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History Is Dead: A Zombie Anthology / Edited by Kim Paffenroth

thhistoryisdeadcover.jpgPermuted Press / December 2007
Reviewed by: Michele Lee

Skillfully edited by the Stoker-winning Paffenroth, this anthology of the undead starts out strong with the hair-raising "This Reluctant Prometheus" by David Dunwood. Not content to merely tell the clever story of a caveman-era zombie horde, “Prometheus” opens with a shambling undead mammoth and the prehistoric meal that sours Cro-Magnon man into perversions of nature. Dunwood's story is a success not only because he inventively sets zombies in a new era, but because he explores the nature of these beasts, adding a new level to an already terrifying machine in the process. Thoroughly creepy throughout, Dunwood also adds a last kick to keep the horror going.

"The Gingerbread Man" by Paula R. Stiles is a very interesting take on zombie mythos. Here the beast isn't of the mobile dead, flesh-eating creature variety, but rather a god who’s bound to his body and trapped eternally by small deaths that force him to watch over the land. Much like a zombie starts human and turns into a hungry, undead thing, so too does this god start out a peaceful creature only to end with an insatiable thirst for blood. Stories like Stiles’ will easily sustain the zombie sub-genre while simultaneously taking it to new places.

What sets "The Barrow Maid" by Christine Morgan apart from the more common undead warriors-going-into-battle stories is the depth in which it captures the people and setting of its time. Fairy tale-like in its narrative structure, “Maid” is a war story centering on Sveinthor the Unkillable. And while the name alone might tip readers off to the storyline, especially in the context of the anthology’s theme, this tale of a great warrior, betrayed and slain, is interwoven with Viking traditions and culture which really brings the ancient warriors to life.

"Harimoto" by Scott A. Johnson is a Japanese inspired tale where a driven ronin, or masterless samurai, finds that the zombie-like jikininki, or man-eating ghosts, he has vowed to slay to restore his honor aren't all they seem to be. Their leader, Kama, holds the secret to the crowd gathering at a fouled temple. While “Harimoto” presents an interesting variation on zombies, most of the actual story is explained from one character to another rather than discovered by the reader, thus rendering a resolution that isn't as strong or satisfying as it could be.

"The Moribund Room" by Carol Lanham is set in Tudor-era England and stars Ridley, a deaf-mute boy who is set-up to be victim in a king’s political maneuverings and ends up falling for the future queen. Complicating matters, Ridley is also assistant to the king's barber/surgeon, also his uncle, and privy to the strange Dr. Frankenstein-like experiments his surgeon uncle has been performing in secret. Using his knowledge of the body and the science his uncle has taught him, Ridley hatches a plan to save the woman he loves, even if it means she has to die to be with him. More a twisted tale of love than a zombie story, Lanham’s entry succeeds in bringing the undead to yet another interesting era in human history.

"Theatre is Dead" by Raoul Wainscoting is an absolutely hilarious tale of a doomed stage play that occurs when old England is besieged by both the walking dead and one William Shakespeare, who possesses a good dose of an artist's grandiose ego. When the community-minded Shakespeare writes a play to educate the common man about the disposal and prevention of "postvitals" (Shakespeare-speak for zombies), he never suspects that one of his actors isn't just suffering from stage fright but rather from an infectious bite. Even when it become obvious, it takes the Great Baird two acts and quite a few actors before he admits there might really be a problem. Unwilling to let the show falter, Shakespeare and his postvitals expert take to the stage themselves for a spectacularly bloody Shakespearian ending. Sure to be one of the most remembered stories of this anthology, this ghastly comedic gem is true to a Shakespearian play - entertaining, darkly humorous, and lethal for the characters.

Jenny Ashford's "The Anatomy Lesson" holds a surprising bit of soul at its center with its tale of the corpse of Aris Kindt, a man hanged then dissected by the local doctors of Amsterdam. Aris' father first travels far to recover his son's body, then brings it back to a woman, who for a few coins raises it in order for Aris to seek revenge on the people who wrongly accused and hanged him. But the sad, soulful ending shows that the corpse doesn't walk for vengeance alone. Ashford adds remarkable human spirit to this undead tale set against the historical backdrop of Rembrandt’s famous 1632 painting , Anatomy Lesson of Professor Nicolaes Tulp .

In "A Touch of the Divine" by Patrick Rutigliano, we jump to the time of the Black Plague, during which a greedy ruler has lured a strangely immune monk named Stephen to a city where the plague has mutated, causing the dead to walk the streets. While the guards surrounding the city are happy to let him in, they neglect to tell him that the rulers have ordered that no one is to leave and have gone to great lengths to lure people into the town to make sure the fields are farmed and the shops manned. But while Stephen might be a monk, he is not servant of the rich and entitled, instead a patron of the common man – or patron of the common dead man, as the case here may be. He was brought into the city to restore hope to the villagers, and so he decides to do just that, in the most effective way possible. It’s likely that the reader won't know whether to cheer for the zombies or not.

Plague-ridden London is also the setting for Linda L. Donahue’s "A Cure for All Ills", the tale of a plague doctor who brazenly confronts Death on the dark streets and is cursed to see for himself why death is a mercy. Ripe with authenticity from the well-researched plaque details to the accurate feel of the protagonist’s medical profession, the story's only flaw is that the reader figures out what is happening quicker than the main character himself, causing the reader to lose investment in the protagonist’s plight early on.

The prim and proper literary stylings of "Society and Sickness" by Leila Eadie may be off-putting to some readers, as might the cloying obsession the parent characters have with marrying their daughters off. But after their town is infected with a zombie disease, and the Adler family escapes a social event interrupted by an attack, the forethought by the Adler's oldest daughter and the practicality of how it is revealed will make up for any lost ground. Another humor-infused zombie tale, “Society” proves that not even imminent death from gnashing undead teeth can save children from their plotting parents.

"Summer of 1816" by James Roy Daley tells a fictional account of the famed writer Mary Shelley, and how one stormy night when she slipped out of the castle she was staying in, she found her inspiration not on the banks of storm-tossed lake as legend would have it, but rather in the basement of a mausoleum. In Daley’s compelling tale, that inspiration came to her courtesy of a fictional grave keeper who, unable to bury his wards in the torrential rains, instead improvises by chaining them in the basement (lest they wander away...cue the ominous music and thunderclaps). Another tale steeped in historical fiction, here there are no last minute rescues from the wandering dead, no bites or festering wounds, just inspiration and fuel for Shelley’s immortal tale.

"The Hell Soldiers" by Juleigh Howard-Hobson is the story of Stampley, a Confederate soldier who, along with the haggard remains of his division, witnesses a tidal wave-like clash between undead Union and Confederate soldiers. This tale is graphic, and while it doesn't try to explain the existence of zombies, it goes instead for tension and terror and an abrupt ending that makes no suggestions as to who survives, if anyone.

Rebecca Brock's "Junebug" is a post-Civil War tale set in a secluded bit of Tennessee. The titular character is the oldest daughter of devoutly Christian parents who are convinced they are witnessing the end of days; the zombies wandering around outside do nothing to help with their illusions. The danger to June comes not by way of hungry zombie hordes, though, but rather in the form of a nefarious local preacher, who through deception and manipulation ends up getting her pregnant. June is blamed for her moral lapse and must endure her family's abuse and hatred until it spins past mistreatment and into outright murder. "Junebug" capably switches back and forth between the present and past through the use of flashbacks, never once losing the tension Brock successfully creates in each preceding segment.

"Starvation Army" by Joe McKinney is almost more of a ghost story than a zombie story. Nettle, an American man with a bleeding heart who seems to think he can save all of London from starvation and poverty, takes a job at one of the city's first homeless shelters. There he finds an overwhelming number of vacant-eyed starving people, all with outstretched hands begging for his help. When he realizes he can't save them all, he chooses one who he believes to be a deserving underdog, a man hated by the other street people. But Nettle learns soon enough that some people can’t (and shouldn’t) be saved, and that some are hated by others for very good reason. Competently written, but not terribly remarkable in execution or concept, this story isn't as tight as others in the collection. McKinney’s richly detailed depictions of a poor London stand out.

Jonathan Maberry's "Pegleg and Paddy Save the World" is a humorous tale that gives an alternate account of the Great Chicago fire of 1871, in which a zombie, and not Mrs. O’Leary’s mythical cow, starts the famous conflagration. Unlike other stories in which zombie origins are attributed to vague diseases or curses, the cause of the zombie infestation in “Pegleg and Paddy” is directly attributed to a burning green comet that crashes to Earth, killing and then reanimating Paddy O' Leary's horrid old Aunt Sophie. Once Paddy and his friend Pegleg get over their surprise and shock over seeing Aunt Sophie eating the famed O'Leary cow, they start to plot ways to use this tragedy to better their lives. Although Paddy admits to himself later in the story that his ideas sounded better in his head, readers will be delighted. An amusing tale after a streak of gloomy ones, Mayberry's contribution is a lighthearted and welcome reprieve in the anthology.

Set in the old American West, "The Third Option" by Derek Gunn starts off with an amusing premise as well but proves by story’s end to be anything but humorous. An angry Indian shaman has cursed the white man, declaring that the dead shall walk and take that which the white man craves most. Except in the old west, the white man placed higher value on gold than his own life. “Option” packs a surprising punch of political seriousness when an undead Texas Ranger, who legally still has the right to kill anyone based on his own judgment, shows up in town where the mayor is about to decide if the dead still have rights or not. The local lawman, Carter, foresees an extreme flip in the town’s cultural balance, a future where the mayor is undead, the majority is undead, and the living find themselves the oppressed minority. Chilling in its connotations to the current immigration debate in this country, Gunn's story is a bonafide standout in the anthology.

"The Loaned Ranger" by John Peel is also western-themed, opening with the vicious ambush and slaughter of six Texas Rangers. Whether for revenge or self-preservation, a token Indian raises one of the dead rangers, pointing him back in the direction of his killers in a dark, bloody parody of The Lone Ranger. Fans of the old show will likely get a few kicks out of this zombie rendition of the classic TV show.

"Awake in the Abyss" by Rick Moore is the Jack the Ripper story in the bunch. While many may find themselves drawn in by the always-fascinating subject matter, there's not much substance in this tale of Ripper victims rising again to stomp the streets in search of their killer. The story opens with one of the victims witnessing her own death; but rather than recounting it for the reader, she prattles on about it in a hackneyed tone meant to convey the period setting. It’s a miscalculated point of view character certain to irritate some readers. Somehow the victims’ spirits come into contact with each other and essentially will their way into life as the risen dead, knowing just where to find their killer. The gore is here for gore hounds, but the characters - especially Jack himself - are paper thin and rather uninteresting. The mindless internal ramblings of the protagonist and short page time of the famed serial killer are most disappointing as so much could have been done with this premise. Ultimately, there's not much soul to the story, which is disappointingly exactly what it seems to need.

"The Travellin' Show" by Douglas Hutcheson detours from the standard zombie invasion fare. In this one, the zombies are part of a traveling sideshow, led by the good Reverend Tool who possesses the power to raise the dead. Although the sad little Texas town they've stopped at has asked the carnies to leave with its unholy zombie act in tow, a small group of the townsfolk kidnap Reverend Tool and attempt to force him to raise the victims of a recent mining accident so they can return to their families. The zombies here, human and animal varieties alike, are exactly what legend says they should be. What sets Hutcheson’s story apart is the feeling of melancholy that permeates the story, a prevailing sadness that stems from the townspeople’s desperation to have those who have died tragically back. Think Pet Sematary here versus Romero movies.

Wrapping up the anthology is "Edison's Dead Men" by Ed Turner, a tale of the famed titular inventor who, as the story opens, has gotten his hands on a few reanimated corpses. Possessing a wicked bite of dark humor, this story is a perfect ending point, focusing on the origins of modern technologies, the promise of what they might become from that point forward, and the machinations of the mind that made them. This story leaves the anthology musing toward the future - our present - and almost promising that the undead will be threaded as tightly into our lives as they have been woven into the stories of this anthology.

Even readers who don't consider themselves zombie fans will find something to like within the pages of History is Dead. The only criticism of the anthology is that most of the entries are American and UK-set tales, giving the collection as a whole limited scope. One is left pondering the results had a few of the stories contained within depicted more exotic locales - South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, maybe even ancient Greece. Some zombie globetrotting might have given the anthology a more large-scale feel to this living dead invasion. But perhaps it just gives readers something to hunger for should word of a second volume be forthcoming in the foreseeable future.

Purchase History is Dead: A Zombie Anthology, edited by Kim Paffenroth.

Posted on Monday, December 17, 2007 at 08:27AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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