By DAVE EMKE
Special to the OBSERVER
Twenty years ago, Lia Habel was just another 9-year-old girl in a movie theater watching Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."
Photo by Dave Emke
Lia Habel, a Southwestern High School graduate, has been enamored with zombies and other monsters her whole life. Her first novel, ‘‘Dearly, Departed,’’ will be released by Random House’s Del Rey press on Oct. 18.
In the film's closing scene, however, when the Beast's spell is broken and he is transformed into a handsome prince, her reaction was unlike that of the other girls.
"I felt so ripped off," the Jamestown resident said. "It was like, 'He was awesome, now he's not - he turned into this hideous prince.'"
Even at such a young age, Habel had an affinity for those whose less-than-perfect exteriors cloaked their beauty within. In fact, she says there were two dream men she pictured herself marrying: the Phantom of the Opera and the X-Men's "Beast," Hank McCoy.
Now, she is the one creating characters who may become the "dream men" of today's little girls who are looking for a fictional fellow with a few physical flaws. Habel's debut novel, "Dearly, Departed" - slated for national release on Random House's Del Rey press on Oct. 18 - is set in a Victorian-influenced future and features a cast of zombies looking for love and acceptance.
The lead male character, Bram Griswold, is dead. His skin is extremely pale, his eyes are cloudy and his arms are covered with jagged scars. But instead of eating brains, he likes to sing, he owns a teddy bear, he treats people like equals - and he protects Nora Dearly, a living human, from the zombies who aren't so friendly.
The character is of the type Habel has been enamored with throughout her life.
"Everybody else seemed to be going for the pretty boy, staring at the Valentino-esque guy on screen, and I was going for the type of guy who had facial scarring or multiple arms," Habel said. "It's really important to me to create characters that aren't breathtakingly gorgeous but are still visually interesting and, more than that, to create backstory and personalities for them where it wouldn't matter if they were dropping body parts - they are still that interesting."
Habel's characters and plot were interesting enough to earn her a two-book contract from Random House. "Dearly, Departed" has already gained positive reviews in Publishers Weekly and numerous online book review sites. This coming week, Habel will be at Comic-Con in New York promoting the book and appearing as part of panels speaking about zombies and steampunk.
It's all been part of a whirlwind three years for Habel, since she first began putting the idea of a steampunk zombie romance on the page.
"I feel like I quite stumbled into it," she said of the experience of becoming a published author. "It's sort of snowballed, and I still can't believe it has."
A graduate of Southwestern High School, Habel earned a bachelor of arts in English literature from the University at Buffalo. She then traveled to England, where she earned a master's degree in museum studies at the University of Leicester.
After college, though, she found gaining employment to be a difficult task.
"I just seemed to be sacked with constant bad luck," she said. "I couldn't find anything permanent, and had to take low-wage job after low-wage job just to pay my bills, and I was horrible in that sort of work."
A girl who never fit in with the high school cliques - "When I was in school, I found having my head and my hand in a journal was almost a shield in a way," she said - Habel found her place in society as an adult as a part of a subculture called steampunk. An anachronistic group that imagines a world where steam power shaped society instead of electricity, members of the subculture incorporate the Victorian Era into their fashion and have social gatherings to celebrate their society.
Habel dreamed up the idea of "Dearly, Departed" in 2008 while attending a steampunk event in New York. She had been reading paranormal romance books and decided to start writing one for her friends - one based in a world that was re-developed to incorporate Victorian technology.
The book is set in 2195, and civilization has reorganized itself using the Victorian Era as a model of "civility, order and prosperity." However, it also still uses aspects of modern technology - something Habel says would be impossible to abandon, as she says a futuristic culture would be very aware that it is aping a past society.
"I tend to imagine what it would be like if my friends and I suddenly founded our own society and we had that much momentum behind it," she said. "Do you think we would give up our PlayStation in the interest of authenticity? Heavens no. You could pry it out of my cold, dead hands."
When writing the book, she incorporated characters near and dear to her heart: zombies. Habel said that she has seen more than 100 different zombie movies - 105, to be exact - in her life. She lists obscure independent flicks such as "Zombie Love" and "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things" as her favorites, along with the George Romero classic "Day Of The Dead."
As she began sharing chapters of the zombie romance book, and eventually the finished product, with her friends, they urged her to attempt to get it published. Habel secured an agent and soon was on the three-year path that will lead to the Oct. 18 release.
Though she is somewhat nervous as the big day nears, Habel says she is managing to remain "incredibly blase" about the idea that tens of thousands of hardcover novels full of her words will soon be available in bookstores and from online retailers.
"I don't tend to follow things online, I don't tend to read reviews, I don't have a Google alert on my name - I don't want to know," she said.
She admits she has seen advance reviews of the book that have been quite positive, however.
"I've gotten some so far from people who've read it and tell me they absolutely love it," she said. "If I'd just gotten one or two of those, it would have been wonderful. And I've gotten a couple more than that."
While "Dearly, Departed" is written for the young-adult audience - the same audience that has gobbled up the "Twilight" series and many other such books in recent years - Habel said that she did not necessarily write the book with that audience in mind.
"I wasn't thinking, 'I'm going to write a young-adult novel because of Reason A, B and C,'" she said. "I was thinking more, 'I want to tell a story, and the story I have in mind involves young-adult characters.'"
The novel also involves numerous prominent adult characters of varying ages. Chapters are written from the points-of-view of Nora's father, Victor; and an Army officer named James Wolfe. Other adult characters are on both sides of life - human and zombie: many working as doctors, all providing insights as they work toward helping Bram and his fellow zombies come to terms with their "condition."
Habel said she is hopeful that the book, full of her sarcastic sense of humor, has crossover appeal to adult readers.
"I cross my fingers that people of all ages enjoy it, because that opens up the world for me as well," she said.
After "Dearly, Departed" and its followup, "Dearly, Beloved," are released, Habel said she hopes her contract is re-upped to allow her to write two or three more books in the series. But that is out of her hands for the time being.
"It's all up to whether people receive it well or not," she said. "I've had fun with my characters, and now everybody else gets to enjoy them."
Habel will return from Comic-Con for a book launch event at Off The Beaten Path, 28 Chautauqua Ave. in Lakewood, on Saturday, Oct. 22, from noon to 2 p.m.
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