The Living Dead by John Joseph Adams

(2008-10-27)

Published by Night Shade Books (www.nightshadebooks.com)
September 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59780-143-0
500 Pages
John Joseph Adams’s Web site: www.johnjosephadams.com
The Living Dead Web site: http://www.johnjosephadams.com/the-living-dead/

What better way to get ready for Hallowe’en than to read some great Zombie fiction? Well, we have editor John Joseph Adams and the fine folks at Night Shade Books to thank for such a timely and terrific themed anthology, The Living Dead. Zombies have been a fixture in Horror / Science Fiction / Fantasy for quite some time and the 30+ stories in this volume show just how wide-ranging the zombie metaphor can be used to effectively tell terrific stories. Pulled from various past anthologies (like the seminal Book of the Dead) as well as magazines, Adams has brought together an impressive array of stories and writers.

This Year’s Class Picture by Dan Simmons leads off the anthology and tells of a teacher who struggles to educate the Zombie Youth of America. Simmons has always bounced between genres and I’ve particularly enjoyed his work in Horror (Summer of Night, Children of the Night, Carrion Comfort) and this piece is no exception. The sense of realness to the story is palpable and I’m still left questioning whether or not the teacher in the story is sane or insane for continuing her chosen path in a world that has clearly ran off the rails.

The second story is more recent, Some Zombie Contingency Plans by Kelly Link shares the realness quality of the Simmons story if because it also shares a familiar element – that of a party where the parents left for the weekend. The protagonist of the story, Soap or Will, worked out Zombie Contigency Plans while in prison only to have to enact them at said party. Link captures the dichotomy of sanity in an insane situation as did Simmons, but the effects are bit different though equally effective.

Dale Bailey’s Death and Suffrage is perhaps very timely right now because of the upcoming (2008) election, though it was written eight years ago. The story involves a campaign worker for one of the two presidential campaigns when zombies suddenly appear. The story is pretty rich with (of course) black political humor as the two party nominees use the zombies to his advantage. The story is powerful for how plausible it is in light of the theater of American politics.

Michael Swanwick needs little introduction, he’s won nearly every genre award for both his long-form and short fiction. In The Dead, zombies have integrated with our society, partaking in some lower tier jobs such as waiter and garbage men; they have basically become slaves. Of course, somebody has to oversee the trafficking of the dead and Swanwick’s tale focuses on That Guy. Overall, a very unsettling story.

The Dead Kid by Darrell Schweitzer reminded me, in many ways, of Stephen King’s stories of teen/pre-teen boyhood, most resonantly of The Body (filmed as Stand by Me). In Schweitzer’s story, two brothers are constantly beaten up by the school bully and eventually forced to meet the Bully’s "pet" zombie. Soon, the young protagonist decides he wants to confront his fears and become a tough guy like the bully. Schweitzer takes the tale from there to an emotional and powerful conclusion.

Malthusian’s Zombie by Jeffrey Ford is typical Ford, which is to say, a very good story. The protagonist, like many of Ford’s protagonists, bears a resemblance to Ford himself. The zombie in question is indeed questionable since it isn’t clear at the outset just who the zombie is. I read the story in Ford’s excellent collection The Empire of Ice Cream and is very much worth reading again, it provides more insight and engenders more consideration upon a second reading.

Sex, Death and Starshine is one of Clive Barker’s early stories from his seminal Books of Blood collection. The story tells of the fading Elysium theater visited by a strange man whose name bears undead connotations, Mr. Lichfield, that their next performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night will be the Elysium’s last performance. The story is rife with metaphors for masks and sex, obviously, but didn’t work for me quite as well as some of the other stories.

Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead by Joe Hill can be considered a tongue-in-cheek tale of extras on the set of George Romero’s seminal Zombie film, Day of the Dead. Hill is a great storyteller and a times, this tale pulls at the heartstrings when it touches upon regret, lost chances and possible rekindlings.

In Beauty, Like the Night by Norman Partridge juxtaposes the images of death and sex much like Martin’s Meathouse Man does later in the volume. The undead centerfolds in this story are not as gruesome as many of their Zombie peers, but the story in its implications if not its stark imagery, is no less unsettling. Partridge touched a few raw nerves in this story that many people likely don’t want to have exposed.

Home Delivery by Stephen King could very easily fit into Romero’s landmark film, Night of the Living Dead. King has always been commended for his depiction of small-town life and mentality and here, those skills are very much on stage. A young widow is nearing her birthing time during a Zombie Apocalypse and she remembers her life leading up to that point. King also focuses on the townspeople who are fighting the zombies. A very strong tale.

Meathouse Man by George R. R. Martin might be one of the more disturbing stories in the bunch. In it, a young man tries to find love and balance between the living and the reanimated corpses in a ‘meathouse.’ The balance between surreal and outlandish is straddled throughout and Martin draws a creepy and convincing protagonist.

David Barr Kirtley’s The Skull-Faced Boy looks at two Zombies, one who tries to embrace his past, the other his present. The story has a very tribal feel to it, with the titular Skull-Faced boy standing in as a Zombie leader who decides who is and is not accepted as part of his Zombie society.

Neil Gaiman turns his storytelling skills on the tale of a traveler, changing guises and how "people come into your life for a reason," in the resonating Bitter Grounds. This story takes place in New Orleans on one of the more lively and conversely, one of the cities entrenched in hinted dark magicks and urban myth.

Other stories include Ghost Dance by Sherman Alexie; Blossom by David J. Schow; The Third Dead Body by Nina Kiriki Hoffman; Stockholm Syndrome by David Tallerman; Those Who Seek Forgiveness (an Anita Blake story) by Laurell K. Hamilton; Beautiful Stuff by Susan Palwick; Prairie by Brian Evenson; Less than Zombie by Douglas E. Winter; Everything is Better With Zombies by Hannah Wolf Bowen; Sparks Fly Upward by Lisa Morton; She’s Taking Her Tits to the Grave by Catherine Cheek; Dead Like Me by Adam-Troy Castro; Zora and the Zombie by Andy Duncan; Calcutta, Lord of Nerves by Poppy Z. Brite; The Age of Sorrow by Nancy Kilpatrick; Followed by Will McIntosh; The Song the Zombie Sang by Harlan Ellison® and Robert Silverberg; Passion Play by Nancy Holder; Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man by Scott Edelman; and How the Day Runs Down by John Langan.

Like his Wastelands anthology respective to post-apocalyptic fiction, Adams has culled together a massive amount (34 in total) number of stories on Zombies. To call this volume anything other than must have would be selling it short, the stories range a great number of years and capture many unique voices on one of the seminal images and iconic characters of Horror fiction and is something I know I’ll be pulling down every Hallowe’en. This impressive, massive anthology would make a great gift to give by the light of the Jack o’ Lantern.

© 2008 Rob H. Bedford

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