Wednesday, January 19, 2011

THE NEW DEAD, a review

Just before Christmas I picked out a huge stack of fiction that I wanted to have as a gift for the holiday. One of the dozen or so books was this one, THE NEW DEAD. It's a horror anthology edited by Christopher Golden. Generally, I enjoy genre anthologies, but I'm very critical of them. I expect the stories to entertain me and to contain real quality. Often, I'm disappointed.

My own expectations are that 75% of the contents consist of excellent work. One of my old writing acquaintance I parted company with some time ago feels that if you get two good stories out of an anthology then you should be happy with the purchase. Well, I disagree with that, but I often find that many anthologies are filled with crap. One reason for this is that a lot of anthologies are sold on the basis of the names of the authors contained within the covers and not the quality of the fiction that was purchased for publication. This is a sad fact. A lot of professional writers work to build a name for themselves and then go on autopilot, churning out substandard work. In many cases a name author will get a request for a submission and the editor will accept the story, no matter how awful it might be.

So I've gotten to the point where I often expect to actively dislike about half of the contents of any given genre anthology.

What a happy surprise THE NEW DEAD was for me.

I'm sure Mr. Golden took some of these stories based solely on the author's name, but those particular folk did seem to produce good stories for this book.

One story in here that made me laugh after I'd finished it was "Shooting Pool" by Joe Lansdale. I had to laugh not because the story was funny (he can write humor, but this stark tale was definitely not funny), but because it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of this anthology: zombies. Moments after I finished the last line of Lansdale's excellent yarn I was chuckling. And the laughter came because who but a few writers have the reputation and the eggs to deliver a story to a zombie anthology that has absolutely nothing to do with zombies. "Shooting Pool" is classic Lansdale, and I loved every word of it--but it's not a zombie tale. (But I'm not complaining. I'd still buy the anthology just to add it to my Lansdale collection.)

Now, the best thing about this collection is that so many of the stories are top quality. Even though I'd gotten Carole to buy it for me, I did have a bit of fear that the anthology might be disappointing. There have been a few zombie-themed collections that were top-notch, and I was wondering how much new and fresh could be added to or said about this sub-genre of horror fiction. I need not have feared, because the writers that Golden assembled for this book really seemed to dig very deep indeed to deliver some kickass work.

When I was trying to decide what the absolute best story was, I found that it was really tough to decide. It was so tough that I decided not to decide on the very best one, but whittle it down to the best two stories. And sticking to that theme, I'll list the best by the author's last names in alphabetic order.

"Kids and Their Toys" by James A. Moore was the kind of story that is so well executed that one cringes. It basically features a group of southern kids who chance upon a newly risen zombie and who decide to trap it and keep it in a kind of clubhouse. Moore writes convincingly of the ways of male children and of the southern setting in which they move. I found nothing at all false or contrived in the way the kids acted or spoke and found myself able to believe that something like this could--and probably would--happen in a world where Romero-esque zombie walked the Earth. It's just a fantastic story.

Then David Wellington delivered "Weaponized". This story features some very upsetting zombies which are really not much like the ones we're accustomed to seeing in the movies or reading about in the proliferation of new novels and anthologies. This story is centered on zombies as military weapons. The story is told from the point of view of a female journalist embedded with US forces in some fictionalized Arab nation in which our soldiers are engaged. The place is not Afghanistan, but might as well be. I found myself again believing the situation and amazed at the polish of Wellington's fiction. Also, I'm getting the distinct impression that the author, who has made his name writing about zombies, werewolves, and vampires should take a serious stab at science fiction. He really has developed the chops to write a seriously good sf novel.

Another great turn at pure style was Stephen Bissette's "Copper". He shows here that he's as good a writer as the horror genre has to offer these days. This tale features one familiar trope of soldiers-as-zombies, but attempts to paint the photo of soldiers as victims. While I'm not so sure that I agree with the sympathies of this story, I was blown away by the singular style that Bissette wields here like a scalpel. He cuts deep and makes you bleed emotions. I hope like Hell to read more prose from Steve Bissette.

A couple of the stories explored themes that were just a bit too similar in nature to suit and this is a situation when the editor should likely have accepted the first one to come across his desk and asked the subsequent author to supply another tale. However, when dealing with writers who have reached a certain spot in their careers, I know that this is sometimes difficult if not totally impossible. These particular yarns dealt with the theme of "closure" (a term I don't like) and what's to be done with the resurrected loved ones once they come back to flesh-eating unlife.

And, sadly, a couple of the established pros decided to phone in their contributions, knowing of course that their so-called "name brand" would guarantee a place in the anthology. I won't mention these, not even the one who so enjoys mentioning his own "name brand" whenever he crows about himself.

Fortunately, these few lousy tales are far outweighed by exceedingly high quality work from the likes of Rick Hautala ("Ghost Trap"), Tim Lebbon's "In the Dust", and "Second Wind" from Mike Carey.

I have to say that I was impressed with Christopher Golden's choices of authors (mainly) and stories. This anthology hit the ball out of the park and is far more pleasing than I had any reason to expect.


dogboy443 said...

I also read this anthology. We got to see Steve, Chris and Rick H at a signing. I liked most of the stories. There were a few that were OK. I had a hard time with the style of one of the stories and it distracted me from the actual story. All in all, a good anthology.

James Robert Smith said...

I mainly enjoyed it. There were a couple of turds in there, for sure.