When I first started assembling this anthology, I thought to myself: This is not going to be the sort of book that begins with an origin of the word zombie. Because that’s not the point, is it? Zombie fiction is about the unburied dead returning to life and seeking human victims. It’s about battling a frightening, implacable foe and imagining what it would be like to survive the end of the world and trying to figure out what to do when the dead won’t stay dead.
Regardless of where the word actually comes from, today the word “zombie” generally refers to the sort of shambling reanimated corpses as depicted in George A. Romero’s landmark film Night of the Living Dead. In his short fiction collection Zombie Jam, author David J. Schow explains the influence of Romero: “The plain fact is that the aptly-christened ‘Romero zombies’ have infiltrated the culture to the extent that even people who have never experienced the movies ‘know’ what zombies are in shortform: They’re dead, they walk, they want to eat you, and they usually outnumber you.”
Most of the stories in this book are either inspired by Romero’s “unholy trilogy”—Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead—or are a reaction to it. That influence is obvious in much of the fiction contained herein, and authors frequently cite seeing Romero’s films as pivotal moments in their youth (and, indeed, their lives).
So why are we so drawn to zombie fiction? What’s so appealing about the idea of the living dead?
John Langan, author of “How the Day Runs Down” (pg. 469), says that zombies—the post-Romero zombie that has defined our current concept of the beast—have the virtue of simplicity. “While you can trace aspects of their behavior to a host of monsters that have come before (like vampires, they rise from the dead; like ghouls and werewolves, they eat our flesh; like Frankenstein’s monster, they’re reanimated corpses; like most monsters, they have a particular weakness that will kill them immediately), they boil all that down to the basics: they’re back from the dead, they want to eat us, they can be killed with a shot to the head,” he says. “I suspect that part of their effectiveness lies in the way they present us to ourselves, by which I mean, if you think about a monster like the vampire or the werewolf, you can see them as aspects of human behavior magnified and embodied; i.e. the vampire’s connection to various kinds of (taboo) eroticism has been explored ad infinitum, while the werewolf’s link to animal violence has also been recognized. With the zombie, what you get is us, pretty much as we are, maybe with a little damage, and we consume one another. No eroticism, no animal violence, just a single, overwhelming appetite. That’s simultaneously very straightforward and very disturbing.”
David Barr Kirtley, author of “The Skull-Faced Boy” (pg. 331), says that there are two reasons we find zombies appealing. “One, I think there’s an enormous segment of our brain that’s evolved for running away from packs of predators, and zombie stories give us a rare opportunity to take this primal part of our psyches out for a spin,” he says. “And, two, zombies are a great metaphor. The great mass of humanity often comes across to us as unreasoningly hostile and driven to consumption, and the image of the zombie captures this perfectly.”
The popularity of zombies comes from the fact that the vampire that we all loved got lost, says “The Age of Sorrow” (pg. 343) author Nancy Kilpatrick. “A lot of us miss the old resuscitated corpse, the ugly vampire, the mindless one that can’t be reasoned with,” she says. “I think zombies were there already and evolved from the Haitian Voodoo zombie to the Romero zombie that evolved further over the course of his film series so that the cause of zombification became different and rather than being bland slaves, they turned into full-blown predators, en masse. Most of us miss the predatory vampire. Zombies I think have ascended in popularity because they not only fill that archetypal void, but they also reflect society’s fear of something overtaking us, making us less-than-human, or the victim of that less-than-human. It’s especially traumatizing when less-than-human is family, friends and neighbors, but hey, strangers, in numbers, will do it for most of us—I think there’s an inherent fear of mindless mobs in all of us. It’s the hordes that swarm over you. Add to that our unconscious horror of our rampant consumption in the first world and it’s like a hundred-thousand inhuman Pac-Men, eating everything in sight. There’s not much in the horror field that terrifies me, but zombies do. Their driven, single-minded quality is both terrifying and awe-inspiring. I think it’s what all sane people fear, being confronted by something/someone that has your destruction at heart and which/who can’t be stopped.”
And now a note about the stories that are in this book and the ones that aren’t.
In the process of assembling this anthology, I read more zombie stories than you could possibly imagine, and I found more good ones than could possibly fit in one volume, even a mammoth tome like this one. So, in order to help narrow down my selections, I created a few loose guidelines for myself.
First, I wanted to avoid taking too many stories from any one source.
Second, I wanted to avoid taking too many stories from other zombie anthologies. I discovered a lot of great zombie fiction elsewhere and thought that this book would be more valuable to zombie fans if it were to collect that material. Many hardcore zombie aficionados will have already read John Skipp and Craig Spector’s zombie anthologies (Book of the Dead, Still Dead, and Mondo Zombie) or James Lowder’s Eden Studios zombie anthologies (The Book of All Flesh, The Book of More Flesh, and The Book of Final Flesh), so rather than reprint a large number of stories from those books, I reprinted a few from those volumes, but focused my efforts elsewhere. (And for those of you who haven’t read any of those other zombie anthologies, well, go dig them up.)
Third, I deliberately didn’t always choose the “obvious” story from an author. (Assuming, of course, that the stories I included instead were just as good.) For instance, I didn’t reprint Joe R. Lansdale’s “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks” or David J. Schow’s “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” because they each have written other great zombie stories as well, and I figured if you’ve read one story by either of them, it would have been that one.
Fourth, I didn’t want to use anything that felt like an excerpt of a larger work, so, for example, that meant omitting anything from Max Brooks’s excellent zombie novel World War Z. (Although the novel is episodic, reading the episodes separately robs them of some of their power, I thought; instead, I’ll just urge you to go buy it right now. Well, after you’ve bought this book.)
And finally, I wanted the anthology to include a wide range of zombie fiction, incorporating all types of zombies, from the Romero-style zombie to the techno-zombie and everything in between. So herein you will find the dead mysteriously returned to life hungering for human flesh, corpses reanimated by necromancers, corpses reanimated by technology and/or science, voodoo zombies, revenants, and other, less easily categorized zombies.
But getting back to the appeal of zombies… So what about it? Why do you enjoy zombie fiction? Well, whatever your reason for liking zombie stories, there are enough great zombie stories in the pages that follow to please even the most discerning zombie aficionado. So dive in and consume these stories as if they were the brains of the last human left on Earth. Bon appétit!
–John Joseph Adams
Many thanks to the following:
Jeremy Lassen and Jason Williams at Night Shade Books, for giving me another shot at this anthology racket, and for taking a chance on me in the first place. Also, to Ross Lockhart at Night Shade, who probably never gets enough credit, and to Marty Halpern for making us all look better by catching all the pesky errors that crept into the manuscript.
David Palumbo, for quite possibly the best zombie cover art ever.
Gordon Van Gelder: I’ll probably be thanking him in every anthology I edit from here until eternity. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: He gave me my start in this field and taught me everything I know. Thanks again, boss.
My agent Jenny Rappaport, who is helping me take over the world, one anthology at a time.
Kris Dikeman, for helping me sort through the vast hordes of zombie fiction and for providing me a highly valuable second opinion when needed. On the brainoriffic scale, she gets five-out-of-five brains.
My friends Jack Kincaid and Jeremy Tolbert, who both listened to me blather on about zombies and served as beta-readers for my writing contributions to the book. And, of course, for our continuing years of friendship. If I ever turn into a zombie, I’ll eat you guys last.
My mom, for being my biggest cheerleader.
All of the other kindly folks who assisted me in some way during the editorial process: Mickey Choate, Douglas Cohen, Richard Curtis, Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, Andy Hine, Betty Russo, Bill Schafer, Claire Sclater, Nancy Stauffer, Kari Torson, Jeff VanderMeer, Renee Zuckerbrot, everyone who dropped suggestions into my zombie fiction database, and any others I may have forgotten.
The readers and reviewers who loved my first anthology, Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, making it possible for me to do another.
And last, but certainly not least: a big thanks to all of the authors who appear in this anthology.
–John Joseph Adams