I'm a big fan of these small press anthologies. As genre fiction consolidates itself under a dozen-or-so editors, the literature of ideas shrinks in ambition and vision. This isn't meant to slight those dozen, just a recognition that we all like what we like, and unconscious prejudices affect our decisions every day. Consciously or no, editors will buy what they like and reject what they do not.
What this means, though, is that most of the interesting work being done is being done by the small presses (h/t Paolo Bacigalupi). Oh sure, often they collapse under the weight of their own conceits, but at least they're willing to fail in new and interesting ways. As someone who's read this stuff for over 40 years, there's nothing worse than being disappointed *and* bored.
Lucky for us, The Zombie Feed manages to approach one of my least-favorite monsters (zombies) in some amazing ways. It's a sub-imprint of Apex Publications, and the Sizemore/Valente axis hasn't failed me yet when it comes to assembling dynamite collections. The following are my own thumbnail impressions of each story, but don't take my word for it - read them for yourself!
"Not Dead" by BJ Burrow - We lead off with a problem every sociopath has confronted at one point or another: how to cope with rich relatives who just won't die. Except they do die, sort of. The nods to Catholicism, and Jesus (the original zombie, so long as you're not taken in by that Orpheus nonsense) are clever, and the premise my favorite sort - the one that keeps you thinking. Is there a single custom or structure in our society that, at its core, doesn't depend on death?
"Tomorrow's Precious Lambs" by Monica Valentinelli - Here is what I mean when I say that the small presses are where authors take risks. Valentinelli chooses here to use the lyrics of a Christian hymn as the scaffolding on which she builds her story. She then employs a first-person present voice, one of the more difficult for authors to use without destroying the separation between them and their characters. There are so many ways this can go wrong, where the lyrics become either distracting or prove superfluous, and the narration overly-clinical or inconsistent, but this story is an experiment that succeeds wonderfully. The story is a natural progression of concise propositions, bits of dialogue and exposition doled out economically for maximum impact, with hints as to the shape of a larger world we've only briefly glimpsed. An excellent, original foray into a world of necromancers and zombie children.
"Cold Comfort" by Nathaniel Tapley - I'd call you a liar if you told me that a story about a morgue attendant talking with a severed head would be so damned *funny*. There's no real reason for it to be funny - this story takes place in a setting of pervasive Russian paranoia, and the main character's seeming ineptitude contrasted with the head's worldly wisdom should be a prelude to disaster. But between discussions over whether a funeral should proceed with head on or off ("off is much better," they decide), the betrayals and counter-betrayals, and the mordant humor of the reverse-Amontillado ending (you'll have to read it to understand what I mean by that), this was a pure joy from start to finish.
"This Final December Day" by Lee Thompson - The conceit of this story is a fairly standard apocalyptic trope, but you can tell the main character is kind of a bastard because he curses and can use a gun. Actually, this was the first problem I had with the story. We're meant to understand that this guy has screwed up his life and relationship in some pretty fundamental ways, and now at the end of the world is trying to fix it. But the person he is now exhibits none of the qualities we'd expect of the sort of person who's damaged enough to drive away the love of his life. At his worst, he's a grizzled loner with a heart-of-gold. I see what the author is driving towards, particularly when it comes to letting things go, but the purple prose undermines his intent, and the frequent recourse to 'concrete-is-abstract' metaphor is a genre affectation that died with A. Merritt. Let it stay dead.
"Broken Bough" by Daniel I. Russell - Placing this piece after "December" is an interesting choice, as it exhibits some of the same technical worries as the Thompson piece. In "Bough," however, Russell has complete control over his auctorial voice. The sly nods to Gothic imagery aren't mere window dressing, but integral to both what the story does and, more importantly, what it means. It's only when the author lets go of his intuitive grasp of the power of his symbols and resorts to his Fenimore Cooper thesaurus (stubble "abasing" the palms?) that the story slips, and even this is quickly forgotten. A great many writers understand how stories are written - Russell, whether he's aware of it or not, understands how stories *work*.
"The Sickness Unto Death" by Brandon Alspaugh - As a girl whose read her Kierkegaard, I expect any story that's going to borrow one of his titles to earn it. It actually turned out to be one of my favorites, and probably the most technically impressive story in the collection. At first I was confused as to why the story of an American soldier-zombie was interrupted by stories of Russian monk zombies and Confederate slave zombies. I didn't understand why the author chose to cram them all together until I realized that he wasn't telling half-a-dozen stories at the same time, but telling the same story in half-a-dozen different ways, all of which center around the theme of despair. There's some really gorgeous writing here, particularly in the African folktale - in fact, I'd say that the 'main' story is the weakest, but it redeems itself with its ending... *brrr*. With four simple words, the author chills you to the bone with an entirely new kind of zombie.
"A Shepherd of the Valley" by Maggie Slater - Shepherd is probably the most fully realized character in this anthology, and the story serves him well. Slater uses her auxiliary characters as they should be used, to engage some part of Shepherd that would otherwise be unknown, as when he sees his daughter in the young refugee. The story is fast, intriguing, genuinely touching, and doesn't waste time trying to coddle anyone's need for a happy ending. Most impressively, it accomplishes these things despite the fact that very little actually *happens*, in the sense of physical confrontations or epic showdowns. Slater has managed to tell a tightly-plotted story in a confined space, in which 4/5 of her characters are mindless monsters, and done so without a single grim quip or axe to the back of the head. Bravo.
"Twenty-Three Second Anomaly" by Ray Wallace - This is a piece of flash fiction, and there's not much to it other than the grim, joyless work of running lab rats through their paces, save that these are lab zombies. Normally stories like these leave me with nothing but questions, but the story has realized its goal in the first hundred words - the rest is just epilogue.
"The Last Generation" by Joe Nazare - The problem of how to realize an original world in a short story is endemic to the form. Most writers have elided this difficulty by relying on certain shorthand cues and stock scenery, by necessity. Genre fiction is particularly lucky to have such a rich storehouse of tropes and backgrounds to pull from. Nazare here tries to create a new world for his 'revivs', but he unfortunately chooses the least interesting way of doing so - the first-person infodump-via-narration. The story isn't so much a sequence of dramatic events in a compelling landscape as it is a guy dramatically telling you about events while describing the compelling landscape. Which is a shame, because I *like* the world Navare has created, and he juggles his half-dozen characters with some definite skill and clear attention to detail. Unfortunately, the way this story is told sucks all the wind out of its sails.
"Bitten" by Eugene Thompson - This is a well-executed revenge plot, with some great zombie extras. I love how Thompson uses the image of zombies at the edges of his real story, as when they are chewing on characters he's grown bored of, or pounding on the doors and windows. Given how cheap they are, the lack of zombie background characters in zombie fiction is always disappointing. The slow creep of bloodlust into Rom's consciousness is well-done, and the final scene is genuinely surprising and emotionally satisfying. Plus it reminds me of the series finale of 'The Sopranos', which can only be a good thing.
"Lifeboat" by Simon McCaffery - A solid little tale concerning an outbreak of nanomachine-induced zombieism, leavened with some excellent depictions of varying perspectives about the end of the world. The author has chosen to place this story on a boat, in order to make the world small enough for us to appreciate its end, and this is exactly the right approach. In fact, these are the sort of tales I enjoy because they appear so workmanlike on the surface, but the technical skill necessary to build the scaffolding on which the story rests is there for those who assess it critically. Not a character or setting goes to waste, and the story resolves itself in a manner both surprising and inevitable.
"Rabid Raccoons" by Kristen Dearborn - I've never read anything by Dearborn before, but the level of craft she brings to her work is head-and-shoulders above most new writers. She sketches interesting characters and writes them into horrific supernatural confrontations that are vividly depicted and genuinely compelling. I also appreciate - and this is a personal preference - that she never wastes time 'explaining' her monsters. Once you've read enough nonsense about retroviruses and demonic possessions and all the rest, you're happy that someone's willing to say "Look, it's *all* crap. None of it's actually scientifically plausible. Just enjoy the damn story." If I have a complaint about this piece, and it's a minor one, it's that the characters never feel terribly integrated with the plot. Dearborn's created two good characters, and a compelling horrific threat, but there's nothing special about the characters that really informs the plot. Kelly's losing interest in school, and she's rounding second base with her boyfriend, but I don't know why that gets her eaten by her former friend's rabid raccoons, unless that's just what teenage girls do these days when they have a falling-out. Maybe the rabies is a metaphor for teenage angst, and the raccoons are a metaphor for, um, boys struggling with your bra clasp... never mind. I enjoyed this story, but the disengagement between characters and plot leans dangerously toward making it 'just a bunch of stuff that happened.'
"Zombies on the Moon" by Andrew Clark Porter - Another experimental tale, and one which succeeds on the strength of its writing and its skillful deployment of powerful imagery. Like the Alspaugh tale, this story is told in a non-linear narrative, which will annoy lazy readers, but the effect is such that it magnifies the emotional impact of each section a hundred-fold. For those who don't recognize it, Porter's story utilizes essentially the same structure as Isaac Asimov's 'Nightfall', with a steady escalation of intensity undergirded by a unifying theme: for Asimov it was the coming darkness, for Porter the haunted moon. Porter's use of still-frame horrors, of water freezing in space, of the moon now hanging over the earth like a threatening predator, is haunting. Of course the science in this piece is complete nonsense, and half the characters little more than funny hats, but these are the concessions necessary to succeed in pulling this sort of story off, which Porter does brilliantly.
"The Fare" by Lucien Soulban - Told in the efficient prose of a hard-boiled detective novel, Soulban has worked out the basic mechanics of his post-apocalyptic world, but doesn't seem to have thought through the implications, so the tale becomes largely one of personal redemption for the main character. There's nothing inherently wrong with this sort of story, and Soulban is clearly aware of what he's trying to accomplish. Where it would have benefited, since the majority of the drama takes place within the main character, would have been to integrate the external world into his internal struggle, to use one to either mirror the other or set it in contrast, so that the zombies become more than 'some stuff that happened' on his way to see his ex-lover. The cab driver is a gnomic cipher, a stock character of this sort of fiction, and essentially a plot device; my main quibble is with his broken English, which is inconsistently broken (a man who drops his definite articles in his first six sentences does not suddenly remember them in his seventh). But this is a personal foible, as on the whole the author's writing is perfectly competent.
"What's Next" by Elaine Bose - I love this sort of story, where the author piles their wryly-described complications atop one another until their world is a beautiful, chaotic mess of pure insanity. Bose is clearly enjoying herself here, and the piece feels much like a free-association piece that was cleaned up in post-production, with aliens leading to zombies leading to vampires and werewolves (who, it turns out, get along famously, no matter what Stephenie Meyer or Kate Beckinsale might have you believe). Technically the story is quite simple, and the only area it bogs down is around three-fifths of the way in, where the author temporarily slows down because she's worried that she's making no sense, but she quickly abandons this pedestrian concern. Her final image of the empty, silent woods is the perfect note to leave on. I look forward to reading more from Ms. Bose, as she clearly has a rich wellspring of fevered imagination to draw upon.
"Goddamn Electric" by K. Allen Wood - Another favorite, if for no other reason than that this is one of the best-written pieces in the anthology. Phrases like "sounds meant for nightmares" are unfamiliar yet compelling constructs, forcing the mind to imagine a scene unlike any it's ever attempted before. Wood has also attempted to make the zombie story his own by postulating a meteorological/electrical cause for the problem, though the action unfolds as expected from that point, with enough shotgun blasts to the head and torso to reassure any zombie aficionado that they remain on safe ground. It's nice to see an author take the extra effort to make a well-worn genre trope their own, and Wood's story is distinctly his - you'll not mistake its prose for anyone else's.
"Hipsters in Love" by Danger_Slater - The editor has chosen this story to go out on, and in one sense it's easy to see why. If "What's Next" was a beautiful mess, "Hipsters" is the aftermath of an explosion in a gonzo warehouse, with tattered pieces of character and plot scattered in every direction. We never learn the precise ages of our characters, but they all read as emotionally-stunted fifteen-year-olds, little assemblies of hipster affectations rather than real people. This can be distracting when they make completely nonsensical comments in order to underline that, yes, this story is being ironically told through the author's nose, mostly for laughs, occasionally for pathos. The violence is depicted with the flat, empty reality of a video game, and the main character reacts to the deaths of his only friends in the world with the detached ennui of a teenager who has just realized his cell phone clashes with his iPad. An enjoyable-if-shallow tale about vapid and disposable people, but I suspect that was exactly what the author intended.
So as I said, this anthology is, on the whole, well worth your time. All of these stories may not be Stoker finalists, but each has the distinct virtue of trying. The fact that some might not have been executed perfectly does not detract from the fact that each was well worth the attempt, and I think the field learns more from even its failed experiments than its mediocre rehashes (looking at you, World War Z.) The above is solely my opinion - your mileage will vary. Actually, I'd bet it's impossible that anyone agrees with me on every single point. This book is so original, so deeply strange, that no two people will read its stories in the same way.