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REVIEW: The Living Dead edited by John Joseph Adams

REVIEW SUMMARY: This is the zombie anthology for the new millennium.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An anthology of thirty-four zombie stories.

PROS: 28 good stories, 8 of which are outstanding.
CONS: 6 stories are mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: A good anthology and a must-have for fans of zombie fiction.

John Joseph Adams keeps depressing me: first, with his post-apocalyptic fiction anthology Wastelands, and now with his zombie anthology The Living Dead. To be sure, both anthologies are quite enjoyable – it’s just hat the subject matter is just so damned bleak. Of course, given the themes of these anthologies, this is not surprising. Nor would I have it any other way.

What is surprising is how the contributing authors each spin their zombie stories and wind up with such a wide range of flavors. Pass along a single idea to 20 authors and you will get close to 20 non-overlapping takes on the theme. Not all of the stories here are the Dawn of the Dead-type stories that you might expect, though I’m very glad that some of them are. In some stories, the undead are hunted and killed, in others they are accepted as part of normal society. Some stories have undead mobs, some have a lone zombie. In most stories, the zombies were physical creatures, in others they were symbolic. (Some stories lacked any zombies whatsoever beside a mention of them, to varying degrees of success.) Some stories are written as pure horror, some as semi-comedy, some as social statements, some as Literature. Some stories even manage to make the zombies sympathetic, if you can believe that. It’s this wide range of styles and approaches that makes an anthology like this worth reading.

And what makes this particular theme so appealing? I think contributing author Will McIntosh said it best when he said that zombie fiction explores our fear of death. These stories are filled with imagery that’s sure to linger (I’m looking at you, Poppy Z. Brite!) and many of the stories will, too.

In addition to the 33 zombie story reprints, Adams includes one original story (“How the Day Runs Down” by John Langan). The oldest story (“Meathouse Man” by George R. R. Martin) was written in 1976, but the large majority of these stories were written in the last decade. As such, The Living Dead can be viewed as the zombie anthology for the new millennium. (Oh, and it’s got a fantastic David Palumbo cover.)

Standout stories in this volume include:

  • “This Year’s Class Picture” by Dan Simmons (1992)
  • “Blossom” by David J. Schow (1989)
  • “The Dead” by Michael Swanwick (1996)
  • “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From The Dead” by Joe Hill (2005)
  • “Sparks Fly Upward” by Lisa Morton (2006)
  • “Meathouse Man” by George R. R. Martin (1976)
  • “Deadman’s Road” by Joe Lansdale (2007)
  • “Passion Play” by Nancy Holder (1992)

Individual story reviews follow (story title links jump to free online versions!)…

It’s business as usual in “This Year’s Class Picture” by Dan Simmons – at least for a sixty-something fourth grade school teacher who maintains her sanity in a zombie-infested world by holding class for a bunch of manacled, undead children. Ms. Geiss is a tenacious woman, going through the motions even though nothing seems to be getting through. She augments her teaching activities by reinforcing the school and nearby surroundings, staying ever-vigilant against the threat of adult zombies. Just when the futility of her actions seems a little too hard to believe, Simmons connects with the reader by having Ms. Geiss dream about the students when they were alive. Somehow this makes her actions seem much more reasonable and the story much more significant.

Some Zombie Contingency Plans by Kelly Link isn’t a zombie story at all; it’s a mainstream fiction piece. (In itself, not a bad thing, but one wonders what it’s doing in a zombie anthology.) It’s about a loner ex-con named Will who crashes a party and meets a girl named Carly. Will goes on about being prepared for any emergency and thus he always has a plan at the ready in case he should have to, say, run from zombies. If there is any deeper meaning here then, as a guess, I would say that Will’s obsession with being prepared for every eventuality in life precludes his experience of actually living it. But really, symbolism like this (and the small painting he carries around with him – whatever that’s supposed to mean) seems overly-forced and doesn’t really add anything to the story. (I note here that this would not be the first of Link’s well-received stories that I just didn’t get.) The author’s straightforward writing style was the only thing I really found enjoyable about this story which, in the end, seemed to lack a point.

Dale Bailey’s Death and Suffrage starts on a barely passable idea for a story (or polemic, as it may apply here): the dead rise from their graves to vote for a presidential candidate. The classic zombie aspects one might expect (humans vs. brain-eating monsters) are all but absent. These zombies are physically harmless. However, it does seem unlikely that such an event would mean business-as-usual as the story indicates. But there was much more to come in Bailey’s capable hands, including (briefly) some interesting legal issues around the risen dead; a touching story around gun control; and (most prominently) the affecting personal story of the protagonist, Robert, who seems to find more reasons to live as more of the dead come back to life. In the end, what starts as marginally silly morphs into something substantial and worthwhile.

Sherman Alexie’s “Ghost Dance” does what good science fiction (and good fiction, for that matter) should do: it uses the story as a mirror for ourselves. Here, Alexie examines racism against Native Americans. And while this works well for the first half of the story, the second half in which the FBI agent sees visions, seems like an unnecessary prolonging of an otherwise enjoyable and well-written story.

“Blossom” by David J. Schow is short, sweet, and what I would call a perfect short zombie story. It may have a simple plot – a one night stand that goes horribly wrong – but it more than makes up for it by pushing all the right zombie buttons. Nicely done.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s zombie story, “The Third Dead Body,” is told from the perspective of a dead girl who ran away from home, became a hooker, and was murdered by a trick. Now she’s out for revenge. The first-person perspective and Hoffman’s clear-cut prose makes this an engrossing story.

Michel Swanwick shows that people could be even more ruthless than zombies in his story “The Dead”. In it, scrupulous business men deal with zombies as commodities; they are just a product that, rest assured, will change the world economy forever. Not your typical blood and guts zombie story, no, but Swanwick’s story of corporate scrupulousness is just as harrowing, if not more so.

Darrell Schweitzer uses a zombie as a vehicle for one boy’s rite of passage in The Dead Kid. The narrator, David, falls in with some bad kids whose leader, Luke, hides an undead boy in his hideout. The zombie becomes the object of several violent acts and represents a crossroads in David’s life. This is a fine story, but one that seems to lack some much-needed emotional impact.

Jeffrey Ford’s Malthusian’s Zombie echoes Edgar Allen Poe in content and voice as it talks about one man’s uneasy relationship with his elderly (and very strange) neighbor, a man named Malthusian. Malthusian entrusts the man to care for his “zombie”, the subject of a Cold War experiment, a man who is suggestive to every command. What’s nice about this story is how Ford’s storytelling skills make you feel like you’re in capable hands; as if you are huddled up by a campfire listening to something that may or may not be true. It makes for an engrossing and enjoyable story.

Susan Palwick wrote her zombie story Beautiful Stuff in response to politicians using 9/11 victims to further their political agendas. Here, a politician uses the “voice” of the victims to garner support for military action. The problem is that his liaison is a zombie of a man who was morally reprehensible when he was alive. The ideas presented here are interesting (like how zombies see the beauty in the simplest of things), but the heavy-handed speech at the end was a little too much.

Not all of the walking dead wander aimlessly as evidenced by the art house zombies of Clive Barker’s “Sex, Death and Starshine”. While a director tries to get his doomed production of Twelfth Night in shape, a former patron of the failing theater inveigles his dead wife into the lead role. Barker spends a good amount of quality time fleshing out the characters and situations: the talentless soap opera star lead who is sleeping with the director; the scheming bookkeeper; the elderly front room woman – all of this making the story much more effective at creeping out the reader.

As the title of David Tallerman’s Stockholm Syndrome suggests, this story explores (too briefly) the unexpected loyalty between hostage and taker – though in this case the hostage is self-imprisoned in a boarded-up house and the recipient of the loyalty is a zombie named “Billy” who struggles to enter a house across the street where a family of survivors is similarly holed up. Minimal characterization limits reader involvement here, but perhaps that is, after all, the point of equating the protagonist’s desperation with the inhuman actions of zombies.

Two ex-lovers reunite as extras on the set of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in Joe Hill’s story “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead”. There are no fantastical elements here — just a mainstream fiction story about this bittersweet reunion. The writing works wonders at making you care about the characters; so much so that the story is over long before you want it to be.

Anita Blake may be well-known as a vampire hunter, but in Laurell K. Hamilton’s story “Those Who Seek Forgiveness,” the first to feature the character, Blake is an animator, someone who is able to raise the dead. Reanimation is not only possible, it is apparently a thriving and regulated business. Anita takes as a client a despondent widow who wishes some additional time with her dead husband. What could have been a run-of-the-mill story instead turned out to be quite enjoyable, thanks to a subtle plot twist.

In Beauty, Like the Night by Norman Partridge is about a skin magazine publisher named Grimes. He saves his pinup girls from the mainland zombie infestation by whisking them away to his own private island. Although the story does a good job at depicting survival paranoia (mostly induced by cocaine), there was not much more substance to offer.

“Prairie” by Brian Evenson is an account of a group’s travels across a zombie-infested countryside. The diary-like prose makes it feel like you are there, but the disjointed retelling of random encounters means the story lacks any real cohesiveness that a more traditional plot would provide.

The young female narrator of Hannah Wolf Bowen’s Everything is Better with Zombies is going to miss her friend when she moves away. This story is about their last summer together and one final adventure escaping an imaginary zombie. It’s touching, in its own way, and competently written, but not really a science-fiction story, which made it somewhat bland given my particular tastes.

Zombies come to a small island off the coast of Main in “Home Delivery” by Stephen King. The island offers some form of safety since it is separated from the mainland, and so the story focuses (after brief diversions on a national scale) to the plight of the indecisive and pregnant Maddie Pace, one of the residents. It’s a good story, even it does meander a bit, as King’s stories sometimes do in an effort to build up the characters.

“Less than Zombie” is Douglas E. Winter’s version of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero and is similarly a story about troubled rich kids who exhibit morally reprehensible behavior. In Winter’s version, a captured zombie is the recipient of some violent activity. Winter (unless I miss my guess) mimics Ellis’s writing style by using many long, run-on sentences that meander between one observation and the next, loosely painting a picture, a scene in which we learn something about the interchangeable characters, scenes that drone on and on, on and on, sometimes to the point where the reader wonders if this is really writing, or a plotless drug-infused monologue by the narrator as he meanders through life, hopping from once situation to the next, always noticing but never changing, and always talking in run-on sentences, even if it means saying the same thing twice in one sentence, using lots of commas, and the words go on and on, on and on…

Lisa Morton uses the zombie apocalypse as a springboard to explore abortion issues in her excellent story Sparks Fly Upward. The pregnant narrator lives in a small, secure community of survivors where the leader, to ensure survival given limited resources, enforces abortion. Powerful subject matter makes for a powerful story. And while the story’s pro-abortion stance might not sit well with everyone, there’s no denying the gravity and dramatic thrust provided by the fictional circumstances. Well done.

George R. R. Martin’s “Meathouse Man” takes place on worlds with harsh environment, where the reanimated dead are used to mine the planet and serve as sex slaves. Trager is an expert handler who is looking for love, but only finds solace in the meathouses where he pays for sex with a corpse tuned to his own mind. Martin’s story is at once immersive and fascinating as we watch Trager struggle for real intimacy and succumb to most basic desires. Great stuff.

Zombies meet the Old West in Deadman’s Road by Joe Lansdale. Reverend Jebediah Rains (the zombie-fighting preacher from Lansdale’s Dead in the West) agrees to help a deputy transport a prisoner along a path that, legend has it, is haunted by the resurrected body of Gimet, a murderer. Lansdale infuses western flavor throughout the story through local dialogue and colorful characters with personality: there’s Old Timer, who relays Gimlet’s story; Bill the prisoner; and the novice deputy transporting him to Nacogdoches for trial. And, of course, there’s Jebediah, a reverend with as much contempt for God as he has for zombies. What a fun story.

The Skull-Faced Boy by David Barr Kirtley is a zombie story from the zombie’s point of view. Jack and his friend Dustin get into a car accident and turn into walking, talking corpses. Jack seems to maintain some sense of civility as the rest of the world is overrun by a zombie plague. Meanwhile, Dustin leads an army of the dead against the living. But the real battle is that both Jack and Dustin long to be with the same girl. Interesting premise, even if it does seem to fall slightly short of its “beauty is only skin deep” message.

“The Age of Sorrow” by Nancy Kilpatrick may have zombies in it, but it works better as a post-apocalyptic story – a close cousin to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. The narrator is the last woman alive and every day is a combination of menial chores necessary for survival and dealing with the impending sense of loneliness and despair. It’s all emotion and little plot, but it works surprisingly well.

“Bitter Grounds” by Neil Gaiman reads like Literature with a capital “L”, infused as it is with symbolism and repeated references. The narrator, who is already on the run from his previous life (he is symbolically a walking dead man, no longer “living”), assumes the identity of Jackson Anderton, an anthropologist he meets at a motel. The narrator, now going by the name Anderton, successfully gives the man’s anthropology lecture in New Orleans. The lecture is about a Haitian myth of zombie coffee girls (we already know that the narrator likes bitter coffee – hence the story title) as talked about by the author Zora Neale Hurston, who describes zombies as “bodies without souls” – like the narrator describes himself. The narrator then goes bar-hopping with one “colleague” (where he meets a couple of girls who may be the coffee zombies) and sleeps with another “colleague”. I’m not entirely sure what this story means beyond all the symbolism that I managed to catch, but two big clues, I believe, are the first line (“In every way that counted, I was dead.”) and the repeated line “People come into your life for a reason.” Nevertheless, I enjoyed this story anyway because it was interesting and haunting – but mostly because it offered an engrossing puzzle in trying to find all of its secondary meanings. The story introduction says Gaiman expects this is a story that requires a second reading. Maybe I will one day.

The zombie in Catherine Cheek’s She’s Taking Her Tits to the Grave is a trophy wife who seems to be more worried about her decaying appearance than anything else. This shallowness seems humorous given the circumstances, and as she traipses around town, visiting her loved ones, she learns a thing or two. A decent story told in a straightforward style.

Adam-Troy Castro’s Dead Like Me reads like one man’s zombie survival guide. The protagonist is one of the last remaining people alive amongst a population of zombies. Survival depends on him acting like one of them by not showing emotion and not feeling anything. In effect, he becomes lifeless himself, shuffling around the streets looking for food and shelter. It’s as a grim setup as it should be, with the man having lost his family and having to suppress everything that makes him human and it’s quite effective.

Andy Duncan’s Zora and the Zombie is, I fear, one of those stories that has much deeper meaning than I am able to grasp. Superficially, it is the story of writer Zora Neale Hurston (the second reference to this author in this anthology) writing a book about a Haitian zombie, a creature with whom she forms a sort of friendship. There is some deeper meaning here that is lost on me, I’m sure, though I’m hard-pressed to imagine what.

Poppy Z. Brite’s “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves” is not so much a proper story as it is (as the introduction says) a travelogue of one man through the zombie-infested streets of Calcutta. Written that way, the story is basically devoid of any real plot; it’s 100% world-building and it’s marvelously effective. Gruesomely detailed descriptions and a lingering sense of despair and poverty make the residents not much different than the zombies themselves, who only pose threat to the less fortunate. Powerful imagery here, too.

In Followed by Will McIntosh, zombies follow those who “deserve” it – people who are not environmentally or socially conscious. The narrator does not know why he has one following him all of a sudden when he drives an electric car and donates to charities, but it has something to do with a button that his zombie carries. This is an interesting premise, though the social conscience aspect of it all seems somehow out of place.

Harlan Ellison & Robert Silverberg collaborated on “The Song the Zombie Sang,” a story about a composer named Nils Bekh who is periodically reanimated to perform concerts. This is not only much to the disdain of Rhoda, a good composer in her own right, but also to Bekh himself, who wants nothing more than to stay dead. This is an entertaining and well-constructed zombie story that uses science (one of the few to do so) to support the reanimation.

The backdrop of Passion Play by Nancy Holder is Oberammergau, a town in Germany that, once per decade, puts on a play depicting the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a long-standing tradition resulting from a vow made by its residents in 1634 if God would spare the town from the bubonic plague. This is one of the few remaining elements left over from the Old Church; a New Church embraces more modern doctrines ever since the zombie plague. Father Meyer remembers the Old Church, and is against using a zombie in the crucifixion scene of the Passion Play and, risking his priesthood, makes a bold decision. But nobody realizes that there is even more at stake. Fast moving and very dramatic (without being overly so), Holder’s story is both captivating and touching. It raises some interesting questions about the jurisdiction of divine law and personal conviction. Well done.

Scott Edelman’s “Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man” isn’t really a story at all, not in the traditional sense anyway. The narrator is a writer who, we eventually learn, is holed up in a secure room in a library when the zombie infestation hits. What he does to pass the time is the thing that gives him meaning: he writes stories. This is an interesting premise, as far as it goes, however this reads less like fiction and more like meta-fiction. There are six (or is it seven?) different story lines that are started and then abandoned as the writer/narrator tries to figure out how best to make his zombie story unique. He talks about things the characters “could” do and things that “could” happen. Nothing actually “does” happen until the writer tells his own story, occasionally spouting frank bits of wisdom – and that’s when Edelman’s story starts to shine.

“How the Day Runs Down” by John Langan is a zombie version of Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, and similarly uses a meta-fictional Stage Manager to tell the everyday stories of the residents of a small town. The difference is that these mini-stories talk about how people were overcome by the reanimated dead. Langan models the story this way for the juxtaposition (as the introduction puts it) between the Stage Manager’s homespun wisdom and zombie horror. While this works the majority of the time (particularly in the longest segment which details the demise of a rural Orlando neighborhood as seen through a housewife) sometimes the juxtaposition seems out of place. The end result, though, is still quite good.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

4 Comments on REVIEW: The Living Dead edited by John Joseph Adams

  1. I definitely agree with you on most of your ratings. I would definitely recommend “Sparks Fly Upward”, “Meathouse Man”, and “Deadman’s Road.” I liked “Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man” more than you did though.

    I would have given the book a lower rating overall, you have to hold anthologies up to a higher standard. They can pick and choose the stories in them, they should only be picking the best, not 8 good ones, 14 mediocre, and 6 bad.

    I will most likely end up reading/buying his Wastelands anthology as well.

    I am currently reading the Library of America Anthology of HP Lovecraft and next in line is The Morningstar Strain: Thunder and Ashes.

    Great Halloween reading!

  2. I’ve yet to read a “perfect” anthology.  Given the subjectivity of fiction, I doubt I will.  (Unless someone decides to publish my “dream anthology“, a collection of stories that I think are top-notch.)

    For what it’s worth, I rate anthologies based on the weighted average of the stories they offer.  So longer stories count more than shorter ones.

    I’ve recently been Halloween stories as well: I’ve recently read Every Last Drop by Charlie Huston, Necroscope by Brian Lumley, Stalking the Vampire by Mike Resnick, and now The Living Dead.

  3. Martin – The only problem is that I may read that same anthology and decide that there are 22 outstanding stories, 5 mediocre, and only 1 bad.  You may read it and think only one story is worth reading and 27 suck rocks.  It’s way too subjective, plus the strength of the really good stories may outweigh the lesser stories. 

  4. By that logic we would never be able to award the Hugo or Nebula because people’s opinions vary too much. I have never read an anthology where greater than 10% of the stories I would say are great. Even the end of the year “Best SciFi of 200X,” anthologies contain some crap.

    I definte anthology as being intristically multiple-author.

    The Lovecraft Library of America collection I am reading now is batting close to 1.00

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