George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead gave us the tagline, “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth”. Without a doubt, the undead in the majority of zombie films bring about Hell with them. But what of zombies and the afterlife? At first, it seems like a stupid question. You get visual images of a zombie hobo or somesuch singing an undead version of “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, where the blood rivers flow and the trees literally droop with the weight of their brain fruit. As The Living Dead 2 proves, however, zombies provide quite the theological headscratcher.
The brainchild of editor John Joseph Adams, The Living Dead 2 continues on the promise of 2008’s enjoyable The Living Dead. Where that earlier volume reprinted some of zombie fiction’s best stories, this second go-around confines itself to brand new stories or reprints that have not been anthologized before. Max Brooks (World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide), Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), Cherie Priest, Kelly Link, and a host of other writers take new angles on what is turning out to be a very resilient sub-genre. You’d think you could only tell so many tales about zombies, but as the genre matures, the zombies are often just a catalyst for telling a bigger story. Zombies represent a blank slate, allowing writers the opportunity to inject whatever meaning or personality they want into a shambling horde.
Even so, zombie stories are also the ultimate in survival porn. It’s not just a fight for survival after the world’s effectively ended—it’s a fight for survival against a walking apocalypse that wants to eat you. I studied Iaido, a highly formalized Japanese martial art for the sword, for several years and I think it’s a pretty safe bet that I wasn’t the only student who idly thought about using a three-foot razor blade to cut through a wall of zombies. Until that happens, we’ll just have to content ourselves with Stephen Gould’s “Tameshigiri”, in which a sensei teaches the art of the Japanese sword by taking his students out into the zombie-populated wild. For more sword fun, the zombies-meets-The Seven Samurai pitch of Matt London’s action-packed “Mouja” sells itself.
That cultural cross-pollination can be found throughout The Living Dead 2. “Zero Tolerance”, for example, follows a blacker-than-black-ops mission in Afghanistan, while “Zombieville” takes place in Africa and “The Mexican Bus” is true to its name. “Rural Dead” contemplates how an Amish clan would deal with zombies getting onto their property. First, the story tells us, they’d mend the fence—but “Rural Dead” is far from a joke. It treats the famous Amish pragmatism with affectionate humor, but takes a much more serious tone regarding their pacifism. It’s a straightforward story, but one that stays with you.
Almost without exception, the stories here are quite good. The assembled writers know where zombie fiction has been, and either mine existing conventions for more substance, or take the genre in new directions entirely. David Barr Kirtley returns to the intriguing world he built in the first volume’s “The Skull-Faced Boy”, in which zombies form organized armies to fight the living, in the expansive “The Skull-Faced City”. David Wellington’s “Good People” finds a band of survivors, surprised by a mass of zombies, forced to make hard choices. The only false note in the collection might be S.G. Browne’s “Zombie Gigolo”, which won third place in the 2008 World Horror Convention’s “Gross Out Contest”. Let’s just say that this detailed tale of zombie sex for hire succeeds in its goal of being truly disgusting, but even with its slightly cautionary ending (y’know, in case you’re ever a zombie gigolo being hired out by zombie women) notwithstanding, it’s an odd fit with the rest of the book’s stories.
The most intriguing treatments, at least to this reader, are the ones that address what the existence of zombies might say about the afterlife. It might seem like an open or shut case: you die and your body turns into a zombie, while your soul goes wherever it’s supposed to go. But what if it’s not that simple? Several stories, such as Gary A. Braunbeck’s “We Now Pause for Station Identification” (in which a DJ trapped in his studio talks to an audience which may or may not be there) play with the genre’s well-worn notion that zombies are often drawn to places and things by memories of their lives. Catheryne M. Valente’s vivid and evocative “The Days of Flaming Motorcycles” contemplates, among other things, the trappings of a zombie religion. Sarah Langan’s “Are You Trying to Tell Me This is Heaven?” includes the interesting idea that once you’re infected, you become privy to the thoughts of those who have already been turned. Molly Brown’s “Living with the Dead” works at a mystery—why do the dead in a single town rise up, only to go stand in the park?—and finds an unsettling answer.
The most haunting story, though, is Adam-Troy Castro’s “The Anteroom”, which offers an answer to a question not many people have thought to ask: what exactly happens to the animating spark—or soul—of a zombie once the body’s been put down? It’s an unsettling and thought-provoking piece in which the unfairness of being turned into a zombie doesn’t stop just because someone put a bullet in your brain.