to hospital and told she would survive. Which she did, for a while, in a fashion.
Meanwhile, police searched the labyrinthine building for over an hour. Eventually they heard an irregular hammering in a cupboard in the basement. A strange, glossy, translucent liquid was leaking from under the door.
When they forced it open they saw a terrifying sight. It was indeed Mitchum – he must have shut himself inside. Whatever had been on his eyelid had spread to the rest of his body. Patches of raised, purplish skin were peeling away like bark, leaving angry red lesions. These gashes were weeping vast quantities of fluid – that was what had been oozing out from under the door, the whole cupboard was sticky with it. The rapid dehydration made him gaunt to the point of emaciation, and yet his strength was almost superhuman. It took ten officers – all of whom later became vectors for the Splits – to subdue him, two for each limb and two for his head.
I was 23 at the time and working flat out. My sister Claire had just had Michael and whenever I saw them he was screaming. I was shocked by the baby’s perpetual misery and annoyed by her masochistic dedication. I didn’t have time for US news, even when the disease began to spread. I wasn’t that kind of journalist anyway. My newspaper, The Harringay Tribune, was named after the ward of Harringay – a tiny segment of one city borough, population 14,000. I covered the magistrate’s court, council meetings and road accidents. The salary was tiny, barely enough to scrape by in London.
The first time I really paid attention to the Splits was six months after Mitchum. I was renting a studio flat near Green Lanes. It was August, the flat was stifling, and I was by an open window drinking lime cordial. I picked up the newspaper and the front page was the disappearance of an aeroplane, Heathrow-bound BA502. It had crashed in the middle of the Atlantic after a crazed passenger went on the rampage. The report didn’t spell it out, but it was obvious what was wrong with the woman. If one sick person could board a plane to the UK once then so could another. Sooner or later the infection would arrive on British shores.
Most of us had seen an infected by then, in photos or on the TV. We knew how the disease was transmitted and its appalling course. Immediately after BA502 a restrained panic spread through the population. Sales of gas masks, knives and bludgeoning sticks soared, as did home security enhancements. But nobody took to the streets. Nobody went on strike over something that was so obviously an act of God.
I was afraid too. But I was young, I was busy, I didn’t think the situation would affect me. I doubt I would have got so involved in trying to understand the disease if the first attack on UK soil had not been in Harringay. A pensioner, Donald Carey, bit a young woman, Katie Logan, on the face. It was my patch so I wrote it up, and that was how I became the paper’s unofficial Splits correspondent. I have retained a vague, unacknowledged identity as an expert on the disease ever since. But I’m sick of the subject now. Sick of the Splits.
Perhaps that’s why I like the garden so much. The plants don’t care where the Splits came from or by what magic it turns people into these animated cadavers, these mindless machines. The plants can’t catch the Splits because they’re too simple.
A star jasmine or a dark red rose has no mind to lose.
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