Filler content with zombie remains

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #20:-

Zombies are our monsters of the moment, with little sign of their popularity abating in the short term. The challenge for writers is to come up with something more interesting than the presiding ethos of ‘shoot the shambling monstrosities before they bite you’, which is all starting to seem a bit passé. It’s a challenge that’s more than adequately met in WHAT WILL COME AFTER: THE COMPLETE ZOMBIE STORIES OF SCOTT EDELMAN (PS Publishing hardback/traycased hardback, 186pp, £15/£35).

Title story ‘What Will Come After’ is an imagining of what life will be like as a zombie, with Edelman’s first person account painstakingly recording the appetites and urges that he expects to feel, and how he will travel cross country to be reunited with his wife and child, who must kill him for their own safety. It’s an intriguingly different and powerful opener to a collection that revels in being different, both in terms of content and the narrative devices employed. In ‘Live People Don’t Understand’ Emily remembers her life, but she must go back into the world to unravel the circumstances of her death, resulting in a catharsis of sorts and peace with the husband who never loved her while she was alive but finds that he does now that she is dead, the spiritual dimension of the story playing out in a rewarding symbiosis with the undercurrent of violence. ‘The Man He Had Been Before’ is one of the most touching of the stories, as a young man creates the happy home life he has never had by arranging zombies in family groupings. The subtext here seems to be that normal life will continue, a dysfunctional family or an abusive father/husband will continue just as before, even after the dead have come back to life.

‘Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man’ takes a more experimental approach, with a writer trapped inside a library and spinning stories about the zombie end of days. This is a clever piece, each flash fiction contributing to an overall picture and expanding our knowledge of what has taken place, with the author directly addressing the reader, though a far from omniscient narrator. ‘Goobers’ is possibly the weakest in the collection, though there is an interesting idea at its heart. As the zombie plague gains momentum a cinema shows an unending bill of zombie movies to an audience that wishes to educate itself in what is to come, only to find that when they arrive the zombies are similarly fascinated. Even they don’t know how they’re supposed to act, so new and unforeseen is this scenario, except by horror cinema’s goremeisters. Having set up this situation though, Edelman doesn’t really have anywhere interesting to go with it and so delivers a twist ending that reeks of black comedy. ‘Tell Me Like You Done Before’ gives the zombie take on Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, with George pursued across the dustbowl landscape of the American Depression by a zombie Lenny, and having to put things right for himself and his friend. I liked the idea behind the story, and there’s plenty of incident along the way, but ultimately it didn’t really have anything to add to the source material and so fell rather flat for me, like an upmarket version of one of those Pride and Prejudice and Zombies inspired stories.

Perversely, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘A Plague On Both Your Houses’ which also has a literary masterpiece as its progenitor, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this time retold as the forbidden love affair between the son of the Mayor of New York and the daughter of the King of the Zombies. As if that wasn’t crazy enough, Edelman tells it in the form of a play with rhyming verse, and while there are some serious points being made the comedy is the thing wherein he traps the soul of the reader, with delicious exchanges of dialogue and larger than life characters. In ‘The Human Race’ Paula Gaines wants to die after her father is killed in a terrorist attack, only the zombie rising renders suicide as futile as everything else. She finds closure of a sort by bringing the zombie head of a suicide bomber to the morgue where her father’s body is kept, the story tackling the ways in which people deal with grief and, like ‘The Man He Had Been Before’ it celebrates the fact that life goes on even after the dead have returned to life. We come full circle with ‘The Last Supper’ which, like the title story, is told from the viewpoint of a zombie, Walter pursuing his remorseless appetite until the very last man is eaten, and then the aliens arrive to see what has become of the world. It’s an attempt at long perspective, showing that the zombies need mankind, and compelling even if in the end it doesn’t really go anywhere.

This is a solid collection from a writer of talent and imagination, one that amply demonstrates the potential of zombie literature, once you get past all the gore and flesh eating that have become this horror archetype’s trademark.

From the same publisher we have LITERARY REMAINS ((PS Publishing hardback/traycased hardback, 195pp, £15/£35) by R. B. Russell. The title story to this collection of ten, ‘Literary Remains’ is related by a woman who, in her student days and after, worked in a bookshop, meeting a man called Robertson, who was once a celebrated writer of ghost stories and becomes famous once again after his death. She tells of what was possibly a supernatural encounter that took place while helping to clear the deceased’s flat. The story is beautifully written, with some excellent touches of atmosphere and character details, but it doesn’t quite seem to go anywhere, is simply a chain of events that the reader must enjoy for their own sake, and appealing as that is it didn’t really satisfy. More substantial is ‘An Artist’s Model’ in which we get a love triangle of sorts between an art student, his teacher and the gorgeous woman who models for and inspires them both, with the story again told with conviction and the hint of something outré and terrible running through the text but Russell showing admirable restraint in the ambiguity of the ending. The protagonist of ‘Llanfihangel’ is sucked into the scheme of somebody who claims to have been a school friend of his but may just be a con artist, the story deftly drawing the reader into its web, and leaving us no more certain of what has actually taken place than the ‘victim’, who wants to do good but simply doesn’t know if it is possible.

‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’ has a young man turning up to meet the woman his father had an affair with and explaining the circumstances of their break-up (his father died, when he should have gone to the woman), but ghosts of the past invade the present as secrets are laid bare in a story that seductively twists first one way and then another. In ‘Another Country’ a publisher seeks out a foreign writer, only instead of being grateful the man is angry about how his work has been edited, and turns the tables on the publisher with a sinister final twist. The tale strongly conveys the minatory nature of its foreign setting, the sense that the protagonist is adrift both geographically and psychologically, with the idea that there are different sides to every story at its centre. ‘Loup-garou’ is a film the narrator saw many years ago and now wishes to share with his wife, to see if his memory is correct and that it contained references to their relationship, but memory itself appears to be malleable, as is reality in this strange, short piece. In ‘Blue Glow’ David’s fascination with his neighbour results in him taking on the other man’s life, his wealth and girlfriend, all with the man’s consent and encouragement, though it results in estrangement from the people who could matter to him, the story obliquely touching on how we are entranced by glamour and never follow the path that is best for us, one where triumphs are earned, not simply given.

‘A Revelation’ is the story of a council worker and what he found in the attic of one tenant’s house, with nothing particularly gruesome presented, but the strangeness of what takes place all the more disturbing. ‘Asphodel’ is the name of a vanity publisher and the story tells of an author who is certain his book will sell, and he turns out to be right, with one employee trying to figure out how and why, the story shot through with hints of the apocalyptic, but never quite coming out and saying where it’s at. Last story in the book, ‘Where They Cannot Be Seen’ has a couple who cheat on their spouses attempting to get away to a place of safety, when they discover a secret room in a rented house, but things go terribly awry, the story perhaps offering a comment on the nature of their love and how fragile happiness is.

This is an engaging and enjoyable collection from a writer whose work, through the power of suggestion implicit in each text and the oblique narrative strategies, brings to mind that of Aickman, perhaps crossed with some of the more adventurous strands of European cinema. While he is not as assured in the execution (no criticism – few people are as assured as Aickman was) there is the same sense that, strange as the things recorded on the page undoubtedly are, they are only the tip of an iceberg, and it’s to our benefit that we never see the full picture. Recommended.

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