I never knew there were so many ways to tell a zombie story. I pretty much thought that the George Romero version was it — dead people wandering around holding their arms out in front of them and calling out “braaaaaaains,” looking to munch on the living. I never did know why they had to hold their arms that way, but they all did — I thought.
John Joseph Adams has chosen his material wisely in The Living Dead, a collection of short stories about zombies by some of the biggest and best names in the horror business, as well as the newest and hottest. I resisted this book for a long time because I’ve never been fond of zombies, but upon diving in, I discovered that the zombies aren’t really the point; the point is to tell a good story. And these authors do that, with a vengeance.
My favorite story is “Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man” by Scott Edelman, a metafiction about a writer caught in the library when the zombie plague hits. He tries to tell the story of what has happened in several ways, meandering through several false starts, before he latches onto the notion of just telling the truth without any veneer of fiction. It doesn’t have an ending, exactly, because our author is still alive when we leave him, unable to write of his demise — he doesn’t know yet how the end will come. This Stoker-Award nominee is just flat out brilliant.
John Langan gives Edelman a run for his money in the only tale original to this anthology, “How the Day Runs Down.” This take on the classic play Our Town, written as a script narrated by the Stage Manager, will likely never be performed, but it brings vivid images to mind (particularly if you ever cried your eyes out watching your baby sister play the lead in the original). Langan is a remarkable new talent on the horror scene; I have yet to read anything he’s written without being bowled over.
“Death and Suffrage,” by Dale Bailey, will make anyone who has ever hailed from Chicago chuckle, as the dead line up to vote. Sherman Alexie’s “Ghost Dance” finally lets Native Americans get their revenge on Custer. Susan Palwick looks at zombies from a completely different angle in “Beautiful Stuff,” portraying the dead as infinitely distractible beings with no malign intent — until one zombie shows signs of thinking for himself. Clive Barker contributes “Sex, Death and Starshine,” in which the dead seek only to continue doing what they loved doing in life, with a single-minded passion. Joe Hill, another fairly new horror writer who seems never to set a word in the wrong place, is represented by “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead,” something of an aberration in this anthology as it is about filming a zombie movie, rather than actual zombies, though it does speak — movingly — of the end of things.
There are 34 stories in this mammoth anthology, with contributions by almost every horror writer a regular reader of the fantastic will want to see: Dan Simmons, Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, Norman Partridge, Joe R. Lansdale, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Poppy Z. Brite, Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison among them. Usually anthologies have a few throw-away stories, a few that just don’t work as well as the others do; one expects it, understanding that one’s own taste will not correspond 100% with the editor’s. But either John Joseph Adams had such a wealth of stories at his disposal or he and I are utterly simpatico, because there was not a single story here that I feel one could skip without regret. Everyone who wants to understand contemporary horror fiction needs to read this book. If you’re a critic, reviewer or scholar, you’ll most definitely want to own a copy.