It’s not hard for New Yorkers to picture zombies,” says author Colson Whitehead. “You take the subway, you go to Whole Foods, and you’ve got a series of stock characters to draw from.
In his latest novel, Zone One, Whitehead imagines a lower Manhattan colonized by the lumbering undead. The zombie genre is a departure from his previous work—four literary novels and a series of essays on life in New York City. But personally, it’s a throwback to his creature feature-filled childhood. “We never had to sneak into horror movies,” Whitehead says about his permissive (at least when it came to film) family. “In fact, we were fed horror movies as light snacks.” Growing up in 1970s New York, Whitehead devoured the books and films that have formed the backbone of modern zombie lore, from George Romero’s original Living Dead trilogy, to Planet of the Apes’ lonely ruins to the “grisly loveliness” of EC Comics.
Whitehead dropped by TIME’s midtown Manhattan offices and we spoke about the works that influenced Zone One. Don’t read it searching for cheap self-aware references, though. It’s not that kind of book. (In fact, the word “zombie” is absent from the book entirely.) “I think when you tackle a genre, you want to salute what attracted you to it, he says.” You want to expand the territory and reinvigorate it; to add to the master zombie narrative.”