Monday, April 27, 2009

The Book of More Flesh

My loyal readers, I come to you hat-in-hand to admit that I am a prejudiced person.

When I wrote my Living Dead review, I spoke a little bit about Almost The Last Story By Almost The Last Man, a fantastic story by Scott Edelman. His credits listed that he'd been previously published in Eden Studios anthology tie-in for their All Flesh Must Be Eaten zombie role-playing game. While writing my review, I wrote something vaguely snotty about how I was surprised that a writer this good could come from the gaming world.

Fast forward a few days later. Someone involved with the anthology contacted me and asked, very politely, if I'd ever actually read the book. I hadn't. I've read plenty of tie-in novels growing up and most of them were poorly written. I put my ear to the ground, heard some generally positive feedback, and decided to give The Book of More Flesh a fair shake.

Turns out I wasn't disappointed.

A big part of the anthology's success is due to the fact that the writers aren't particularly bound by the source material. Most role-playing games come with elaborate settings that writers are expected to adhere to. All Flesh is less about building a specific world and more about giving the players a wide variety of options to build their own flavor of zombie apocalypse. Without any particular constraints from the franchise, the anthology featured a bunch of talented young writers giving the whole zombie thing their best shot.

The whole say-something-about-individual-stories thing seemed to have worked well for me before. Let's do it again:

Goobers by Scott Edelman: When I was a teenager, the slacker philosophy among my moron friends went something like this: Don't be known for working to your full potential. People will come to expect it of you. After being knocked on my ass by his contribution to Living Dead I expected a repeat performance. It's pretty good but it didn't rattle my cage like his previous efforts. It has that jokey construct a lot of horror stories have, where the tale is a big lead-up to the shocking final punchline.

The Husks by Paul Finch: Paul Finch is a British police officer and, reading between the lines of the story, he's dissatisfied with the leniency of the British penal system. This story is essentially a cathartic "he-had-it-comin'" revenge piece. Generally I'm all for these, but it reads like a lecture and the American psychic "hero" is shrill and unpleasant. Still, it had a serviceable, EC-style twist ending.

The Hounds of Love by Scott Nicholson: Astute readers among you will remember that my co-reviewer and confidant is one Professor Demon Bunny.

PDB lives with me. He is, indeed, evil. He tears my furniture up, seduces my womenfolk, and attacks my house guests without provocation. Despite all this, I love the little bastard. So I was a little bit pissed off when The Hounds of Love started with the graphic killing of a cute little bunny.

I was all set to HATE this story. Killing defenseless bunnies is a no-go for me. Yet somehow Scott Nicholson got me back on his side. Abusive parents, budding young sociopaths, and rural gothic settings are nothing new, but Nicholson made them emotionally engaging. I felt BAD for the bunny-killing bastard, and the way zombies were integrated into the story was inventive and unexpected. This was definitely one of the high points of the collection.

Fading Quayle, Dancing Quayle by Charles Coleman Finlay: So, apparently Charles Coleman Finlay is smarter than me. The notes in the back of the book describe the story as being inspired by the works of "cognitive science philosophers." This term is new and sexy to me, so I'm going to use it as a pick-up line at bars and parties. I didn't really take anything away from the story. It was frantically paced and had a confusing narrative voice. Still, I gotta assume I'm too dumb to understand it.

Trouble by Mark McLaughlin: I loved this story. Seriously. Loved it.

Part of it is that I am a pretentious art guy who likes hanging out with a pretentious art people. McLaughlin gets the general tone of reminiscence and acrimony that would fit in well with that type of crowd. It's somewhat artificial, but he has enough gusto to pull it off. The story also has the most unique composition of any tale in the book, and I'm a big fan of genre writers breaking the traditional narrative format. Framing the tale as an interview allows the characterization to come to the foreground, and the tale ends with the satisfying, creepy end.

Naked Shall I Return by Tom Piccirilli: I liked the collegiate town feeling of the story and I liked the lead character's relationship with his immature roommate, but this story had too many people explaining stuff to me.

Falling Into Naught by Douglas W. Clark: Y'know, ever since (as far as I know) Joe R. Lansdale's On The Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks there's been a stream of pseudo-western zombie tales featuring lone tough guys wandering through a wasteland of violence, depravity, and sleazy zombie brothels/gladiator pits. I like these types of stories. They provide a more gung-ho counterpoint to the endless stream of existentialist angst that a lot of zombie tales apply with a trowel. This one was pretty entertaining, even forgiving the earnestly hokey final line.

Sitting With The Dead by Shane Stewart: A touching and tense story about a young man standing vigil over his grandmother's body, this was another favorite of mine. The notion of having cathartic moments with your dead relatives is a fairly unexplored idea among the zombie anthologies I've read and the leads have a great rapport with one another, particularly the dead grandma who finds a new honesty in death. This one would make a great stage play.

The Black Rose by Don D'Ammassa: This little tale of cowboys and curses is a little talky and a little pokey, but it's got a lot of great characters, a sexy femme fatale, and a razor-wielding madam with a heart of rattlesnake venom. This would have made a tremendously messed up episode of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.

Charlie's Hole by Jesse Bullington: My first impressions of Charlie's Hole was largely negative. It felt like the writer got a copy of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and wanted to copy the Vietnam-era nastiness without the artistic context. It started out unpleasant and forced, but redeemed itself when the characters went deep into the claustrophobic tunnels and encountered the creepy Lovecraftian sorcerer in the catacombs. There's some great horror set pieces and a fantastically gruesome ending. Overall, a win.

The Dead Kid by Darrell Schweitzer: This story also appeared in the Living Dead anthology. My review stands. Good stuff.

Brainburgers and Bile Shakes by Jim C. Hines: There's a lot wrong with this story. It's a big cocktease for one. It takes place in an amusement park where the living dead are shackled in bondage and the teased breakdown of order never happens. The lead character is an introverted nebbish whose appeal to his love interest is mystifying. Basically, nothing happens in particular. Still, I had a great time wandering around the amusement park with these two characters. They were sweet and sad and kinda charming. It gets a tentative thumbs up.

ZOMB, Inc. by J. Allen Thomas: Another incredibly fun popcorn story, the Kafka-esque struggles of a temp doing drudge work in a zombie-staff office until his brain is soft enough to eat completely rocks my socks off. The jokey impatience of the lead character's point of view is painfully familiar to anyone who has spent time in a cubicle farm. Post this on the company bulletin board and wait for the internal memos to circulate.

Life Sentence by David Dvorkin: So, help me out with something here. The criminal's plan was to have his organs removed, have his skin hardened with a chemical, be sent to space to mine precious minerals side by side with zombies, sneak said precious minerals past the guards (while naked), and sneak back in time for back alley surgery before his life supplies run out? What, the future had no armored cars to rob? This one lost me early.

Martin's Inferno by Tyler Sigman: Arr matey! Creature be fascinated by dark stories of nautical adventure! This story could have been handed to me inscribed on the flesh of a leper and I still would have found something nice to say about it. Fortunately I don't have to, as it was pretty danged good. Thar be pirates and treasure and curses and the walking deadskies, all told in a breezy, entertaining style. Definitely one of my guilty pleasures.

Memory Remains by Steve Eller: Being that zombies are dead and young writers love writing melodramatic stories of loss and Human Suffering, zombie stories occasionally get weighed down like leaky water balloons with capital-M Meaning. This one has a depth of feeling and sometimes gets cumbersome under the weight, but it does a pretty good job tying the character's rapidly desiccating body with the loss of his soul. I'd buy this story a beer, but I'd probably get bored if the conversation went on too long.

The Little Death of Mr. Phillips by J. Robert King: Easily the best story of the collection, this tale follows a Walter Mitty-esque insurance salesman as he applies his practical, unruffled mind to the problem of his zombification while pining for a pretty receptionist.

There's a ton of stuff to like in this story. Poor Mr. Phillips is such a sweet, compelling character, marching gamely toward his doom while trying to enjoy life a little. The story draws a lot of horror from the actual process of decay, something rarely touched in zombie fiction. Finally, it doesn't simply ape the zombie cliches. There's no desperate survivors trapped in a global apocalypse and the only thing threatening about zombie Mr. Phillips is the stench. The reader is instead treated to a story of love, loss, and missed potential, all capped by a beautifully written, poetic ending. Seek this one out.

The Hyphenated Spirit by Scot Noel: Oh my. Tea and crumpets. In the same way I'm a fan of piratical tales, I'm a sucker for high society aristocratic Britannia, especially when it focuses on conjoined twins and a zombie sibling. In this story, zombie-ism is an affliction left undiscussed in polite society, yet the relationship between the prim (if perverse) Apollonian half and her carnal Dionysian sibling eventually degenerates in a manner that would make monocles drop into champagne glasses. Everyone is so wonderfully well mannered and erudite and gloriously perverse!

Inheriting Red by Alexander Marsh Freed: One of the most unique and inventive zombie stories I've read, Inheriting Red is told from the point of view of the psychic entity controlling the zombie hordes, who sees their gruesome path of consumption as an act of love. I really liked the hive-mind's point of view, and her memories around her messianic brother were lyrical and lovely. This tale could easily have been expanded into a compelling novel.

Goddamn Redneck Surfer Zombies by Michael J. Jasper: First off, you can't lose with a title like that. Second, this story has that fun, unflappable tone of one of Joe R. Lansdale's tales. Third, it's genuinely funny. Forth, it has one of the best narrative POVs in the book. Fifth, it's called Goddamn Redneck Surfer Zombies. I'm gonna give this story to girls I have a crush on. If they like it, they're a keeper.

Night Shift by Rebecca Brock: Don't get me wrong, I liked this story on the aggregate. It's a solid, classic Romero-zombie siege yarn, with good writing and tense scares. The lead character, a relief worker at a juvenile care facility, is an absolute prick. He's vicious toward his charges, rude toward his coworkers, and eager to abandon the situation. Sure, he's got a pregnant wife to get home to, but he's such an unpleasant person that I was actively rooting for his family's annihilation. I gather the writer wanted to create a hard-bitten tough guy, but even tough guys gotta have something good about them.

Bright Angels by K.Z. Perry: I was a little skeptical of this story at first. The notion that people would 'adopt' dead children who'd been domesticated to mimic emotion struck me as a prime example of the uncanny valley theory in action. Still, when the orphanage lights go down and the reader gets a glimpse of what goes on behind the domestication, the story becomes tantalising. The first layer of this story is a little flabby, but the stuff under the skin is very enticing.

The Ethical Treatment of Meat by the awesomely-named Claude LaLumiƩre: The OTHER best story of the collection (I can have two dammit!) is ETM here. A charming little domestic farce between two gay zombies and the human boy they keep as a pet, the story works great on a satirical level. It's when you start paying attention to the details, start noticing how the human pets behave and how little his keepers can relate to him, then the story becomes genuinely terrifying. This was a fantastic story to end the book with, and I'll definitely keep an eye out for this guy's work in the future.

So yes, I'm very happy that I took a look at the anthology. It took me some winning over at first, but they got some interesting new writers telling really good stories. At some point in the future I'll write about my experiences running All Flesh but for now go check out this book. It's a bit tricky to run down, but it's definitely worth the hassle.

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