Monster Mash

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Two recent anthologies bring a literary touch to stories of the macabre.

Zombies crept their way into Publishers Weekly’s “Best Books of 2008,” with The Living Dead, an anthology from Night Shade Books, in which the boundaries between genre and literary fiction get rattled by the likes of Kelly Link, Stephen King, and Jonathan Lethem. Night Shade’s previous anthology, Wastelands, is a post-apocalyptic collection whose Further Reading List includes Margaret Atwood and J.G. Ballard, makes an unofficial companion volume.

The characters that populate Wastelands must deal with granular external reality before their inner needs. Food, clothing, and shelter from, say, a pack of mutated dogs come first. Value and futility are questioned—is there meaning and purpose beyond sustenance, and if not, what is the point of survival? Communication breakdowns are bountiful. Manners are shed. Cultures, beliefs, and ideals get tangled around the ankles and kicked aside; then the raw animal rises. These stories examine that skin as artifact and hold it up to the sun.

An epidemic of apoplexy strikes in Octavia E. Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” in which most of the population loses the abilities to speak and read. Scarcity turns these abilities into dangerous commodities, coveted by the masses, and an endangered woman capable of speech experiences rage when a mute man assumes she can read a map. In “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth,” Cory Doctorow captures the idiosyncrasies of the cyber-world, and cranks it up a notch, as a network building becomes a fallout shelter. The geeky survivors exhibit bravery, rashness, cowardice, and smarts, as they deal with the loss of wives and babies left out there.

Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem

Digital scams evolve in Jonathan Lethem’s “How We Got in Town and Out Again,” a scathing take on the dot-com wild west of San Francisco. Neal Barret Jr.’s “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” also toys with technological smoke and mirrors, further complicated by roving packs of underwriters and possums who operate machine guns and play poker.

Some stories, like Richard Kadrey’s “Still Life with Apocalypse,” sketch post-apocalyptic domesticity with utter nonchalance: “I live with a girl who can make gloves from a poodle’s hide and scavenges boots and clothes for me, and they’re always my size.” In Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag,” dog meat is a forgotten delicacy, now that most species are extinct. George RR Martin’s “Meathouse Man” puppeteers his own corpse-whore after a long day of psychic manual labor. Lucid, aching, and bittersweet, the story allows us to feel the fluctuating numbness and pain of the corpse operator, the oblivion of the daily grind.

Neither of the anthologies relies on the grotesque as a crutch; instead they swat and swab the human (and proto-human) spirit: where it endures, where it fails, where it mutates according to new landscapes, new conditions. “A Class Picture,” by Dan Simmons, depicts a teacher in a fortified school who instructs her zombie students (after removing their teeth and chaining them to their desks with pencils and notebooks) and recruits new dead kids prowling the moat.

The Living Dead is distinguished by its attention to longing (boredom, heartbreak, purposelessness) and searching (the reckless gallivanting and escapism) for trouble. The authors approach their zombie tales from many different angles, such as “Less Than Zombie,” which draws on Brett Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero, whose characters suffer terrible ennui. Brian Evenson’s “Prairie” tears through early American travelogues and ridicules Manifest Destiny: “I have examined the apparatus at length but can make nothing of it, nor its function, though it has in my awkwardness contrived to lay bare my palm to the bone. The others, seeing my fate, destroyed the device before I could query it further.”

Some souls wake after death for booty-calls and vengeance (Catherine Cheek’s “She’s Taking Her Tits to the Grave”), abortion protests (Lisa Morton’s “Sparks Fly Upward”), razor-edged love triangles (Joe Hill’s “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead” and David Barr Kirtley’s “The Skull-Faced Boy”), art passion (“Sex, Death and Starshine” from Clive Barker’s horror and fantasy masterpiece, Books of Blood), or a self-detached work ethic (“The Song the Zombie Sang” by Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverburg). Other zombies are just sluggish, rabid corpses, such as Poppy Z Brite’s “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” a modern travelogue in which the undead lurk in gutters.

Zombies can be vessels of karma, as demonstrated in Will McIntosh’s “Followed,” where many people have a zombie, like an STD of the soul. A frail dead girl follows the narrator around, interrupting his lecture while he paces the classroom. It’s embarrassing and inconvenient.

Taken together, the fifty-six tales in these anthologies take a bite out of everyday reality, reminding us of what we try to forget is always around the corner. As aptly stated in Dale Bailey’s “Death and Suffrage,”

It’s funny how things happen… The very moment you’re engaged in some task of mind-numbing insignificance—cutting your toenails, maybe, or fishing in the sofa for the remote—the world is being refashioned around you. You stand before a mirror to brush your teeth, and halfway around the planet flood waters are on the rise. Every minute of every day, the world transforms itself in ways you can hardly imagine, and there you are, sitting in traffic or wondering what’s for lunch.

Joe Cervelin, a native of Brooklyn, now resides in the Bay Area. He awaits an international fellowship to carry him to sea. More from this author →