Friday, September 19, 2014

Zombies: More Recent Dead Anthology

The Afflicted by Matthew Johnson; Dead Song by Jay Wilburn; Iphigenia in Aulis by Mike Carey; Pollution by Don Webb; Becca at the End of the World by Shira Lipkin; The Naturalist by Maureen F McHugh; Selected Sources for the Babylonian Plague of the Dead (572-571 BCE) by Alex Dally MacFarlane; What Maisie Knew by David Liss; Rocket Man by Stephen Graham Jones; The Day the Music Died by Joe McKinney; The Children’s Hour by Marge Simon; Delice by Holly Newstein; Trail of the Dead by Joanne Anderton; The Death and Life of Bob by William Jablonsky; Stemming the Tide by Simon Strantzas; Those Beneath the Bog by Jacques I Condor (Maka Tai Meh); What Still Abides by Marie Brennan; Jack and Jill by Jonathan Maberry; In the Dreamtime of Lady Resurrection by Caitlin R Kiernan; Rigormarole by Michael A Arnzen; Kitty’s Zombie New Year by Carrie Vaughn; The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring by Genevieve Valentine; Chew by Tamsyn Muir; ‘Til Death Do Us Part  by Shaun Jeffrey; There is No “E” in Zombi Which Mean there Can Be No You or We by Roxanne Gay; What Once We Feared  by Carrie Ryan; The Harrowers by Eric Gregory; Resurgam by Lisa Mennetti;  I Waltzed with a Zombie by Ron Goulart; Aftermath by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill; A Shepherd of the Valley by Maggie Slater; The Day the Saucers Came by Neil Gaiman; Love Resurrected by Cat Rambo; Present by Nicole Kornher-Stace; The Hunt: Before, and the Aftermath Joe R Lansdale; Bit Rot by Charles Stross

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 Aulis taking 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?

But most seem to focus on the use and abuse of zombies: Pollution, What Maisie Knew and The Hunt: Before, and the Aftermath all explore how we would abuse and torment zombies, enslave zombies and generally make them into tools. They make interesting comments on dehumanisation and are probably an inevitable comment on the cruelty and inhumanity of mankind. There does seem to be a rather strange obsession with raping zombies; is raping corpses that high on people’s to-do-list? And I think What Maisie Knew was especially gratuitous not just in the people’s actions but creating  world setting where zombies become lucid when raped – I can’t even begin to address the why of that.

What’s left are some of the tangential stories that work to a greater or lesser degree. Usually, to be honest, lesser.  I loved The Death and Life of Bob with its rather heavy handed commentary on prejudice and hating and fearing the Other – but it did bring a really new story (and Marlene is the most awesome boss ever.)

The Day the Music Died and I Waltzed with a Dead Man both seem to not really need zombies – they’re both commentaries on their industries (both about the lengths people go to for money and success in the entertainment industry –both of which could replace zombie with just about anything). They made pretty powerful statements in their own way about dehumanisation, skewed morality and how little people mattered compared to prophets (one particularly jarring scene has two men arguing about the ethics of “selling out” while casually drugging a woman to be fed to a zombie – “selling out” is the greater outrage than killing a woman).

In the Dreamtime of Lady Resurrection has a lot of supremely beautiful, elaborate language, a very unique 2nd person perspective… and no real plots. It felt like a prologue to something else, to an actual story, with the hyper-elaborate language used to disguise that. I felt something similar with both Trail of the Dead Necromancer Curse and Harrowers: both struck me as interesting introductions to much longer stories in much broader worlds – this leaves me both intrigued and a little frustrated because there’s not enough here to make a full story.

Then we have the bizarre. Sometimes I think a story is trying to make a great big Important Moral Point or observation or… well… something and zombies seem to lend themselves to this use as metaphor; but sometimes it loses me. Naturalist uses zombified states as a prison camp with the protagonist deciding to study the zombies like a macabre and murderous David Attenborough – but I’m not sure what is actually trying to be achieved here? Or how people are worse than zombies? I’m not at all sure. Rocketman I just have no clue about – baseball using a zombie to impress a girl and… what? Similarly Stemming the Tide may be a comment on the general uselessness of humanity. Or the evils of misanthropy. Maybe both. Also, sea zombies because reasons.

Which leaves me with The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring which had absolutely nothing to do with zombies but was immense fun and I just giggle at the idea of a town of immortals hiring a gravedigger they don’t need because, damn it, a respectable town needs a gravedigger.

This review is getting long because of the vast number of stories – but social justicewise we have mixed. There are a number of female characters and female leads to many of these stories, with considerable female power and skill displayed (The Death and Life of Bob, Selected Sources for the Babylonian Plague of the Dead (572-571 BCE), Iphigenia in Aulis and Present particularly come to mind). But this book also has a truly surprising amount of rape, usually against women (except There is No “E” in Zombi Which Mean there Can Be No You or We where a man was the victim) which feels gratuitous to say the least; though while What Maisie Knew is the most grautiotus – it also sets up a clear conseuqnece by the end of the book and it has an interesting dynamic of a guy who is clearly an awful person, unambiguously so, while at the same time hiss viewpoint shows he doesn’t see himself that way. It’s an interesting commentary on how bad people are not the moustachioed twirling villains. There’s also a lot of mistress-blaming for infidenlity in The Hunt: Before, and the Aftermath – it’s the whole point of the story. The Day the Music Died has a lot of disposable women – which I think may be the point of the story, that these women’s lives mean so very little to the characters they’re used to express the inhumanity of the protagonists

Several of these stories have POC protagonists: Selected Sources for the Babylonian Plague of the Dead (572-571 BCE) (set in ancient Babylon), Delice  (set in slavery era New Orleans with lots of voodoo), There is No “E” in Zombi Which Mean there Can Be No You or We (set in Haiti with more voodoo). Those Beneath the Bog is set in Canada with First Nations people and really well done. Rocket Man also has a Native American protagonist – but it seems only to be there for some dubious “jokes.” Several of the books have numerous POC background characters or secondary characters, including Naturalist where Black people form one of the few sources of order in the camp. Pollution is set in Japan and has some great side messages about fetishising culture, about putting a culture on a pedestal and about thinking you truly know or are part of a culture because you are such a big fan of it.

On LGBT inclusion: The Day the Music Died has a gay character that is constantly derided for his crush on a straight zombie that continually leads him to do pathetic, weak and plain foolish and nigh suicidal things until he’s finally eaten. This is accompanied by a lot of contempt. There are no other LGBT characters but thick dollops of homophobia in Naturalist and Pollution just thrown in there because random gay slurs are so damn vital it seems.

So, in summation – this book has some excellent stories (The Death and Life of Bob), some deep stories (Aftermath) and some very fun stories (The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring) and because they’re so good (and a lot of the others are very decent) it is worth getting for them alone – but there’s also a lot of filler, a lot of padding and a lot of stories that could be cheerfully ripped wout of this book without reducing the quality even slightly. Less is more definitely applies. I’m going to give this a highly qualified 4 Fangs – some of it is excellent, but the quality is most definitely not consistent.