Skipp's tastes and skills as an editor have evolved considerably since his Book of the Dead collaboration days with Spector. That seminal collection and its sequel Still Dead are highly prized collectibles viewed as being the foundations of modern zombie lit. (Those who have read stuff from Permuted Press' den of hacks understand what a mixed legacy this is...) The tendency towards mindlessly excessive sensationalism and lack of meaning in modern zombie fiction also can be seen in the first two Skipp & Spector books, so as anthologies they were both awesome and also a bit tiresome.
The years since these initial releases have not been kind to those zombie fans who value both literary quality and horror. Basically we have Brooks' World War Z and arguably David Wellington. Besides these two, we have mounds and mounds of shoot-em-up rip their guts out stuff that is part of the bipolar nature of the horror section at Borders. We have lame romantically idealized vampire / demon bodice rippers meant to appeal to goth chicks cutting junior hs classes, and at the other extreme there's zombiepocalypse end o the world entrail munching stuff meant to appeal to the nerdy guys reading Fangoria and Guns N Ammo in the back of study hall. It was pretty interesting to see a new Skipp anthology out; would he continue to wallow in nihilistic gore or would he seek a new path?
I am happy to say this new collection is balanced and entertaining, and shows a lot of talent without being much gentler or kinder. There is a two section divide, "classic" zombie tales with usually single cases of reanimated corpses like the old fashioned pre-Romero stuff, and then the more modern zombie plague stuff. To be precise, we have 12 "classics" and 20 "Romero" style tales.
The classics are what gives this anthology its dose of literary merit - the truly spooky and subversive "Lazarus" by Andreyev leads things off, and then we have some classic old school pieces by Sturgeon and Bloch, along with a witty tale by Saunders. The excerpt from King's "Pet Sematery" is going to be a tad confusing for those unfamiliar with the concept of that novel, but it still works as a stand-alone and is much better than the mediocre and over-anthologized "Home Delivery" tale also by King.
The Romero section also has a few surprises. Those of you who don't own "Book of the Dead" will be reasonably pleased to find that 9 out of the original 16 tales in that book are found herein. The good news is that they are probably the best portion of that original book (with the exception of the excluded Bryant "Diner of the Damned" piece which I loved.) The bad news of course is that if you do own that volume, you are now informed that you already own 9 out of the 34 stories in this book. There are 4 pieces from "Still Dead" in here also, so if you own both of the original S&S anthologies, you may want to think twice about picking this one up.
We also have a few pieces from the more recent "Mondo Zombie" anthology that 20 people in America bought, not including myself so I was happy to see these, except maybe for the somewhat annoying "Sparks Fly Upward" abortion rights piece that adds a tinge of odd political sensibility to a genre that IMO should not see any stump speeches except when someone gets a limb gnawed off...
Speaking of politics, I am thrilled to report that there are no "zombie political action campaign" (ZPAC) pieces here as were seen in Adams' uneven "Living Dead" anthology. That volume had zombies rising to vote for an anti-Second Amendment politician, zombies rising because of racist violence, zombies rising to protest hate-mongering in the War on Terror, zombies rising to protest anti-environmental corporate behavior, zombies rising to protest lack of affordable day care for the poor and middle class...well, only kidding on that last one. Blech. Thankfully we also have zombies in all of the Skipp stories, unlike three pieces in the Adams collection which, well, had no zombies in them. The absence of civics lessons and the presence of the subjects of the anthology's title in all of its stories is reassuring, at least in comparison with the other big collection of recent years.
How about overall story quality? Actually, surprisingly enough, I was very impressed. The Adams book though it had its flaws was a good read because of the high editorial standards exercised, and I was thinking Skipp was going to be more tolerant in letting kind of pulpy stuff in, but his collection though occasionally nasty, is of uniformly high quality. You may not like all of the stories, but they are not as deriviative and simplistic as some of the original Book of the Dead tales were, and they are head and shoulders above the various low budget zombie fic anthologies being cranked out by RPG companies and vanity presses.
Some of the pieces herein are elegant even in mainstream literary terms - the Bradbury piece, the Saunders one (which is pretty funny as well) and even the neat aqua-zombie story by Steve Duffy. Skipp also wins praise for his thoughtful and enthusiastic notes for each story. The "media and historical reference" section in the back of the book is both incomplete and kind of meandering so view this as a reading book not a reference one.
The only real problem with this anthology is that if you have been following the field of zombie anthologies diligently, you will already have read most of these stories. By my count, of the 32 stories here, a person owning Book of the Dead, Still Dead, and Adams' The Living Dead will have read 16 stories herein, i.e. ½ of the volume. If you don't own these earlier collections, or maybe if you just own the recent Adams one, this collection is a good buy.
Table of Contents (oddly not given by the publisher either on Amazon or on their own website)
"Old School Zombies" voodoo, usually single corpse events, supernatural causes
Lazarus by Leonid Andreyev
Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields by William Seabrook
The Return of Timmy Baterman (from Pet Sematery) by Stephen King
The Emissary by Ray Bradbury
A Case of the Stubborns by Robert Bloch
It by Theodore Sturgeon
Lie Still Sleep Becalmed by Steve Duffy
Bitter Grounds by Neal Gaiman
Sea Oak by George Saunders
The Late Shift by Dennis Etchison
A Zombie's Lament by S.G. Brown
Best Served Cold by Justine Musk
"Romero Zombies" plagues en masse, intestines, bullets in the head, etc.like the modern era films, etc
The Dead Gather on the Bridge to Seattle by Adam Golaski
The Quarantine Act by Mehitobel Wilson
The Good Parts by Les Daniels
Bodies and Heads by Steve Rasnic Tem
On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks by Joe Lansdale
Like Pavlov's Dogs by Steven Boyett
Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy by David Schow
Eat Me by Robert McCammon
The Visitor by Jack Ketchum
The Prince of Nox by Kathe Koja
Call Me Doctor by Eric Shapiro
The Great Wall by Max Brooks
Calcutta Lord of Nerves by Poppy Z. Brite
God Save the Queen by John Skipp and Marc Levinthal
We Will Rebuild by Cody Goodfellow
Sparks Fly Upward by Lisa Morton
Lemon Knives N Cockroaches by Carlton Mellick III
Zaambi by Terry and Christopher Morgan
The Zombies of Madison County by Douglas Winter
Dead Like Me by Adam Troy-Castro