“They sat like people asleep with their eyes open, staring, but seeing nothing.” A Tea Party rally? No, no: A clutch of zombies, the stars of Penzler’s (The Vampire Archives, 2009, etc.) latest mega-anthology.
Zombies are the latest big thing, of course, at least in filmdom. But whereas the zombies of the movies now move quickly, eat all body parts indiscriminately and explode very nicely, the zombies of literature (pulp, mostly) are a slower and ever so slightly more stately bunch of ghouls. Consider Penzler’s starting point, a story from 1929 called “Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields,” in which you’d have to look very hard to see that those unseeing, eyes-wide-open folks were truly the walking undead and not, in fact, merely suffering from a bad hangover after one too many mojitos. Many of Penzler’s selections are variations on a very limited theme: A traveler to some torrid country down Caribbean way finds, to his or her horror, that the locals are creepy-crawly types, “grayed to the hue of putrescent bone,” as writes one Arthur Leo Zagat—whether a forerunner of the restaurant guides, alas, we do not know, though the author of that starting-point tale did, Penzler delights in telling us, indulge in cannibalism. Some of Penzler’s choices are arguable: Sure, Guy De Maupassant’s story “Was It a Dream?” sports a mention of a poor schmo walking “with extended arms, knocking against the tombs,” but it’s a stretch, probably, to include it in the canon of zombie lit. Inarguably zombielicious, though, are Karen Haber’s latter-day tale “Red Angels,” with its sly good humor (“The best artist in Haiti is some sort of undead thing that just drools and paints”), Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg’s very strange short story “The Song the Zombie Sang,” and H.P. Lovecraft’s spooky (natch) confection “Herbert West—Reanimator.” On the down side, Penzler does not satisfactorily explain his criteria for inclusion, and there are a couple of iffy picks, including the endless “Z is for Zombie”; his introduction is glancing, and some fine recent tales (notably Max Brooks’ World War Z) go unnoticed.
One wishes for a slightly—ahem—tastier and less flabby gathering. But if zombies are your cup of meat, this is just the thing.