Zombies: A Compendium of the Living Dead by Otto Penzler

Zombies: A Compendium of the Living Dead

(aka Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! in the US)

Edited by Otto Penzler

Published by Corvus Books UK, January 2012

And Vintage Crime/Lizard Press, in the US,October 2011

814 pages

ISBN: (UK) 978 0 85789 027 6; (US)978 0 307 74089 2

Review by Mark Yon

I’ve said it before but I’m not a big fan of zombies.

Compared with ghosts, vampires, werewolves and, frankly, most horror icons, I’ve always thought of them as one of the weaker family members of the horror genre. They’re dead, but they’re living…. they move! ….they look at you! And that’s about it. They’re also slow and dumb and pretty limited in what they do.

Even with the ‘improved model’ (they move fast! ….they eat flesh!) thanks to George Romero in the 1960’s and lately with The Walking Dead TV series, I’ve always felt a little bit unimpressed, in that, “Is that all they do?” kind of way.

So, it’s going to take a lot to impress me, though I’m willing to give it a try.

The good news is that I think this book is about as good as I’m going to get. There are 46 (!) tales of dead people walking here, with some very well known authors (Stephen King, HP Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Bloch….) as well as a lot of less known or unknown authors (to me, anyway) such as Jack D’Arcy, Thorp McClusky, and Henry S. Whitehead.

Throughout is a synopsis of each writer, and in both the UK and the US editions, the book is sprinkled with black and white illustrations from Weird Tales and the like. I’m also thinking EC Comics but I’m not sure that they actually are: though they are very much in that style, I am under the impression that the strict copyright of EC stops them being used much. The US cover’s a great Virgil Finlay drawing that also highlights many of the tales’ pulp origins, the UK cover’s one that fits in nicely with the style of what can be seen as a companion volume, The Weird. Really, that’s the only difference between the two, other than the UK edition is on much better quality paper.

The layout of the book in both formats is in a pulp magazine two-column format, as it would have been in Weird Tales or such like. I liked this, as it made me feel I was reading a jumbo-sized ‘best of’ edition of the magazine.

The tales range in age from Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar (1845) to the present, Scott Edelman’s Live People Don’t Understand (2009). 

The first tale in the book is, W.B. Seabrook’s ‘Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields’ from 1929. Published then as a ‘true’ tale of things W.B. had seen in Haiti whilst travelling, it’s widely accepted as the first modern ‘proper’ tale of zombies, though as Otto quite rightly says, tales of the living dead have always been a staple of the genre, back to Poe and Frankenstein. It’s simple yet quite effective in describing weird events in its un-hysterical manner.

There’s a lot of pulp era tales here and they are pretty much as you’d expect: not particularly deep, but nicely creepy. I’m always pleased to read a dated, yet fun, hard-to-get Jules de Grandin tale from Seabury Quinn, this time it’s The Corpse-Master (1929). Theodore Roscoe’s Z is for Zombie, from 1937, finishes the collection with a flourish, as it is a novel-length tale of 117 small-printed pages that is as breathless and as relentless as pulp fiction gets.

Not surprisingly, HP Lovecraft is the most included author here, with three tales, Pickman’s Model, The Outsider and my favourite Lovecraft here, Herbert West – Reanimator. Of the other authors you will know, Stephen King’s tale from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, Home Delivery, is as good as you would expect.  Poe is to be expected in such a collection, though The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar is more a case of resurrection rather than pure zombie. There’s also that Robert E Howard tale about voodoo and pigeons (imaginatively titled, Pigeons from Hell), which by the title alone sounds silly but actually still works. Stephen King, writing in Danse Macabre, considered Pigeons from Hell to be “one of the finest horror stories of our century”, and who am I to disagree?

Some worked less well for me: Richard Laymon’s Mess Hall reads as typical over-the-top, 1980’s style Horror that did the genre in at that time, but there are no doubt some readers that will enjoy its hyperactive ‘sex and horror’ combination.

But for me it is the discovery of previously unknown writers and unfamiliar tales that makes such collections fun.  Like reading tales in a magazine, part of the joy is that as a reader you have few preconceptions about a story – you just don’t know where they are going to go. As well as the already mentioned Dead Men Working… and Z is for Zombie, unexpectedly pleasing tales for me this time around were R. Chetwynd-Hayes’s typically British zombie tale, The Ghouls, and Scott Edelman’s Live People Don’t Understand, a homely tale of zombie folk, but the standard throughout is generally very good.

As you might expect with over forty stories, the range is also impressive. There are tales in unexplored lands, creepy houses, mouldy mansions, quaint cottages, the past and the present. Otto does point out that although there are some gory tales herein, he has tried to maintain a balance and so there are not that many of the stories with the ‘almost pornographic sensibility of the need to drench every page with buckets of blood and descriptions of mindless cruelty, torture and violence.’ (Introduction, page xii)

For me, that works. I think I may have to readdress my original viewpoint after reading this book. This is a collection of quality, one to keep dipping into, with the repeat reading of old friends and the discovery of tales and authors previously unknown.

This is a collection that will repay repeated readings. I suspect this one will be, *cough,*’resurrected’, in my next Halloween pile of reading and subsequent years.


Mark Yon, October 2011 – January 2012.    

Leave a comment