Tony Burgess, novelist, screenwriter and musician (born 7 September 1959 in Toronto, ON). Best known for his novel Pontypool Changes Everything, which he also adapted for film, Burgess specializes in experimental horror with surrealistic influences and postmodern qualities, set in small Ontario towns.
Early Life, Education and Work
Tony Burgess grew up in Mississauga, Ontario, but moved to Toronto after high school, where he began performing poetry under the name Tony Blue and became known in the city’s music and art scenes. Burgess later attended the University of Toronto (1989–95), graduating with a degree in semiotics.
Burgess began publishing stories and novels in the 1990s, namely a loose trilogy of books now known as The Bewdley Mayhem, which consists of a short story collection, The Hellmouths of Bewdley (1997) and the novels Pontypool Changes Everything (1998) and Caesarea (1999).
Burgess is best known for his first novel, Pontypool Changes Everything (1998), which concerns a zombie virus that is spread through language.
Like most of Burgess’ later novels, Pontypool Changes Everything takes on traditional horror subjects such as gruesome violence and a zombie apocalypse but subverts the genre’s conventions.
For example, the novel does not feature a main character (and thus does not have a hero) and the virus is spread through language in an abstract, surrealistic manner. Normally, in horror, zombie viruses as plot devices involve pseudo-scientific explanations.
Moreover, the style of Burgess’ narration is poetic and oblique to the degree that the actual plot events in the novel are sometimes impossible to determine, since the events the narration relays are dreamlike. This unstable, unclear narrative style is typical of Burgess’ work, and sets his horror novels in direct counterpoint to most conventional horror fiction, which tends to feature unambiguous narration meant to achieve a horror effect by relating nightmarish imagery in a clear, visual manner.
In the afterword to his short story collection Fiction for Lovers: Freshly Cut Tales of Flesh, Fear, Larvae, and Love (2003), Burgess says that his goal is to tell stories through “a deteriorating consciousness.” The literary effect is the sense of a story that is falling apart, a horror story in which the plot events seem to have traumatized the narrator.
Burgess has noted in interviews that he plans his books for many years and then writes them quickly, in a headlong rush: for example, the novel The n-Body Problem (2013) was written in nine days. Burgess’ approach is influenced by the automatic writing of the Surrealists (although his practice of planning differentiates his method from theirs) and his material tends to combine absurdist, darkly comedic situations with bleak, nightmarish violence.
The premise of The n-Body Problem illustrates these concerns. Like Pontypool Changes Everything, The n-Body Problem subverts the conventional tropes of the zombie novel: in a world where zombies no longer pose a threat in and of themselves, they have effectively become a waste disposal problem.
The solution is to fire these zombies into space, where they begin to orbit the earth in a “corpse-shroud.” This changes the quality of the sun’s light, and so the zombie threat oddly becomes conceptual rather than physical: because everyone on earth knows they are there, and because the sun’s light has altered as a testament to their presence, a new and more destructive plague strikes the planet — not a zombie plague, but a plague of suicidal despair.
The waste disposal company that secured the contract to send corpses into space capitalizes on this disaster by hiring travelling salesmen to convince entire towns to commit mass suicide.
The n-Body Problem contains a chapter that is unreadable because it is encoded through a mathematical algorithm (Burgess presents a string of numbers and symbols instead of the chapter they encode). Nevertheless, important plot events take place in this chapter, which are never revealed to the reader.
Many of Burgess’ plots feature similar sudden, radical shifts — events that deform or transform the narrative. In People Live Still in Cashtown Corners (2010), a killing spree begins when a sociopath murders a woman because she makes him uncomfortable by stopping at a green light.
Ravenna Gets (2010) resembles a series of connected short stories until it is interrupted by someone who literally breaks into the scene and slaughters the characters the reader was following. It is later revealed that one town, for reasons never truly made clear, has decided to murder its neighbouring town.
In Idaho Winter (2011), Burgess’ young adult novel, characters change gender when their author spells their names wrong, and the novel’s plot becomes so complicated that the book “crashes” like a computer might and “reboots” (or restarts) rather than resolving.
While Burgess’ work displays many qualities of postmodern metafiction (fiction that is self-conscious about, and comments on, being a fictional narrative), it is differentiated by the fact that its goal is immersion and the production of emotional engagement and distress. By contrast, postmodern metafiction values distancing and emotional disconnection in order to deconstruct the conventions of storytelling or demand political and intellectual engagement.
Burgess’ novels also depart from the traditionally conservative message underlying horror, which reinforces the terrible consequences of transgressing human limits or moral boundaries. Rather than warn us of monsters, Burgess’ novels seem to have monstrosity as their goal.
Bruce McDonald directed the movie Pontypool (2008) from Burgess’ own script. The stage play subsequently adapted by Burgess in 2012 was published in book form in 2015.
After Pontypool’s success, Burgess moved more fully into screenwriting. Septic Man (2013), directed by Jesse Thomas Cook, concerns a sewage worker trapped in a septic tank whose body and mind are transformed. Ejecta (2014), directed by Chad Archibald and Matt Wiele, is a science fiction/horror film about an alien encounter. Hellmouth (2014), directed by John Geddes, concerns a grave-keeper who enters Hell to save a woman’s soul.
Despite writing horror, Burgess has received recognition from Canada’s literary mainstream. Pontypool was shortlisted for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2010 Genie Awards, Ravenna Gets won a 2011 ReLit Award, and Idaho Winter was shortlisted for the 2012 Ontario Trillium Book Award.