Zombos Says: Good
It strikes me rather funny that the zombie zeitgeist, whether embodied as motif, foil, philosophical popsicle, commercial breadbasket, or cultural handkerchief, can be played either bloody raw or quietly contrite or humorously to deadpan highbrow. Zombies give you more bang for the grue-buck than any other bete noire in the fictional monster canon.
Editor Christopher Golden assembles an ensemble of despairing stories that play down the zombies and play up the troubled living coping (or not) with the undead's immediate threat or the longer term wreckage of the social order; not much gore or frenzied fighting and dying goes on within these pages, except for a few stories, because Golden is more concerned with the bummed out living's thoughts and feelings in an absurd world that makes daily life a make or break proposition.
Jonathan Maberry's Jack and Jillneatly measures action with emotional depth as his young people, Jack and Jill, are engulfed by the inner turmoil of Jack's cancer, the flooding from a torrential downpour, and their neighbors turning into chompers. It's one big slide atop a "black wave" and Maberry manages his words' rhythm in tandem with the situation's escalation of the distress and hysteria accompanying Jack and Jill's confusion, desperation, and ultimate surrender to the inevitable. Blood is spilled, guns are fired, and people die, but our attention is focused more on how Jack and Jill will survive than how they are going to die. Jack and Jill is one of the longer stories in this anthology yet it moves quickly and provides a familiar environment to become uncomfortable in.
Antiparallelogram by Amber Benson provides a less familiar landscape and a more cerebral storyline, although one that is still charged with emotional depth. Her obfuscatory style melds a future society, leveled into the have, the have-nots, and zombies to cope with, which is probably why designer drugs are used to palliate the social discrepancies and expected disruptions. Told in the first person, can we trust the narrator? Even the narrator's gender is not fully made clear, although a wife is mentioned; actually an undead person who is or isn't, but still familiar enough to burn memories. More vexing is Benson's anti-climax that leaves us with a beginning to the story instead of an ending, making Antiparallelogram feel like it was taken from the middle of a novel length idea, but here's the short story instead.
There is one humorous story, Reality Bites, from S. G. Browne. While the anthology is heaped to the brim with gloom and doom, Browne explores the advantages of reality television when zombies--non-carnivorous ones!--become the plentiful and amply moribund contestants in a host of shows. The downside is this reality doesn't bite enough: those befuddled zombies just rot and plop and pucker, making all those shows a repository for doldrums. Imagine how great it would be to have one zombie who, through stringent use of cologne and deodorant--and the occasional consumption of human flesh--remains looking like a living and breathing person. And he can even think, too! While Browne doesn't pull out all the social props to make his story as bitingly satirical as it could probably be, he does mine enough humor from the possibilities, making his story a welcome relief tucked in-between all the other 21st century dead's moroseness.
The Dead of Dromore stands out as the oddity and perhaps most experimental of the ensemble. Paragraphs trickle down the page in snips of words, in such a way I wondered if Ken Bruen was attempting some complex poetic structure or tonal haiku. One ex-marine with no scruples and four apprentices with even less scramble around "infecteds." Dromore may be overun, but the worst of it doesn't come from the infecteds. The pace is quick, the verbiage brief, and the tense motions between rescue and escape fail to achieve our involvement. Characters remain unchanged (except for that anticipated shift from living to undead inherent in zombie stories, of course), and events unfold in expected ways: you've read all this before, just not presented in this way.
More stories reside in 21st Century Dead: zombies with brain chips to control them for domestic service; families coping with zombie relatives; computer games wiring into human terminals; soldiers wired by parasitic mechanoids; and still more. Many of the stories seem unfinished, or perhaps a better way to put is they read like smaller parts taken from a larger whole, bringing us into the middle, or the end, or somewhere else within their stories, leaving you with a sweet tooth for more closure. Then again, with zombies, there is never any real closure, is there?