As Halloween approaches, imagine a world in which the H7N9 vaccination was more than a preventative measure against swine flu. The flu epidemic seemed to come out of nowhere back in 2009 and yet, in no time at all, anyone who wanted one could get an injection that promised to protect them from the disease.
What if those injections turned people into zombies?
That’s the premise of Greece resident Phil Tomasso’s latest horror novel, “Vaccination.” The book, set in Rochester using real street names and locations, tells the story of divorced 911 dispatcher Chase McKinney. From his position at the 911 call center, he sees the zombie outbreak developing in real time and immediately sets out across the city to reach and save his two children.
“He’s at work and everything just starts going crazy,” Tomasso said during an interview at Barnes and Noble in Greece last week. “All these phone calls come in and they’re more and more bizarre, then people at work start turning into zombies.”
Tomasso knows a thing or two about bizarre emergency calls. He got a job at the 911 call center downtown in 2009 when he was laid off, “like most of Rochester,” after 19 years at Kodak. As a 911 dispatcher, he works midnight to 8 a.m. these days, writing whenever he can find time.
“The job influenced the whole pace of the book,” Tomasso said in the bookstore cafe after a full graveyard shift and barely two hours of sleep. “Everybody knows police officers firemen and paramedics. A lot of times I think they don’t think about who’s on the other side of the radio taking calls from these hysterical people. It’s an intense job. Your heart’s just up and down. I tried to make it very realistic.”
“Vaccination” started as a short story that was published in the Halloween edition of “Shroud” magazine. When readers responded positively to the tale, Tomasso fleshed the plot out using real Rochester locations and characters named after people he works with.
The book is dedicated to the people at 911.
Tomasso wasn’t always on track to become a writer, but he was always a storyteller. He grew up in Gates with a reading disability and can’t remember reading a book on his own until he was 12 and picked up a copy of “The Outsiders.” When he found out S. E. Hinton was only 16 when she wrote the book, he was hooked.
“I realized that if she could make me want to read, and I was a storyteller, then I wanted to write things that other reluctant readers are going to pick up and read,” he said.
Today Tomasso is a bestselling genre author with a seven-book contract. “Vaccination,” which is the first in a trilogy that continues with “Evacuation” in December and “Preservation” early next year, reached’s Top 20 Post-Apocalyptic Novels list when it was released and has stayed in the top 50 since.
“I’m almost a bestselling novelist, but at minimum I’m a bestselling post-apocalyptic novelist,” Tomasso said, remaining humble despite his achievement. “Every time I sell a book I’m just amazed that somebody actually wanted it.”
Tomasso’s stories aren’t all blood and guts. He recently released a young adult novel, “Sounds of Silence,” about a 12-year-old boy who dreams of one day playing professional baseball. When he contracts Meningitis, his fever gets so high that he becomes deaf. He ends up going to school at The Rochester School for the Deaf — thinking his hopes of playing pro-ball are shattered.
“The whole reason I wanted to write was because S. E. Hinton wrote a young adult novel that inspired me,” Tomasso said, “so I thought maybe I should work on a young adult novel.”
Tomasso took 18 months of sign language classes and worked with teachers from the Rochester School for the Deaf and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at RIT while researching for the book.
Tomasso has a lot of research ahead of him, too. His zombie fiction publisher, Severed Press, asked him to write another zombie trilogy after the “Vaccination” trilogy is complete, and they’ve signed him on to write a sea monster novel, too.
He says he doesn’t know anything about sea monsters, fishing, or boats, but the idea of a publisher asking him to write a book was too good to pass up.
“Even if I never sold anything I would still write,” Tomasso said. “I have so many stories, my head’s constantly going, and I have to get them out.”