Early in season five, when the script for Whispers was in its earliest stages, I was presented with a concept drawing for one of the episode’s featured creatures. It was delightfully monstrous. In fact, too much so, I thought. As much as I liked the initial creature design, it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I didn’t want something grotesquely otherworldly. I wanted something unsettlingly familiar, identifiably human yet somehow…wrong. Something like…a zombie.
Forget vampires or werewolves or giant spiders living in the sewers. When I was a kid, zombies were what scared me. What they lacked in speed and smarts they more than made up for in singleminded, relentless determination. AND what really made them uniquely freaky was that, every so often, they were someone you knew. A friend, a family member, a neighbor, that guy who used to play the harmonica in the subway – it didn’t matter because they were beyond caring, beyond death. The trappings of their past lives no longer held meaning for them. The only thing your former Aunt Imogene or those adorable twins from across the street cared about was the nice juicy brain sitting inside that walnut-shell skull of yours.
Yep, a big fan of zombies. So I was thrilled to discover that someone (that someone being editor John Joseph Adams in this case) had assembled a compendium of zombie fiction, a veritable Greatest Hits of the Undead. Had it not been a January book of the month club selection, I probably would have read it months ago, but seeing as how I wanted it fresh in my mind for this very discussion, I held off, impatiently awaiting the night I could finally sink my teeth into the collection.
And when that night came, I positively devoured the first story. This Year’s Class Picture by Dan Simmons, so impressed that, rather than read on, I went right to sleep, the dark flavors of the macabre little tale redolent in my mind. Simmons, besides being a wonderful SF writer, is an accomplished horror writer as well. His Song of Kali and Summer of Night easily make my Horror Top Ten. And This Year’s Class Picture, the story of one teacher’s refusal to give up on her students regardless of how stubborn or zombified they may be, is Simmons at his best: suspenseful, terrifying, and surprisingly poignant.
Despite being a collection of zombie fiction, The Living Dead offers an interesting and varied treatment of the subject matter, touching on themes typical (isolation, survival, revenge) and atypical (art, politics, abortion rights). And, like most anthologies, this one offers a mixed bag. A few I loved. A few I hated. And plenty in between.
The opening story by Dan Simmons was my favorite. That said, there are some terrific entries here by the likes of Clive Barker (Sex, Death and Starshine in which the undead hunger…for the spotlight of the stage), Jeffrey Ford (Malthusian’s Zombie in which an enigmatic neighbor bequeaths the story’s protagonist with an unsettling house guest), Joe R. Lansdale (Deadman’s Road, an Old West tale of redemption and revenge), Poppy Z. Brite (Calcutta, Lord of Nerves, a captivatingly chilling account of a dank and corruptive journey), and Scott Edelman (Almost the Last Story By Almost the Last Man, a delicious piece of zombie metafiction).
On the flip side, I wasn’t enamored of Sherman Alexie’s Ghost Dance which felt too on-the-nose. I had a similar problem with Lisa Morton’s Sparks Fly Upwards that, though engaging, read like it was trying a little too hard to make a point. While I nevertheless did find elements to enjoy in both these stories, Douglas E. Winter’s Less Than Zombie was the sole offering in the entire collection that left me cold, striking me as disgtrubingly nasty for nasty’s sake.
Back to that other side of the coin, I also enjoyed Michael Swanwick’s The Dead (focusing on the not-to-distant future in which corporations get in on the zombie action), Brian Evenson’s Prairie (another tale of Old West cowboys running afoul of zombies), Nancy Holder’s Passion Play (a shocker in which a zombie is drafted to “play the lead”), and Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg’s The Song the Zombie Sang (which demonstrates what can happen if an artist doesn’t get his intellectual property rights sorted out before his death).
Overall, a fun and freaky foray into the eerie world where things go bump in the night – and then thud against the dresser, then kzzzzzz-kzzzzz as they unwittingly drag the table lamp across the floor because the electric cord has gotten wound around their shuffling feet.
So, what did everybody else think? What were your favorites? Which stories didn’t sing for you? Editor John Joseph Adams will be coming by to answer your questions so let’s see ’em!
Well, my morning got off to a most inauspicious start, leading me to wonder whether I was the victim of bad luck – or, perhaps, very good luck in the guise of bad luck. To begin with, a bird crapped on me. Now most would consider this bad luck and yet there are those who would consider this a good omen. “That’s great!”was my wife’s enthusiastic response. “Did you buy a lottery ticket?!” I cleaned up, buckled the dogs into the back seat, turned the key in the ignition – and the car wouldn’t start (bad luck). I considered taking the day off and simply working at home (good luck?). But, after repeated attempts, the Audi grudgingly started and I was finally on my way (good luck?). On the way into work, I hit a patch of black ice (bad luck!) but, fortunately, there were no other cars around (good luck) and I was able to regain control in time to avoid sideswiping a mailbox (good luck). I arrived at the doggy daycare, opened the door to unbuckle the dogs, and had Bubba hop out. He’d somehow managed to slip his harness (bad luck). Normally the crazy one who will chase down anything, he seemed equally bewildered by his newfound freedom, giving me the opportunity to scoop him up and deposit him back int the car where I was able to slip him back into his harness (good luck).
The rest of the day’s events proved neither remarkably fortunate nor unfortunate. Watching auditions is, after all, a bit of a grey area. Minimal writing accomplished but I have manged to move into the third act. This script is one of the toughest I’ve written and it’s going painfully slow. Of course, that just mean it’ll be perfect once it’s done. “Don’t change a thing!”they’ll no doubt tell me before awarding me a cash bonus and a parade in my honor.
Well, it’s been several hours since I wrote the above and I can now confirm that it, in fact, bad luck. I sat down to post to my blog after dinner and discovered I couldn’t connect to the internet. After runing through my troubleshooting repertoire (unplugging the modem, plugging the modem back in, unplugging the ADSL cable, plugging the ADSL cable back in, running a diagnostic, screaming at my laptop) I called up the gang at tech support who had me: unplug the modem, plug the modem back in, unplug the ADSL cable, plug the ADSL cable back in, run a diagnostic, etc. No dice. They finally told me they’d be sending someone by to address the problem tomorrow. As a result, I’m posting this entry from a friend’s place (in case you noticed something subtly different about today’s post).
Hmmm. What’s even more annoying (read: alarming) is that I can’t even connect to the internet via my laptop here with a ground connection. I’ve had to use my wife’s laptop and rewrite this entire entry.
Yep. Definitely bad luck.