PENDLETON, Ore. — Zombie writer T.W. "Todd" Brown felt a surge of anxiety recently when he caught sight of the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton.
Brown spent 13 years at the prison and was returning two years after his release to help motivate current inmates. The sight of the prison's imposing stone walls and razor wire fence, however, gave him a moment's pause.
The horror author has 16 published books to his name, three of them written in a dayroom at the prison. His book sales have climbed steadily to the point where he can live on the proceeds.
This day, Brown walked up the steps a free man. He checked in at a circular desk next to a metal detector.
Before entering, the Milwaukie author took time to reflect on his personal journey. He is painfully honest about his crime of sexual abuse. He finished treatment, but his parole officer continues to monitor Brown, who takes a polygraph every six months.
That part of his life is ugly. He doesn't deny it.
"I was not a model citizen," he said.
Brown's life today is a far cry from his time spent inside EOCI. His shoulder-length brown hair is replaced by a buzz cut, he is happily married to "an amazing woman," and his 17th book will come out Oct. 30.
Brown said he started dreaming of being a writer as a young boy. "I used to tell stories to my stuffed animals at night," he said.
He remembers his first short story as "the first unauthorized sequel to 'Jaws,'" a sixth-grade class assignment where he incorporated all his classmates into a lively seven-page tale. He said he chose his favorite genre at age 14 as he watched "Dawn of the Dead" in a movie theater. When a girl two rows in front of him threw up in her popcorn during a scary scene, he knew he had found his genre.
"The movie just struck something," he said. "From that moment on, I was completely drawn into the zombie movement."
Brown wrote his first zombie adventures by hand at EOCI in his unit's dayroom in the form of a journal. Each morning, he sat at a window table and wrote a single journal entry. His wife of 10 years, Denise, posted them on the web. When the blog attracted an enthusiastic following, Denise and others encouraged him to turn the blog into a book.
Denise then formed the May December Publishing Company and published “Zomblog.” To do so, she typed Brown’s handwritten notes and sent them back for editing. The couple spent phone sessions going over the drafts line-by-line for about a year.
Brown also buckled down and earned a two-year associate’s degree and became the first graduate of the prison’s New Directions program. But he never stopped his writing sessions in the dayroom.
His wife, an accountant, said she marveled at her husband’s drive.
“Nothing would stop him. He wasn’t going to be institutionalized,” she said by phone. “He knew he could succeed.”
Brown’s prose isn’t for those with weak stomachs. In “Zomblog,” the undead swivel their heads in a bird-like way, emit mewling sounds and swarm humans like “ants on a grasshopper, each one tearing off a piece for himself until there is only a large stain of gore left on the asphalt.” In one scene, inmates at EOCI (dubbed Eastern State Prison in the book) capture some of these zombies with sickly, blue-gray skin.
These days, Brown is contracted to Amazon. His books are available in paperback and on Kindle. He writes each morning just as he did at EOCI, except he uses a keyboard instead of longhand and listens to electronic music through headphones instead of prison hubbub.
On his visit, Brown walked through a series of sliding metal gates and sally ports to reach EOCI’s multipurpose room. Forty-two men in prison blue listened to Brown tell his story and beseech them to work on themselves during their incarceration.
“Make the most of your time,” Brown told them. “You can’t make excuses.”
He said painful self-examination is required.
“You have to look inside and look at all of your flaws — that can be an ugly place,” he said. “You have to work now — you can’t wait until you get out. You can’t let this define you.”