Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book of the Dead, edited by John Skipp & Craig Spector (1989): How Far Can Too Far Go?

Everybody knows something about the world of the walking dead.

Long, long before this current mania for everything zombie-related, but well after George Romero had made his mark on the modern horror film—that is, helped invent the modern horror film—a bunch of upstart horror writers decided that a world in which the zombies won would be a great setting for horror short stories. Imagine all of these in one place: an anthology of apocalypse, a collection of cannibalism, a grimoire of gore, even; stories so intensely graphic, relentless, and artistically uncompromising that the tepid, comforting bestselling "horror" novels of Koontz and Saul and Andrews would collectively melt off the shelves next to it. Zombie stories would show us the way, by facing our ugliest fears head-on, to a braver new world. Or so they wished in 1989. Me too.

Editors Skipp & Spector

That's how splatterpunk editors/authors John Skipp and Craig Spector envisioned Book of the Dead (Bantam Books/July 1989), according to their chummy, if a little self-serving, introduction, "On Going Too Far, or, Flesh-Eating Fiction: New Hope for the Future." They link Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the Kennedy assassination and the Manson murders and Vietnam TV carnage with the emergence of Night of the Living Dead, and they might not be wrong. They're right when they say turning a blind eye to such horrors can never prevent them. I can appreciate their lofty goals and certainly think genre fiction can address important and everyday issues; I also think - as does every other horror fan - that this genre gets no respect. But too many of the stories here go too far in the most adolescent way, in the most obvious and tritest manner possible. That said, many others make a solid, lasting impression, which is why I'm talking about this book decades later.k

Mark V. Ziesing hardcover 1989

Skipp and Spector wanted social relevance comparable to Dawn of the Dead, but most of the authors went with, What's the grossest thing I can think of? Well, you know how Fulci movies all have eye trauma? Book of the Dead revels in penis trauma. "A Sad Last Love at the Diner of the Damned," by Ed Bryant (otherwise a decent piece), "Home Delivery" by Stephen King (has its moments), "Mess Hall," by Richard Laymon (ugh), and opener short "Blossom" by Chan McConnell (pseudonym of David J. Schow), all feature this charming conceit. Probably more, but those were the handful I just reread after about two decades.

The dead deputy reached down and grasped Bertie's penis, fingers wrapping around the thick base and the scrotum. With one powerful yank, he pulled back and up, the flesh giving way, tearing like rotten fabric. The zombie's arm came up and Bertie's abdomen and stomach opened like someone had jerked the seam on a full Ziploc bag of lasagna.

David J. Schow and Joe R. Lansdale (pictured in 2008): two splatterpunk stalwarts who loom large, and whose tales here use apocalyptic religious imagery to make the (now cliched) believers-as-zombies analogy. Schow goes grosser-than-thou in the inventively, outrageously gross and ironic - a fat kid who eats zombies! - "Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy." His experience as a writer of men's military adventure tales comes in handy in this undead survivalist setting.  Lansdale's overlong but energetic "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folk" (yeesh!) has not just zombies but bounty hunters and cowboys and killer nuns. Yep, Lansdale's beloved hand-to-hand combat is in full effect. Neither story is scary but each goes for broke. These guys were the cult punk-kings of mid-to-late '80s horror, definitely two of my fave-rave writers from the day.

Horror critic, biographer, and editor Douglas E. Winter's (above) contributes "Less Than Zombie," which is of course a parody of Bret Easton Ellis's seminal work of disaffected-to-the-point-of-sociopathy '80s youth, Less Than Zero. Here he gets Ellis's tone just right but with a nice twist. Listen:

Summer. There is nothing much to remember about last summer. Nights at clubs like Darklands, Sleepless, Cloud Zero, The End. Waking up at noon and watching MTV. A white Lamborghini parked in front of Tower Records. A prostitute with a broken arm, waving me over on Santa Monica and asking me if I'd like to have a good time. Lunch with my mother at the Beverly Wilshire. Jane's abortion. Hearing the Legendary Pink Dots on AM radio. And, oh yeah, the thing with the zombies.

Ramsey Campbell deports himself well with a thankfully short and simple tale of door-to-door zombivangelists, "It Helps If You Sing." "Eat Me," Robert McCammon's solid contribution that ends the anthology, wonders sadly how zombies love - and went on to win the 1989 Bram Stoker Award for best short story. The lesser-known writers also deliver the ghoulie goods: Les Daniels ("The Good Parts" indeed!), Philip Nutman, Steve Rasnic Tem, Glen Vasey, Steven R. Boyett. Buy Book of the Dead if you find it cheap but don't pay those collectors' prices for it. Despite any faults, this is an essential '80s/'90s horror anthology.

In a way, Book of the Dead - and its almost superior 1992 sequel, Still Dead - paved the way for the current appreciation of zombie fiction and movies and all kinds of pop-cultural references. Watching both Zombieland and Land of the Dead and the like got me thinking, Jeez, I've seen this approach before, in the Skipp & Spector collections. But in a way they didn't; I doubt few if any of the folks buying Max Brooks's World War Z or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and/or the DVDs of said films, not to mention comics and video games, have any inkling these books even ever existed. They've been out of print since practically the day were published. The '90s? As Bart Simpson said, I never heard of 'em. But zombies? They're scratching at your windows and doors even now. But it's just the neighbor kids on a zombie walk. Oh well, whatever, never mind.

And all I've got to say about the cover is, oh, look, a big ol' typo: George R. Romero.


Rusty James said...

Hahaha. Who would keep lasagna in a Ziploc bag?

I eat that shit up!

Read a good Poppy Z. Brite zombie-short: Calcutta, Lord of Nerves.

Not a great ending, but some good ole' zombie chewing through body cavity, descriptions.

Will Errickson said...

YES. Brite's story is wonderful. I plan a better review of STILL DEAD.

Richard of DM said...

I was trying to remember this book just the other day! Some of the stories in this collection made me ill. The funniest thing about Book of the Dead, I picked it up at a friggin' Walgreens of all places back in 1990.

A. Louise said...

Looking forward to your review of Still Dead, which i think is mostly great.
Calcutta, Lord of Nerves made me a Brite fan. It still haunts my dreams.

Will Errickson said...

"Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" was the second Brite story I read, and I loved it not only for its perverse richness, but also because it mined Indian mythology like Dan Simmons did in Song of Kali. "His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood," a Lovecraft pastiche, was the first thing of hers I read in Thomas Monteleone's anthology Borderlands. She writes novels about the New Orleans restaurant indstry now but she had a good hot run in the early to mid-90s as the young horror princess.

John said...

I thought Joe R. Lansdale's '...Cadillac Desert' was a high point of BOTD. That and Steven R. Boyett's 'Like Pavlov's Dogs' are the only two stories that I remember as being very good, with Pavlov's Dogs being a really really good story.

Lincoln said...

Loved Schow's '...Wormboy', and absolutely adore Campbell's '...If You Sing'.
The Winter story is also excellent - I have enjoyed all of his short fiction, shame he didn't write more of it

Graham said...

I just picked up a copy of McCammons 'The Night Boat' and noticed that the one noticeable thing in the story is that the zombies in that tale are not simply mindless monsters, you almost feel sorry for them.