Owings Mills author makes dystopian debut with 'The Listeners'

Harrison Demchick is by his own account an optimist. He doesn't think that human society or our ruling institutions have become irredeemably corrupt. He didn't make one single preparation for this past Friday, when the Mayan calendar came to an abrupt — and some would say ominous — halt.

So the 28-year-old Owings Mills resident is an unlikely candidate to have made his literary debut last week with an apocalyptic horror novel called "The Listeners."

In the book, an unnamed city is being ravaged by an airborne, flesh-eating plague that turns those it infects into walking corpses. As 14-year-old Daniel struggles to survive in the quarantine zone, he must figure out whom to trust: the corrupt police officers who confiscate the residents' valuables and guns, or a group of one-eared vigilantes who offer food, shelter and hope — but at a price.

A few days after his launch party at Ukazoo Books in Towson, Demchick, who works two part-time jobs as an editor, chatted by phone about his evolution as a novelist, self-mutilation as a literary theme and why readers respond to stories about the end of the world.

What was your inspiration for "The Listeners"?

I read an article somewhere about someone cutting off his thumb. I don't remember the details, but it got me thinking about the removal of body parts as a ritual or part of an initiation ceremony. It's all about symbolism. I decided to have the Listeners slice off their right ears because they think it will help them hear the truth more clearly. That became the driving force behind the plot.

Tell us about the "respites," the monologues about life in the quarantine zone by incidental characters: a doctor, a tavern regular and a police officer. My favorite was Saul, the advertising salesman who undergoes a conversion experience not unlike the biblical St. Paul. He christens himself "God's adman" and starts writing doomsday jingles.

Yeah, I had fun writing Saul.

The book started in 2005 as a series of interconnected short stories that I developed during my senior year at Oberlin College. That's what the respites are. The first one I wrote was about Esmerelda, a journalist and mother who is trying to take care of her baby in the middle of all this. I was looking for a way to tie all these stories and characters together in the same situation. The idea of a quarantine emerged from necessity.

Your book is positively sympathetic to the plight of the Undead. That's an attitude we haven't seen much of before.

It's interesting; I never thought of the plague victims as zombies, but they do have a lot in common with that genre. The main differences are that they're not dead, though they're dying; they don't eat people; and they can talk. Daniel goes through a turning point in terms of how he views them. They're not fundamentally driven to violence. They're just very sick and confused.

Like all dystopian novels, the ending of "The Listeners" is pretty bleak. Why do you think grim final scenarios appeal to some readers instead of turning them off?

There's a lot of despair in my ending for "The Listeners," but it's not all-encompassing. I mean, I do see a glimmer of hope. But you're right that horror stories do have a fine tradition of unhappy endings. And most dystopian novels end up being horror stories.

I see them as variations of survival stories, which have been told forever. They're about what people do to cope when they find themselves in an unexplored land. I think readers like to imagine how they would handle that situation.

And yet you're not at all a doom-and-gloom kind of guy.

I would not say that this novel is something that reflects my own world view. I don't think the world is a weak place. I am an optimistic person, though that's not necessarily something that would come across in my book.

The weird thing is that I have very little background reading dystopian or horror literature beyond when I was a kid. The authors that I read the most now are Salman Rushdie, Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams.

The kind of writing I was doing before was very dark and atmospheric, with some magical realism. But one thing lead to another, and I ended up with a horror novel.

What was your biggest writing challenge in the novel?

Finding the right style to tell the story. I'm primarily a screenwriter, and "The Listeners" was a screenplay before it was a novel. I was on the first chapters for a very, very long time trying to figure out how a novel worked.

Screenplays are a lot more clipped and efficient. You see something happen visually, and then you move on. There's a limit to how much you can write down what's going on in someone's head because there's a limit to what you can say visually. Novels are much more substantial in that respect.

What are you working on now?

I'm writing a couple of screenplays, one in particular. And I've actually been working with a friend on a zombie musical that we pitched to the Baltimore Rock Opera Society.

It's a high school story about a brainy, nerdy girl who's desperate to be popular. She exposes herself to nuclear waste in an attempt to dumb herself down. Instead, she transforms into a zombie, with terrible consequences.


About the book

"The Listeners" by Harrison Demchick was released Monday by Bancroft Press. 288 pages, $21.99.

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