My first impression of this book: 36? Thirty-six? That’s a vast amount of stories for an anthology! Even 20 would have been pretty big
My second impression: No, really, 36? Seriously?
My third impression: wait, 36 stories and it’s only 480 pages long? How does that work?
Simply, a lot of it doesn’t – we have some frankly weird, surreal, barely related and generally random filler fluff pieces some of which defy me even commenting on them because I have no idea why they’re there other than to pad an already hugely stuffed book – so The Day the Saucers Came is just some randomness that barely covers two pages and is only, at best, tangentially related to the theme (or any theme for that matter), The Children’s Hour is a poem and not a particularly good one. Rigormarole feels like a tiny scrap that was edited out of a longer book and is kind of lost and pointless without the rest
But then we get down to the inherent problem of zombies and short stories. Now, I know I’ve said before that I’m generally not a huge fan of short stories anyway – and I hold on to that. A short story is usually too short to establish characters, world or a decent plot line, so often it relies on lots of info dump and no plot, lots of short cuts or relies on a lot of prior knowledge of a longer series. Then we get to zombies – there’s actually not a lot you can do with zombies. Oh, you can switch around the origin and nature and properties of zombies but, ultimately, a zombie is generally a rapacious killing machine with low intellect and (usually) both spreads rapidly and is made up of our former loved ones. Most zombie stories actually focus less on zombies and more on the characters reacting to grief, shock, horror, struggling to survive, etc etc – look at most zombies stories out there: from The Walking Dead to World War Z, most of the time zombie stories are about the people in an apocalypse
Which is damn hard to do in a short story – because you have a few short words in which to make me care enough about this person and the situation they’re in. Worse, you have a few short words to make me care enough about this person and the situation we’re in while 30+ other stories have already tried to convince me about their person in, basically, the same situation. It’s hard not to reach story 30 and not think “can you just be eaten already so I can get to the next one?”
So a lot of these stories rely on the emotional horror of loss in a dystopian. Some work and some not so much. Becca at the End of the World manages a very real emotional impact with a mother facing her 16 year old daughter turning in front of her, but it also feels heavy handed. I mean, we have a mother watching her child turn zombie – you’d have to be a horrendously awful writer not to make that emotional. I found it both very impactful but also kind of lazy – the easy route. I also thought Jack and Jill with its comparisons of zombiehood to terminal illness (and presenting someone with cancer – and in remission no less - as being, effectively, the living dead) both problematic and, again, a way of forcing emotional impact by hammering it in. Shepherd of the Valley was a man in a zombie apocalypse with a rather unique way of dealing with things but the story primarily centred around his sadness for his daughter which just wasn’t that well conveyed- lots of moping with an odd setting. Which also kind of describes Love Resurrected; it’s a fantasy setting with the twist of a “zombie” point of view – but there was too much distraction from character development to get any real emotion out of the character
I found Present much more effective, the story of a teenaged mother struggling to survive with her toddler, her doubts, her fears, her drive to keep moving and her tragedy were much more impactful for me. What Once we Feared was even better – the psychological collapse of a group of survivors into gradual despair and the toll that took – beyond zombies attacking, beyond fighting for survival – just the despair of the helplessness, the hopelessness of it slowly eating away at them. That was powerful.
While many authors tried to hinge on the emotional impact of the survivors, others tried to move away from the whole “the world is falling apart and we are surviving” zombie apocalypse scenario and did so to various degrees of effectiveness.
Delice returns more to the roots of zombiedom (or one of the roots – voodoo) in a way – but it’s a story I’ve seen before several times – the brutal story of Delphine LaLaurie (with names changed, but basically the same story including the slave jumping off the roof, the attic and the name Delphine) which, as I’ve said before, I’m uncomfortable with being appropriated for fiction – and equally how the idea of persecuted groups having woo-woo with which to exact revenge is a nice fantasy but it draws a veil over a very often unanswered injustice.
Chew explored the idea of a zombie rising up in revenge – it was a different setting (post World War 2 Germany) but I think the urge to show a different viewpoint distracted too far from the story.
Kitty’s Zombie New Year is a story I’ve already read in Kitty’s Greatest Hits, I liked it not just because it was fun but because it hailed back even more to one of the origins of zombiehood – zombiehood as a way of drugging a living person. The same applies to the extremely creepy and twist ending of There is No “E” in Zombi Which Mean there Can Be No You or We: zombiehood as a way of controlling people. It seems odd to say returning to one of the origins is a nice twist – but it is.
Other stories that managed to be truly original were Those Beneath the Bog drawing on the legends of First Nations Canadians in a viewpoint we very very rarely see in the genre; it was well done, fascinating, creepy and bringing in a wonderful nuanced conflict of still holding old traditions but also being, for example, Catholic. It was definitely one of the good ones.
As was What Still Abides for style is nothing else – the whole saga style of writing really worked without being repetitive or contrived – and the legend of the wight cursing the land is definitely a different take on the undead – though a bit of a stretch on the word “zombie.” It was definitely worth it though
I don’t think Bit Rot worked for me – it’s zombies in space. Changing what makes zombies – whether it’s a virus or a curse or nanites or androids or whatever, doesn’t really fundamentally change the nature of zombie stories. This has just kind of taken a pretty standard zombie story and moved it to space; the different reasons don’t change the same plot. What is much more interesting is the backstory before the zombies get involved; the idea of a rich woman creating clones to live vicariously through – give me more of that story and drop the zombies! Similarly Resurgam tries to draw on Victorian era body-stealing but with shifting time lines and really dodgy characterisation I think it failed both to bring anything original and even to be that coherent a story.
The different setting works better with Selected Sources for the Babylonian Plague of the Dead (572-571 BCE) but more because of the way it’s told – the historic setting, archaeological finds and letters between the sisters that add originality even while the base story is very expected.
For me, the truly original stories in this book were the ones that delved more into the societal and cultural implications of a zombie apocalypse – because that’s not something I’ve seen very often outside of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series – and these were generally very well done. Such as The Afflicted – the idea of not knowing exactly what causes the undead, or having the whole population infected and ready to rise is a topic we’ve seen a few times; but rarely have we seen the full consequences of that. This story explores some of those worrisome consequences as the population persecutes and ostracises the elderly, driving them out into camps away from civilisation because they are prone to zombie-dom. In a genre full of complete societal collapse, it’s intriguing to see a world where we don’t have complete collapse – but we do have brutal, even horrific responses to a major crisis (which is not ahistorical – internment, persecution and scapegoating run rampant when there’s a crisis).
Dead Song goes even further – delving into the cultural ramifications of a zombie apocalypse. It’s an amazing story told after the recovery and has a real fascinating idea about social changes after the apocalypse, particularly through music. Survivor communities forcing disparate groups to live together, isolated for extended periods of time creating a whole new culture and musical styles out of it. I loved it, the concept is both so original and so excellently true – the idea of basic cultural shifts like this after a zombie apocalypse is so rarely explored. Exploring our own cultural conflicts we also have Iphigenia in Aulistaking the current push of anti-choice politics and applying it to unborn zombie foetus. It’s a complex and really quite beautifully tragic story of self-aware, gentle, sweet, but dangerous children and questions about their humanity. But the prize for this has to go to Aftermath – the story of a world that has recovered from a zombie apocalypse. A world where zombies have been cured, where everything is being out back together – and the survivors have live with their trauma, their PTSD – and the knowledge that some of the people around them were once cannibalistic zombies who killed their loved ones. That was a very good one
We did have a few stories that explored the idea of zombies as non-threatening to various degrees of success. ‘Til Death Do us Part is a quietly tragic tale of the recently bereaved having their lost loved one returning to them – as an insensible, ambulatory corpse. What do you do with that? How do you deal with that?