Book Review: 21st Century Dead
Review by Shawna Galvin
Before you even read 21st Century Dead: A Zombie Anthology, edited by Christopher Golden, there is no surprise that the anthology is about zombies. After all, the title says it all. This is also, by the way, a brilliant follow up from Golden’s first zombie anthology, The New Dead. If you like this genre, and you want to read all-new-never-before-published zombie short stories that speak to our current times, then this is for you.
Golden’s opening introduces you to this collection of new stories before letting you free in the labyrinth of new zombie lore, and he ends his opening by writing, “Now, read on. You’ll thank me later.”
21st Century Dead is jam-packed with nineteen stories that explore everything from zombie daycare, apocalyptic wars, brainwashing, evil spirits, and much more. The stories thrust you the present time, and through them, we question our existence in this world: a lot of what ifs? Current times are key in this book, given the title, although, even years from now, these stories will live on. The stories in this collection are not only entertaining, but if you’re a deep thinker, you get the added bonus of them making you think, reflect, and even relate to certain life situations. And of course there is gore. For god’s sake, it’s a zombie anthology. There are bite wounds, yucky torn flesh, blood, rot, and the like, but how well a writer makes that gore readable, well, that’s up to you to decide. All in all, it’s all about personal preference right? Like I said, it’s not like you don’t know what you’re in for when you first get this book.
You get variety. There’s no shortage of stories or range here: zombie pulp, literary zombie, zombie wars, zombie romance, and pretty much zombie everything. In these stories, zombies are referred to as: walking dead, reanimated, animated, re-purposed, and I’ve left out a few more, you can discover on your own. The zombies are portrayed in different ways throughout 21st Century Dead.
Zombies, to me, are not just a trend. Zombie legends can be traced back to West Africa and Haiti with the use of Black Magic or Voodoo (you can Google this). I became interested in this when I watched a series about it on PBS. Anyway, if you are interested in the history of monsters as well, like I am, then you can simply research zombies if you haven’t already. Stories about zombies and zombie myths are traced back in history as far as Egypt, Biblical times, and more.
Back to the anthology, like most stories involving pop culture, there is a bit of cliché here and there but really, what is cliché anyway? Hasn’t just about every plot or theme been written about before? It’s up to the writer to give the subject a different and new life (no pun intended).
S.G. Browne’s, Reality Bites is clever and seamless. The story keeps moving as it explores the human condition, the terror of reality shows (they scare me anyway), the mystery of life, and the evil that humans are capable of. This and other stories in 21st Century Dead tend to explore themes that may recur in the anthology, however, through different scenarios and characters, we have very different stories. For instance, Orson Scott Card’s, Carousel, shows some recurring themes in this book including: family, survival, redemption, the mystery of life, and what is beyond, yet these are portrayed in many different ways in each story. Other subjects such as: revenge, relationships, family, friends, love, brainwashing, drug addiction, illnesses, and inner-conflict are also prevalent in this zombie anthology.
My only complaint, although, it may actually be a compliment is that Amber Benson’s, Antiparallelogram needs to be a novel. It is a speculative fiction style story, set in a dystopian world. I kept thinking about Margaret Atwood’s, Year of the Flood when reading Antiparallelogram. Of course, it’s a very different story, but it had a similar atmospheric feel to it, and I can almost see it happening. I need to know the main character more, and need more overall! A haunting tale here in more ways than you can imagine. Just read it.
Then there’s Caitlin Kittredge’s Devil Dust, which is a little like reading the Breaking Bad of zombies—in a good way. In this story, we even get a bit of the Haitian made zombie. I’m super happy to see that Voodoo (although in a subtle manner) was not entirely left out of this collection.
One of the longest stories in the book is Thomas E. Sniegoski’s, Ghost Dog & Pup. It involves a lot of description. Also, the story is told in the perspective of a dog, Murphy, who communicates with a pup named, Jack. This was the only zombie story in this collection that had a young adult feel to it, and I can picture this story being published in the YA market.
I can’t ignore Kurt Sutter’s Tic Boom. It blew me away. Again, this story explores a fresh take on survival, loyalty, and redemption in this apocalyptic setting. Also, the main character’s certain trait (I won’t be a spoiler), really made this story fly. Tic Boom was short, gave just enough information, flowed well, and was a well-rounded amazing zombie story.
Jack and Jill by Jonathan Mayberry is by far my favorite. I read this story on the edge of my seat. For real. Jack and Jill is another one of the longer stories, but a roller coaster ride of a read. This was not at all what I thought it was going to be about. The characters are believable and easy to relate to. You feel like you could know them. Everything in this story fits like clockwork: the pace, tone, plot, setting, tension, dialogue, symbolism and more. The elements of the story are threaded together, like a fine tapestry. There are superb lines and lyrical moments, that kind of entrance you when reading, and sometimes you forget you are in the middle of a horrific scenario, and then, Whammo! you’re thrown back into the terror of the moment.
There’s a generous mix of zombie stories of in 21st Century Zombies, and something for every zombie enthusiast. It’s like picking up an album or CD by one of your favorite bands (or downloading music—however you buy music these days); some songs will stick to you more than others. That said, some of the stories didn’t gel with me, and were a bit frustrating to read. In a few stories, the terminology was not incorporated easily for a general zombie readership. In a couple other stories, for me, the plot was disjointed and hard to follow, the characters were way undeveloped; or there were unanswered questions that needed to be answered in order the story to flow and make sense. Again, this is just my opinion, and that doesn’t mean I wasted my time, I went along for the entire ride. For the most part, I enjoyed all of the stories—some more than others—and I learned something from each one.
21st Century Zombies is a complete compilation of stories with a common thread winding and weaving throughout the book. In the end, the stories are pieced together as a fulfilling anthology, with stories by numerous authors exploring the same thing: zombies in this generation.
While the stories in 21st Century Zombies are entertaining, they are also a way to help make sense of the madness in the world. We are bombarded by awful stuff in the news constantly (if you watch or read the news that is): people pumped up on bath salts or whatever doing horrific things, chemical weapons used to harm others, terrorism, genocide, natural disasters, reality shows, celebrity gossip, and the spin some journalists put on the stories, and so much more. No wonder we want to escape into fictional realms, even worlds filled with zombies.
In the present day, 21st Century Zombies reminds us that whether you’re a zombie or not, we still have a will to survive, the will to want to live, and the need to live. Nice work Mr. Golden, for carefully selecting the stories for this book. You know what you’re doing.