Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Living Dead

Zombies are the new hotness.

Or, perhaps I should say, were the new hotness. After Resident Evil and 28 Days Later got them back in people's perception, the shit blew up. Comic series, video games, movie after movie after movie all came out, feeding people's need for more apocalyptic survival horror action. It's tapered off somewhat lately and what remains was either really cheap to produce or really, really good.

Everyone and their mother has their theory on what the whole zombie thing MEANS, what strange shared psychosis in our culture responds so strongly to the image of hordes of cannibalistic undead coming for us. Generally they tend to fall on the dark-reflection-of-our-consumerist-fixation side, the perverse-need-to-eradicate-all-social-structures-and-leave-survival-as-life's-primary-purpose side, or the let's-load-up-and-blow-shit-up-common-man-with-a-gun side. I think these all have their validity and I got three of my own:

1) Horror is often dependent on the Other invading the Normal. People are living their lives, introducing themselves to the reader/viewer and agonizing about their Unresolved Conflict, when Victor the Vampire or Winston the Werewolf or Yukiko the Yurei shows up and causes some mischief. Some people get bumped off, some chick wanders around a dark place looking Scared but Determined, the Other is killed and the status quo returns to Normal.

Zombies invert that formula. In a zombie tale, the Normal is the first thing to go. Suddenly the world isn't threatened; the world has fundamentally changed. The narrative doesn't take you to a different place and demand that you play by their rules like science fiction or fantasy does. The world is still ours and it's falling apart. It's incredibly jarring and adapting to that disorientation is part of the fun.

2) The rules are elegantly simple. The dead are walking around. If they get you, and they probably will, you will die horribly. If you get bit, you will die. They can be stopped with a shot to the head. Sometimes fire scares them, sometimes it doesn't. Within that framework you can build stories spanning the range from early Ingmar Bergman-style wallows in existential despair to macho gun-heavy survivor stories.

The zombie world presents a strong appeal for mental role-playing. Most people I know who have any degree of affinity for zombie stuff love making contingency plans. What would they do when a zombie shows up? Where would they go? How would they prepare themselves? Who would they save? What would they value? What would they do when their backs are absolutely against the wall? It seems to be a simple frame work for people to play around with their worst case scenarios.

3) The nature of the stories, and the fact that despair is just as much a threat as the zombie hordes, mean that zombie stories tend to spend more time with characterization than other horror tales. Unlike many horror movies, especially slasher movies that make perverse anti-heroes out of their killers, we're squarely on the human's side in zombie flicks. We need to be beside them, we need to feel their fear, and we need to share their strain for the stories to really work. The original Night of the Living Dead still works remarkably well because of the way we watch these confused and frightened human beings fall apart as they bicker among each other and get themselves killed.

So, that's my pet theory on the appeal of the zombie genre. Now let's apply that to The Living Dead, a recently released anthology of zombie tales edited by John Joseph Adams.

I really liked this book. Anthologies are often a hard sell for me. It takes me some time to become emotionally engaged in a narrative and I find the effect of having to constantly switch between characters and writing styles disorienting, but the stories were well-written and compelling. The editor didn't take chances with a lot of new names and most of the authors are well-known names in genre fiction. While this didn't expose me to a lot of new talent, it did give me a chance to see some of my favorite writers at work in a familiar sub-genre.

The one complaint I did have with the book is that it's definitely not geared to the long-time genre reader. Most of the stories can be found in other, older anthologies and I found myself coming back to tales I read a long time ago. Still, at fifteen bucks, it's kind of a can't-go-wrong.

Anyway, my breakdown of the tales;

This Year's Class Picture by Dan Simmons: A very straightforward, very cool zombie tale that fits us squarely in the mind of a teacher trying to reach her zombie pupils. It's one of those ideas that could have been tremendously trite and stupid, but Simmons pulls it off. It also has one of the most sweet, least hokey endings I ever read in genre work.

Some Zombie Contingency Plans by Kelly Link: This one isn't really about zombies per se, but it does some nifty characterization tricks, has one of the most compelling leads in the book, and has one of the best back-and-forth conversations I've read in awhile. I'm not entirely sure what's going on in Soap's head, but he's not in a good place and it's a sick joy to read.

Death and Suffrage by Dale Bailey: I was a little wary, getting into the book. While I agree with the politics of the story, having the dead vote the way I would made me worry the story would be some hackneyed soapbox diatribe. I liked the lead character and as the story moved on and the emphasis moved away from the presidential fight and toward the mysteries of his past I found myself drawn in. There's some good character stuff and some strong dialogue set pieces, and I'm kind of curious to see the Masters of Horror episode they did off this story.

Ghost Dance by Sherman Alexie: Sherman Alexie is one of my favorite writers, though he's definitely not someone I'd ever expect to be contributing to a genre anthology. His tale of unburied past and violent vengeance hit my liberal buttons, but the story felt a little disjointed, a little hollow. Sure, it's good. It's really good. But it's not really Sherman Alexie good.

Blossom by David J. Schow: I am gonna have to part company with the horror orthodoxy but I've never been a big fan of David Schow's work. His stuff rubs me the way a lot of the big name splatterpunk does: too much shock, not enough substance. In the story's introduction he talks about the image that inspired the piece and the story he built around it didn't really do anything for me. Someone has kinky sex. Some weird stuff happens. Someone dies violently. Splatterpunk. Done. Next?

The Third Dead Body by Nina Kiriki Hoffman: I had high hopes for this story. There wasn't much in the book mixing zombies with serial killers and the story has a killer opening line. I had a hard time connecting with the rest of it. The character's arc was poorly laid out and I didn't care in the end.

The Dead by Michael Swanwick: Yuppies treating the reanimated as a business resource is an obvious sort of idea, but I liked the enthusiastic sleaze of the story and the capitalistic implications of the author's ideas about zombies.

The Dead Kid by Darrell Schweitzer: As a big-city kid, I'm a sucker for small-town adolescent nostalgia horror tales. Bradbury got the taste under my skin and King, Lansdale, and Partridge kept the addiction going. This story is one of those narratives, and it's a real treat. I like how the zombie is the victim and not the danger, I like the way Schweitzer's lead alternates between conformity and his sense of ethics. The ending feels a little too bright for the tale, but after all the gloom and doom that tends to hover around the zombie genre it's nice to have a happy ending.

Malthusian's Zombie by Jeffrey Ford: I loved this story. The title character was a neat, strange little academic and the clever trick he plays on the narrator got me at the end. The story puts together a little world, plays fairly by it's own rules, and pleasantly surprises the reader at the end.

Beautiful Stuff by Susan Palwick: Beautiful Stuff was the story I feared Death and Suffrage was gonna be. The liberal outrage is painfully obvious and the big moral at the end was cringe worthy. The story is well-written and enjoyable on a craft level, but it's too obvious and pleased with itself.

Sex, Death, and Starshine by Clive Barker: I've got a lot of things to say about Clive Barker that I'll save for another time. Suffice to say, it's an old story and it's still really, really good. I'd give this one to my theater-working friends if any of them were actually literate.

Stockholm Syndrome by David Tallerman: It's a very straightforward survival horror story. Perhaps too straightforward, but it had a strong personality guiding the narrative.

Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead by Joe Hill: A non-horror story about love rekindling on the set of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, this bittersweet little tale is a nice love letter to genre fans.

Those Who Seek Forgiveness by Laurell K. Hamilton: I'm usually inclined to roll my eyes at Laurell K. Hamilton as she tends be be associated with that whole supernatural romance subgenre running around these days. In truth, I never gave her a chance and I gotta say that this is a pretty good story. It's very linear and without many surprises, but it has that fun, punchy feeling of those goofy old theme anthologies I used to read in high school.

In Beauty, Like the Night by Norman Partridge: There's a lot more stuff going on in the story than is given space to work with. As a result, it feels like a longer work chopped down and it suffers for the editing. Still love ya, buddy. Would like to see more with this.

Prairie by Brian Evenson: One of my favorite pieces in the book, this weird little story is written like a sea captain's log as they travel some very grim seas. The matter-of-fact depiction of ghastly imagery and clinical, cold speech shouldn't work, but it does.

Everything Is Better With Zombies by Hannah Wolf Bowen: Wow. Seriously. Wow. The stuff going on here is subtle and painful and terribly cool. Another story where zombies are more a metaphor than a threat, the heartbreaking stuff going on unspoken between the characters absolutely works.

Home Delivery by Stephen King: I've got a lot to say about Stephen King, too. Like Clive Barker, it's gotta wait for a more focused article. Suffice to say, you've probably encountered this story in a dozen places before. It's still a tidy little story with incredible characterization. The zombie apocalypse barely affects the small island community and the characters have a unique dialogue style and point of view. I'd liked to have seen something new, but this one still works.

Less Than Zombie by Douglas E. Winter: This was the first fictional work I've read, having mostly known him from his non-fiction biographies of various genre authors. His insight makes this pastiche of Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero work with a certain sleazy charm, capturing the cold disconnect between Ellis's characters and the way they bang off each other amidst the undead. This story isn't a pleasant tale but it portrays yuppie nihilism effectively and remains engaging and clever.

Sparks Fly Upwards by Lisa Morton: This one is tricky to put my finger on. A political tale about abortion and religious fervor, this one contains a lot of raw emotion. I tend to be leery of stories that put their themes front and center in the narrative, but this one more-or-less stays readable, despite the painfully earnest final paragraph.

Meathouse Man by George R.R. Martin: One of the more unusual contributors to the anthology, George R.R. Martin writes in the fantasy genre, which I rarely dip my toe in. I dug this little ditty, though. Set in the far future, this story of zombie slave labor, necrophilia, and love gone sour was apparently inspired by some bad times in the author's life and Meathouse Man comes out very raw and wounded. At times the writer's pain is a little too naked and the story seems to have been constructed as an elaborate Rube Goldberg torture device to batter the innocent protagonist by mean old love, but I enjoyed it.

Deadman's Road by Joe R. Lansdale: I'm a big Joe R. Lansdale fan but I've never actually read Dead In The West, the old Western zombie story where disillusioned priest and monster hunter Rev. Jebidiah Rains makes his first appearance. He's one of the only action movie style heroes in this book and Deadman's Road is a fun little tale for him to run around in. It's very direct and cinematic, without a whole lot of fat on the bone: bad shit happens, preacher man stops it. It is, if anything, a little too free of surprises but I wouldn't kick it out of bed.

The Skull-Faced Boy by David Barr Kirtley: Great title. Okay story.

The Age of Sorrow by Nancy Kilpatrick: The low point in the anthology, it presented the fundamental danger of last-person-left-alive scenarios; if we have to follow one person around, they'd better be interesting. I did get to learn about the characters ovulation cycle, which was, y'know, different.

Bitter Grounds by Neil Gaiman: Oh, dear. I was dreading this one. I really like Neil Gaiman and I think that when he's on his game he's one of the best popular fantasists of our time, but after reading and rereading this story, after staring at walls and contemplating the Meaning Of It All, I still can't tell whether this is a deep, complex, and rich tale of death and emptiness or one of those stories where a writer is being deliberately, maddeningly vague in order to seem more clever than the story actually is (the Donnie Darko effect.)

She's Taking Her Tits To The Grave by Catherine Cheek: A gimmicky title, which tends to be a turn-off, but a cute little yarn about a vacant L.A. woman who doesn't deal with her death and subsequent resurrection well.

Dead Like Me by Adam-Troy Castro: OMG! BFF on this story! A vicious little handbook for survivors who want to stay alive by acting like zombies, this one fits squarely in the Romero world and is one of the best tales I've ever read about losing your humanity to the zombie hordes. Seriously, go read this now.

Zora And The Zombie by Andy Duncan: One of the stories in the book that uses the old Voodoo zombie mythos, this one follows Zora Neale Hurston as she meets an institutionalized zombie in a Caribbean asylum. This one builds a strong atmosphere and has an exotic sensuality to the tone. Kudos.

Calcutta, Lord Of Nerves by Poppy Z. Brite: Man, I haven't been back to Poppy Z. Brite in years. During my adolescent Goth phase, her early work was mandatory reading. Coming back to this story after ten years was a treat. This tale is less a story and more of a travelogue of zombie-infested Calcutta, but she does a fantastic job of bringing the city to life. You pick up the heat, the sounds, the smells, you learn the lingo, and you come to believe that Calcutta would be the one place in the world where the dead could rise and no one would notice.

Followed by Will McIntosh: Another political zombie tale, this one is one of my favorites. A non-violent story about people's lifestyles catching up with them in the form of dead bodies who follow you around in silent judgement, this one fits very will with my San Francisco Organic Co-Op mentality.

The Song The Zombie Sang by Harlan Ellison (r) and Robert Silverberg: Given the pedigree of the authors, of course this tale was gonna work. After an anthology filled mostly with familiar zombie archetypes, they cooked up a good story about art and the passion of the living.

Passion Play by Nancy Holder: I didn't realize until I got to this story how few of the tales in this anthology dealt with the religious implications of the zombie apocalypse. This one, in which a Bavarian town reenacts the Passions of Christ with zombie actors as part of a covenant with God, was a welcome change of pace. It tends to sprint when it should jog, but it pulled off what it set out to accomplish.

Almost The Last Story By Almost The Last Man by Scott Edelman: Oh, man. I never really expected to discover anyone new but this was one of the big pleasures of this collection. A multi-layered tale of a writer desperately telling stories in the middle of Romero's apocalypse, the narrator succeeds in drawing us into his desperation. It covers every type of story you could imagine Romero devotees telling and does an amazing job engaging us with the narrator as he goes to his doom.

How The Day Runs Down by John Langen: A fantastic tale to close the anthology with, HTDRD is a monologue piece, written as a stage play, where a mysterious stage manager narrates the apocalypse, pulling in characters into his story and having them share their experiences with us. It's homespun and folksy and very, very dark.

Anyway, that's the collection. I really enjoyed this book and I'm probably gonna pick up Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse at some point in the near future. Again, there's probably a bunch of stuff you've seen before, but it's a good little mix tape of monster madness.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Thanks for the interesting post Joe. It's cool that you reviewed each story in the book vs. just the ones you liked.