Friday, December 23, 2011

The Dead That Walk (2009)

     The Dead that Walk (2009) is – in theory – a collection of zombie stories.  Not being any kind of authority on horror fiction, I can't say that I really went in with the right expectations.  Some of the writers aren't bound to the Romero template for the walking dead, and one (Joe Hill, Stephen King's son) goes so far as to have his zombies as the extras in Dawn of the Dead (1978).  However, it seems that many of the authors decided that a familiarity with the zombie outbreak meant not having to address it themselves.  That proved to be much more problematic that I would have expected.
     Somewhat surprisingly, this was the first time I read several of the better known authors.  I had never read anything by Richard Matheson, Joe R. Lansdale, Clive Barker, and Harlan Ellison®, but had seen material from each developed into feature films.  I hadn't read any Stephen King since Night Shift (1978) and Skeleton Crew (1985) were passed around at Boy Scouts camping trips; I do think I read over half of each as a means of killing time.  Similarly, I had not read any Robert E. Howard since 1990, and that was just the first two Conan stories.  I ended up reading this book because I was curious how Stephen Woodworth would handle something outside his Violets series (discussed here).  Unfortunately, Woodworth's ambitious tale of Nixon coming back from the dead feels both rushed and without a proper set-up.  While not the worst piece in the collection, it certainly will never be considered a "classic" example of genre writing.

There is often a comical element to the walking dead.  Sometimes this can be used to break the tension.  It can also be used to highlight the absurdity of real world conceits.  In short fiction, it often falls flat unless the author commits to it.  This painting is actually for a different book (one whose title spoofs Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon), but it can fit just about any standard zombie tale set outside of the city.
     Some of the stories are so derivative that it is a wonder why there are written.  Is there really such a hunger for zombie fiction that just about any old story will do?  Maybe.  It certainly seems that there are more than a few zombie films that are made with the same thought.  Still, some authors make an attempt to bring something new to the genre.  Ellison® writes what is essentially a short bit suitable for The Twilight Zone (1959-64; 1985-89; 2002-03) or The Outer Limits (1963-65; 1995-2002) with "Sensible City", but it is all set-up and clever twist with no meat in the middle to make it worthwhile.  But there is no explanation as to why there are flesh-hungry monsters in that story, which doesn't work in so brief a format; there shouldn't be more questions from the reveal than the set-up.  Ellison® takes a rather light tone, and his comedy works better than Nancy Holder's in "Zombonia".  The latter feels like a very brief waste of time.
     Most of the stories take place well away from the lights and safety of civilization, bringing the classic feel of horror in the remoteness and lack of ability to appeal for help of any kind.  While I am sure that part of what led Romero to place Night of the Living Dead (1968) in a farmhouse was budgetary concerns, there has not been much in the way – that I have seen or read – depicting the zombie uprising in the heart of the city.  The urban tales in The Dead that Walk take place during the shooting of a zombie movie (Joe Hill's "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead") or in the strange, alien atmosphere of late Cold War Moscow under siege by the walking dead (Kim Newman's "Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue"). 
Harlan Ellison® makes mention of Max Ernst's The Nymph Echo (above) in his short story "Sensible City".  Definitely an attempt at something more meaningful than just picturing the ravenous, flesh-hungry zombies.  Unfortunately, Ellison's tale is all set-up and simple, expected twist.  Worse, the set-up doesn't seem to fit the ending.  And – maybe because I just don't get it – there doesn't seem to be a reason for the character who thinks of the painting to have a background in art appreciation.  That seemed to be more about Ellison noting that he was familiar with one of the less disturbing paintings Ernst produced.
     The best stories come from the mos celebrated authors, Stephen King and Robert E. Howard.  Neither feels confined by trappings of the zombie genre – King because he finds it too limiting and with little extra to convey, and Howard because he was dead well before the tropes were established.  King's "Home Delivery" fits in with his little New England universe, and it is so grounded in the human foibles of the central character – characteristics that have nothing to do with a zombie apocalypse – that it could be compelling enough to read as a story devoid of any zombies, aliens, or gratuitous gun play.  Howard, on the other hand, turns the dark swamps of Arkansas into a wild and magical place as anything he penned set in the Hyborian Age.  Editor Stephen Jones gives a warning about the language used (I guess it should be offensive to the modern reader, but it is set in a post Civil War South where people still remember 1845...the language should fit the setting), but for the most part Howard is interested in the compulsions – internal and external – that move the protagonist forward.
     Given how much literature and (arguably) quality non-fiction I have stacked up waiting to be read, it may have been a little irresponsible of me to take a week to read the 24 short stories in The Dead that Walk.  Sure there were some I could have done without.  H.P. Lovecraft's "Cool Air" feels so antiquated that I found it chore to work my way through it (it also does feel like it is a copy of a much more famous story, regardless of where Lovecraft claims to have gained his inspiration).  Brian Keene's "Midnight at the Body Farm" seems to be missing connective sentences, making the extraordinarily short story disjointed in its flow.  Gary McMahon's "Dead to the World" lacks the sense of desperation and loss that would give it the tone the author is clearly trying to set, and it ends up feeling like a zombified take on Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) without any of the prose, pacing, or examination of humanity.  The worst in the book is Scott Edelman's "Tell Me Like You Done Before", it being an unfortunate appropriation of characters created by a much better author (in a story that is somewhat beloved).
     If I were really into zombies, I would probably consider picking up this book.  I'm sure dedicated fans wouldn't mind putting out $14.95 (or much less now).  For me, it allowed me to sample several different authors.  Though probably not the best material from any of them, it does explore the genre and the form of the short story.  I'd say it was worth reading, but I doubt I would actively encourage people to seek it out.

Complete List of Stories: (Recommended reading is highlighted)

▸    “Where There’s a Will” by Richard Matheson & Richard Christian Matheson (1980)
▸    “For the Good of All” by Yvonne Navarro (2009)
▸    “The Things He Said” by Michael Marshall Smith (2007)
▸     “The Last Resort” by Mark Samuels (2009)
▸    “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead” by Joe Hill (2005)
▸    “The Crossing of Aldo Ray” by Weston Ochse (2009)
▸    “Obsequy” by David J. Schow ((2006)
▸    “Zombonia” by Nancy Holder (2009)
▸    “Cool Air” by H.P. Lovecraft (1928)
▸    “Call First” by Ramsey Campbell (1975)
▸    “Joe and Abel in the Field of Rest” by Lisa Morton (2009)
▸    “Midnight at the Body Farm” by Brian Keene (2007)
▸    “Dead to the World” by Gary McMahon (2009)
▸    “The Long Dead Day” by Joe R. Lansdale (2007)
▸    “A Call to Temple” by Kelly Dunn (2009)
▸    “Haeckel’s Tale” by Clive Barker (2005)
▸    “The Rulebook” by Christopher Fowler (2009)
▸    “Black Canaan” by Robert E. Howard (1936)
▸    “The Silent Majority” by Stephen Woodworth (2009)
▸    “Sensible City” by Harlan Ellison® (1994)
▸    “Granny’s Grinning” by Robert Shearman (2009)
▸    “Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue or: Children of Marx and Coca Cola” by Kim Newman (1999)
▸    “Tell Me Like You Done Before” by Scott Edelman (2009)
▸    “Home Delivery” by Stephen King (1989)

No comments:

Post a Comment