I need to step away from zombies for a long time. That’s the ultimate compliment I can give to John Skipp’s massive collection of undead stories, Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead. It’s the most impressive compilation of zombie stories I’ve ever read—and I own a few—but 700 pages of nihilism as the world becomes a living necropolis have left me more than a little bummed. That’s a testament to the power of the stories here, as they’re all potent and well written. Which is also the book’s curse.
Skipp is best known for his collaboration with Craig Spector. The two wrote together and even produced the screenplay for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD. But fans of George Romero’s Dead saga know the two best for their compilation Book of the Dead, in which a number of high profile authors posited characters in Romero’s universe. With tales from Stephen King, Robert McCammon and Joe R. Lansdale among others (they’re all represented here), the book was a huge hit that’s sadly fallen out of print. I’ve never seen a copy in person, but Skipp’s name held enough sway the last time I was in a Borders Books store before the chain closed, that I picked up Hungry Dead.
I plunged into it and read a number of stories the first few days I had it. But man do the dead get depressing quickly. So much so that after I read a section reprinted from King’s novel Pet Sematary and a few others, I had to put it down for a while. Every so often the last eight months or so, I would pick it up and bang out a few more stories. And there are some great ones here. Leonid Andreyev’s “Lazarus” opens the tome; it’s a grim look at how life might have been better for the famed biblical character had Jesus never resurrected him. Neil Gaiman’s main character in “Bitter Grounds” steals a man’s identity for a college professors’ convention, to ill results. Adam Golaski’s “The Dead Gather on the Bridge to Seattle” offers a powerful tale of familial love, and just how far into despair a man will travel to save his sister. These are just a few of the great works at hand. They’re also among the most depressing. I always go to horror because it’s fun, and even when Romero’s at his darkest, there’s always some joy to be gleaned (even in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with Johnny’s picking on Barbra, and Ben’s strong central performance). But there’s very little joy to be found here. That first week I owned the book, McCammon’s “Eat Me” was the one that stopped me dead in my tracks. It’s actually a touching story about blooming love in a dead world. It’s also horrifying and repulsive in its outcome. A few years ago when I was extremely depressed, that story would’ve felt at home in my head. But I’m at a better place in life of late. So I can’t take so much grim in one sitting.
There are a few lighter tales in here, but even they’re morbid. Psycho author Robert Bloch’s “A Case of the Stubborns” (which Romero turned into an episode of Tales from the Darkside) has a wicked sense of humor to it. Douglas E. Winter’s mockup of The Bridges of Madison County with “The Zombies of Madison County” is a brilliant pastiche that’s worlds better than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. And Les Daniels’ “The Good Parts” actually had me laughing at points. But in a world where the dead eat the living, even these brought me right back to nihilism.
For historic value, the compilation also includes W.B. Seabrook’s “…Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields,” from his nonfiction book The Magic Island. Seabrook’s spurious book set the tone for four decades of Haitian voodoo zombie flicks, most importantly White Zombie. This selection from it is a creepy little piece that must’ve shocked audiences in the simpler times of the 1930s.
Skipp also speaks directly to the reader, in a prologue, epilogue and in front of each story. This guy may love zombies even more than I do, and it shows. He gives a brief history of the walking dead, outlining why they’re his favorite monster (and mine). At the book’s back, he discusses the zombie’s expansion into pop culture. Best, he describes why each story in here appeals to him. For a splatterpunk guy, he’s got a deep appreciation for literature and literary history, which the English teacher in me took to heart. Skipp knows his stuff, and his material is a discourse on the whole subgenre.
As I said at the start, Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead is an awesome collection that has been hard for me to make it through. As I approach middle age, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. I brought that happy attitude to this tome, which in turn brought me to some dark places. That speaks to the power of Skipp’s collection, a relentless look at just how ugly the light at the end of the tunnel can be when it emanates from a coffin that’s just been broken out of.