BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A follow-up themed anthology with 44 zombie tales published within the last ten years, about 60% of which are new.
PROS: Exhibits the wide range of possible stories within a single sub-genre of fiction; 11 outstanding stories.
CONS: A small handful of tales did little to impress.
BOTTOM LINE: Amidst a glut of zombie stories available recently, The Living Dead 2 is a splendid example of the variety of fiction within a common theme.
John Joseph Adams’ The Living Dead 2 is the new follow-up anthology to 2008’s well-received The Living Dead. The sequel serves up a higher story count (44 in volume two vs. 28 in volume one), more of which is original fiction (25 vs. 1) and reprints which are more recent (from the last decade). Consequently, there are a higher number of stories that stand out.
Stats aside, a book’s success to a reader is measured by the quality of the stories it contains. Quality of individual stories varies by reader, of course, but overall The Living Dead 2 succeeds just as well as its predecessor, offering up a surprisingly wide variety of stories despite the common theme and making it another must-have anthology for the zombie fan.
Standout stories include:
- “Danger Word” by Steven Barnes & Tananarive Due
- “Mouja” by Matt London
- “The Skull-Faced City” by David Barr Kirtley
- “The Rapeworm” by Charlie Finlay
- “Rural Dead” by Bret Hammond
- “He Said, Laughing” by Simon R. Green
- “Last Stand” by Kelley Armstrong
- “The Thought War” by Paul McAuley
- “Dating in Dead World” by Joe McKinney
- “And the Next, and the Next ” by Genevieve Valentine
- “Are You Trying to Tell Me This is Heaven?” by Sarah Langan
Individual story reviews follow (with links to free online versions!)…
“Alone, Together” by Robert Kirkman follows a man and a woman, the last two members of a group of survivors, and their day-to-day struggle after the zombie apocalypse. Being a more traditional zombie story, there are really no surprises here; more remarkable is the poignancy that the male narrator delivers as he talks about the emerging relationship with the woman.
Steven Barnes & Tananarive Due serve up an outstanding story with “Danger Word”. In it, a boy (Kendrick) and his grandfather (Grandpa Joe) are surviving a zombie-like plague by living in a secluded cabin in the woods. Supplies are obtained through trade via the occasional foray into a nearby town. The atmosphere here is marvelously bleak, with tension slowly mounting as we learn about the fate of Kendrick’s parents, the gravity of the situation, and what awaits them at Trader Mike’s – a situation made all the more dramatic because the characters are so likable.
“Zombieville” by Paula Stiles follows a pair of former Peace Corps workers, now acting as hired zombie hunters in Africa, as they try to find out what happened to their comrades with whom they lost touch. Although the intro says this particular story was meant to serve as a metaphor for AIDS, idea-wise this reads more like standard zombie fare. However, the author’s writing makes for a solid story that quickly and cleanly paints the picture of life one year into the zombie apocalypse.
“The Anteroom” by Adam-Troy Castro posits an afterlife for zombies in which the sins of the plague haunt the truly-dead (the formerly living dead). Told in the second person, Castro serves up a few moments of genuine sadness and sympathy for the post-zombie.
Karina Sumner-Smith’s short story “When the Zombies Win” is a simple exploratory into what would happen if zombies succeeded in killing all the humans. What would be left to eat and do? The mood of this story is surprisingly tragic.
As mashups go, Matt London’s “Mouja” is inspired. By mixing zombies with samurai, he is able to pull off an interesting spin on the zombie theme when samurai warriors seek to defend a small, helpless village from the oncoming horde of zombie “mouja”. The central characters are instantly likable and you’ll be rooting for them the whole way.
When rising food waters bring the dead back to life, an elderly man chooses an unexpected fate for himself and his convalescent wife. That’s the premise of “Category Five” by Marc Paoletti which, although light on traditional zombie elements, is effective thanks to its sympathetic main character.
Molly Brown’s “Living with the Dead” uses an unconventional definition of the word zombie, the one meaning someone out of touch with reality. As such, this examination of that condition works more as a metaphor for disaffected people than a traditional zombie story, but it works nonetheless.
Seth Lindberg’s “Twenty-Three Snapshots of San Francisco” attempts to paint a picture of the zombie apocalypse through a series of short, rapid descriptions of photographs. This might make for an interesting writing experiment, but as a story it lacked enough characterizations to care about the narrator and his friends.
In “The Mexican Bus” by Walter Greatshell, a young man bears witness to a zombie outbreak. As groundwork for a zombie story, this is serviceable, but sadly, this story was uneventful (protagonist mostly watches from afar), the main character was thinly-drawn, and the story had an ending that couldn’t help but be unresolved since the plot lacked a situation that needed resolving.
Jamie Lackey’s “The Other Side” is more setup than story. It quickly introduces life inside a fenced-in community more than a decade after the zombie apocalypse. The high school girl narrating the story has never seen a zombie, and in this story, and neither does the reader. From this short example of the interesting predicament portrayed (of someone trapped in the wrong side of the fence) Lackey’s writing seems personable enough to make me want to see more.
David Show’s “Where the Heart Was” is about a lone zombie that keeps coming back from the dead to repeatedly attack his former girlfriend and her new lover. None of the characters in this story are fine examples of morality, so it’s hard to find their situation sympathetic. Add to that the fact the couple doesn’t even seem surprised that someone can come back from the dead, and your left with a story that relies mainly on its admittedly creepy premise.
By any measure, the plot of David Wellington’s “Good People“ is traditional zombie; a small group of survivors holed up in a motel, trying to avoid the encroaching zombie hoards. But that doesn’t stop Wellington’s expressive delivery and likable characters from rising above that, all while exhibiting the sad facts of survival after the zombie apocalypse.
“Lost Canyon of the Dead” by Brian Keene is a triple mashup. I must admit a liking for the zombie-western combination, as a group of six survivors on horseback flee a large group of slow-moving zombies across the desert. Less effective was when Lost World dinosaurs that were thrown into the mix, which surprisingly added little to the overall flavor. Time might have been better spent fleshing out the characters for those who, like me, aren’t familiar with the world of Keen’s novel, Dead Sea, in which setting this story takes place.
The premise of Amelia Beamer’s “Pirates vs. Zombies” uses the astute prediction that some people would take to the ocean for protection from the zombie apocalypse. Here, a small group steals a seaworthy replica of one of Columbus’ ships and finds the pirate life a fitting substitute for the civilized lives they can no longer live.
“The Crocodiles” by Steven Popkes is the first-person account of German experiments in World War II meant to produce the perfect weapon. The narrator, a chemical engineer, recounts the experiments that ultimately lead to the creation of zombies. While the narrative focuses on the science behind it, what’s particularly chilling is the lack of emotion with which the narrator carries out his experiments.
There’s a war between the living and the organized undead in “The Skull-Faced City“ by David Barr Kirtley. A man named Park tries to join up with the undead army led by the ruthless Commander, but he may have ulterior motives for doing so. I must say that I enjoyed this sequel story significantly more than “The Skull-Faced Boy“, (reviewed here) Kirtley’s story here is a gripping one, wisely bypassing the traditional zombie scenarios for a living-vs.-dead setting that’s even more unsettling. Park is a likable character and one worth rooting for despite his circumstances, even though he seems a little slow in realizing the Commanders Grand Plan.
“Obedience“ by Brenna Yovanoff follows the rapidly-dwindling remnants of a military unit besieged by zombies. Their refuge in a cabin predictably proves to be useless, so the survivors head to a lab where they may be able to fight the disease.
In “Steve and Fred” by Max Brooks, a loser named Fred, trapped in a bathroom, escapes the encroaching zombies via a book about a motorcycle-riding, sword-wielding tough guy named Steve. The premise of this story rests solely on the dichotomy of personalities between Fred and the fictional Steve; too heavily, in fact, as it otherwise offers little in the way of plot and characterizations.
Charles Coleman Finlay’s “The Rapeworm” is a zombie story re-imagined as an alien invasion. Other-worldly spores dropped by passing alien spaceships invade Earth’s atmosphere and infect humans by finding their way into their brains. This is seen through the eyes of a father trying to protect his two sons by fleeing to the unpopulated wilderness, where he meets someone in the same situation but with much more resolve. Finlay’s story succeeds despite a slow start not only because of the world building and characterization, but because it tugs at your parental heartstrings.
A California college student witnesses the zombie uprising in “Everglades” by Mira Grant. The event reminds her of more innocent times as a child in Florida, where she received words of wisdom from her grandfather. There’s not much zombie resistance here; instead a calm acceptance of the inevitable that sets the quiet tone for the story. A nice-but-brief touch was the use of technology to communicate with other survivors.
“We Now Pause For Station Identification” by Gary Braunbeck is a monologue by a talk radio host who is five days into the zombie apocalypse with no word from any survivors. The monologue, of course, talks about the infestation and a little about what happened, but is more a revelation of how zombies are not behaving like one would expect. This framework works quite well for portraying the end of world, and also for a level-set of man’s place in the universe.
Cherie Priest returns to the wonderful world first seen in Boneshaker with “Reluctance,” the story of a lone, young courier who delivers mail by airship and discovers a town of “rotters” when he stops to refuel his ship. As much as I adored the author’s previous steampunk/zombie mashup, there just wasn’t enough of either in this story to compensate for the lack of any significant conflict.
In “Arlene Schabowski Of The Undead” by Mark McLaughlin & Kyra M. Schon, an actress named Lorraine who, years ago, played a girl zombie named Arlene in a black and white zombie film trades identities with her onscreen alter ego. This color-to-black-and-white swap (reminiscent of Pleasantville) adds an interesting fantasy component to the zombie story, though the focus on it makes it seem more like a character study than a horror story. Still good, though.
If S.G. Browne’s “Zombie Gigolo” feels like a writing experiment, that’s because it is. It was specifically written for a writing contest with rules dictating that it be short and graphic. This story, which briefly details a day in the life of a zombie who sexually services other zombies, succeeds on that score but lacks the space to do much more than that.
Bret Hammond puts a nice spin on the zombie motif with “Rural Dead“, a story in which the plague reaches an Amish town. It’s told in past tense by an Amish man being questioned by an outsider who is looking for answers as to what happened in the small town. You wouldn’t think a story this good is the author’s first; Hammond’s tale is neatly wrapped and unfolds quite nicely, ultimately giving this enjoyable story a memorable, Twilight-Zone-ish vibe.
The narrator of “The Summer Place” by Bob Fingerman is the sole living occupant of Fire Island after the zombie apocalypse. Even the zombie hordes seem to have left this vacation spot alone. Well, mostly alone. Loneliness is the prevailing theme here. Some events in the book may be questionable (He travels by bike instead of car, for example. Sure he’s a bike courier, but at some point you ditch the bike for the protection of a car, right?) but the author’s breezy and easily-digestible words almost make the sad situation of the story fun.
A man digs up the grave to retrieve his love poems in “The Wrong Grave” by Kelly Link. As might be expected in a zombie anthology, the year-old corpse is anything but dead — but this particular walking corpse isn’t craving flesh. Link’s writing voice here seems on par with the other stories I’ve read, which is to say that it’s very easily read, conversational in tone, and oftentimes metafictional. It’s not so much a horror story as it is a thoughtful and somewhat interesting character piece.
Scott Edelman has written several zombie stories and the one included here (“The Human Race”) shows how varied stories with a common theme can be. Paula, the main character in the story, is a suicidal woman who is pushed that much closer to the edge after her parents and brother are killed by a terrorist bomb. Paula’s plans to end it all are suddenly rendered moot with the onset of the zombie apocalypse. What’s amazing about this story is how the zombies — normally an in-your-face element that is the focus of many a zombie story – are incidental. Instead, this is a beautiful character piece made contemporary by the juxtaposition of terrorists and zombies.
David Moody’s “Who We Used to Be“ focuses on a single family when the world population is suddenly struck dead. Awakening to find themselves dead, the family’s confusion poses little threat to their desire to live life as they normally do – something that the rigor mortis and decay makes increasingly difficult. Moody’s take on the zombie apocalypse, all things considered, seems probable; denial is a common way people deal with tragedy. Why would this be different?
“Therapeutic Intervention” by Rory Harper is a short, tongue-in-cheek zombie story in which a zombie receives counseling about his addiction to eating human brains. The scenario takes place after some degree of normalcy has returned to society, but definitely not after an elevated concern for survival.
Simon R. Green’s “He Said, Laughing” is a zombie war story, or more accurately, an undead version of Apocalypse Now. (Oh, what temptation is must have been to call this story “Zombie Apocalypse Now”.) In 1969 Viet Nam, a man accused of a heinous war crime (Captain Marlowe) is enlisted as an expendable operative to hunt and kill Colonel Krause, an even bigger war criminal. Krause’s secret is hardly a surprise in a zombie-themed anthology, but that doesn’t lessen this depiction of the horrors of war and the depravity of men. Good stuff.
The protagonist of Kelley Armstrong’s “Last Stand” used to be school teacher before the apocalypse, now she’s the commander of a small army as they defend their fort against the “Others”. Some economic world building supports this wonderful story in which all might not be as it seems.
Paul McAuley puts a hard-sf spin on the zombie story with his story “The Thought War”. The “zombies” in this case are beings that are appearing all over Earth; only partially formed humans at first, but becoming more human in appearance as they grow, eventually becoming undistinguishable by sight. McAuley’s scientific explanation for their appearance is why this is the first zombie story I’ve read that I can honestly call mind-blowing.
Joe McKinney’s “Dating in Dead World” is a pure adrenaline rush. A decade and a half after the zombie infestation, little pockets of civilization survive in the compounds of powerful men smart enough to know how to survive. A streetwise young man wishes to date the daughter of one of these men, and proves that he is more than worthy of being a suitor. For this story, McKinney dishes out some quick-and-dirty world building (more fully drawn in one of his novels, I believe) then turns his attention to a non-stop adventure with gunfights, motorcycle chases, and good old fashioned zombies.
“Flotsam & Jetsam“ by Carrie Ryan takes place on a raft in the ocean, the last remnant from a cruise ship overcome by a zombie plague. Aboard the raft are two teenage boys, the only survivors; and one of them has been bitten. The interesting scenario, heightened by the claustrophobic feel, is unfortunately overshadowed by one niggling plot point: one character knows that the other has been bitten and infected with the undead plague and does nothing. Why wait so long to confront him? Why not dump him overboard, especially when the infected boy holds so much contempt for him at the outset of the story?
“Thin Them Out” by Kim Paffenroth, Julia Sevin & RJ Sevin sets up two narratives: one of a zombie, just risen from the dead as he searches for something, and the other about a swindling band of survivors undermined by an unlovable misfit named Wayne. There were some good description in both narratives, evoking both sympathy and genuine suspense. The meaning of the ending, however, when the narratives finally meet, is completely lost on me.
“Zombie Season” by Catherine MacLeod is a very short story about a zombie hunter with a secret. Its short length serves the premise, which is more idea than narrative.
Steven Gould’s “Tameshigiri” combines zombies with ninjas-in-training as a small band of students follow their sensei outside the protected grounds of a community of survivors to fight zombies. Although it’s not altogether clear why they do so, there are some good action sequences ahead and lots of decapitation by sword by well-drawn characters.
In “The Days of Flaming Motorcycles“ by Catherynne M. Valente, Caitlin, the last survivor in Maine’s capital city Augusta, logs what she’s learned about zombies. Despite what everyone expected, the zombies are tortured souls who, free from persecution of the living, seek out spiritual salvation. The mood of this story is acutely somber, befitting the setting and the tone of Caitlin’s days living with her abusive father before he became a zombie.
Jonathan Maberry takes the zombie story to the front of the war on terror with his story “Zero Tolerance”. This is anything but a traditional zombie story, using some of the heavy themes of our post-9/11 times to write a gritty story that’s a little scary and very much disturbing.
“And the Next, and the Next“ by Genevieve Valentine posits a scenario perhaps more chilling than the standard zombie survival tale. The protagonist walks amongst the endless hordes of shambling zombies, pretending to be one, wandering aimlessly like the zombies do out of habit in their former lives, and desperately trying to not drop the disguise because doing so would mean death. A chilling premise and one that serves as metaphor for how we sometimes walk through life subconsciously clinging to our daily (and usually meaningless) routine. Good stuff.
John Skipp & Cody Goodfellow deliver a clever and unique premise for “The Price of a Slice”. Saying what it is may spoil it, but suffice it to say that it channels Cory Doctorow to some degree, putting a modern-day geekspin on the zombie trope. Yet, sadly, for all of the coolness in the idea, I found the world building simply didn’t pull me into the story.
Sarah Langan’s “Are You Trying To Tell Me This Is Heaven?” is a fantastic story by any measure. It’s about a man who travels across an apocalyptic landscape to find his estranged and troubled daughter. The fact that it’s the zombie apocalypse adds some very interesting horror elements, but it’s the serious and reflective tone of the story that resonates. It’s not just a story about something, it’s a story about something that matters. Langan’s prose is tightly controlled and perfectly delivered lending this story a weight that eludes the majority of fiction. Well done.