Fresh Meat or Rotting Carrion?
Flesh Feast as an anthology of zombie-oriented horror fiction, currently available on pre-order from Permuted Press, the third in a series apparently. The volume is presented much in keeping with the current, and ongoing, resurgent zombie fad but isn’t truly and entirely a zombie-oriented collection. While the stories do all follow the undead theme zombie purists (those who foam at the mouth about 28 Days Later) are going to be a little disappointed and, to be honest, they have a point. The stories that stray the most from the more classic zombie fare are the weakest.The book runs to over 200 pages and contains 14 separate short stories that cover a very wide range of material between them from your standard issue Night of the Living Dead scenario to a, barely zombie related at all, story about mutating zombie fish – I kid you not. As the third in a series and given that just about every permutation of the zombie story has been flogged to death, reanimated, flogged to death again, raised as a spirit and then exorcised I don’t think it is too surprising that some of these stories find themselves reaching a little for a new angle or a truly innovative twist. While these attempts, perhaps, satisfy the authors I feel that the expectations of the zombie genre – a rather tight and defined genre at the best of times – don’t really reward innovation as it strays a little too far from the point.
The scattershot approach here does give you some gems but also gives you some pigs and some oddities that just don’t quite seem to fit in.
The Fresh Meat
Spoiled Meat: This one’s a great story following the tale of a lone survivor, filled with self loathing and loneliness not least of all because the zombies aren’t interested in eating him. While the story rambles and doesn’t really go anywhere, just talking about this poor lonesome character that’s fine, its a vignette, a ‘tale from zombie world’ that remembers how the best stories are about the people swept up in things and not so much the undead themselves. Excellent tale.
Ile Faim: Like most of the better stories in this collection this one evokes times past. These kinds of historical zombie stories seem to be able to innovate while retaining what is best about the ‘straight’ zombie tale. 2000AD’s Defoe: 1666 being a prime example of a historical zombie re-telling that works really well. Ile Faim tells us the story of a ship crew putting in at a strange island and finding more than they bargained for and it is done with style and elegance.
As the Day Would Quake: Some of the best zombie fiction, hell some of the best fiction at all, gets its sting through social commentary – when it works. This tale draws on the, admittedly obvious, target of the increasing security culture in the US, the societal fear and the ‘invisible enemy’, following two special FEMA agents as they collect people who test positive for a dangerous zombie virus, at least until one of them has a conflict of interest. While the subject matter is as obvious as the twist the story is very well executed and in the best traditions of the zombie genre and so, deserves a place of note.
If You Believe: Let’s face it, in an anthology about the undead you know – pretty much – what’s going to happen in any given tale. Even so I don’t want to spoil this one for you as it is a goody with a lot to say about childhood innocence (or lack thereof) and the dangers of religion. Even though this is more of a straight horror tale I felt it deserved a top-spot mention for just being so damn good.
The Legend of Black Betty: This one is the star of the show, a wonderful western tale of fevers and zombies, voodoo, whores, whiskey and six-shooters. It’s written incredibly well with a combination of evoking the period and managing to bring the depiction up to date in line with the newer cowboy movies or Deadwood. I love it to bits and it could easily have been made into a full paperback of its own or a series of western tales of the undead. This one makes the whole book.
The Preserved Jerky
Street Smarts: Street Smarts is a workmanlike tale of survival on the streets of a zombie infested city with good thought for detail and a sensation of realism to it. Through the story Jan, an older survivor, is trying to teach Hamish, a typical rebellious adolescent, under control while searching out things to scavenge from the city. The twist at the end of the tale, however, is delivered rather poorly without the impact is should have which leaves you with a feeling of mild disappointment from a very promising beginning.
Memory Bones: An oddity this one, and one not really in keeping with the undead theme as such. The story follows a new doctor taking over for an old one and getting an introduction to a very strange old man, and his oddly similar brothers, the old man making claims to be able to regenerate and even return from the dead. The story only falls short of greatness, despite being a bit out of place, because it fails to properly end. A cliffhanger is one thing but you’re left without any real resolution to the tale, which has a wicked bit of social observation to it. Almost a great, not quite!
Basic Training: A solid, but not especially inspired, story this one follows a squad of soldiers, all on the verge (or over the edge) of a mental breakdown assimilating a new soldier into their ranks while one of them has an attack of morality. The gung-ho spirit of some of the soldiers, the ‘laddish’ teasing and induction of the new guy and the gross out horror somehow don’t merge and while there are high points in the story the overall tale is pretty average.
Deadtown Taxi: Another one that almost breaks into the top-notch this story is a perversely funny twist on DeNiro in Taxi Driver, if he’d been played by a zombie and the girl was simply alive, rather than young. Deadtown Taxi paints a portrait of a city of the undead, a corrupt, sleazy city of the undead that chews up the living and spits them out – in more ways than one. While set in a bizarre version of the present day, peopled by liches, zombies, vampires and ghouls, the story’s spirit is much more in the 30s and 40s and probably could have been improved by being set in a hard-boiled detective vein more directly.
Under an Invisible Shadow: A post-post apocalyptic tale where the zombie war has ended with the undead mysteriously ‘dying’ anew. A few gifted people are able to see their ‘souls’ departing their bodies and flitting away to somewhere new and track it down, only to find a mysterious conglomeration of these souls. This is an interesting idea – coming in after things have ended – suggesting a new threat, but the story fails to follow through on it and the new mysterious identity is not revealed, there isn’t even an attempt to reveal it. While Lovecraft (name-dropped in the story) had incomprehensible terrors in his stories there were at least attempts to understand or thwart them. This just leaves you hanging.
Brownlee’s Blue Flame: Another interesting and experimental spin on the zombie tale that, again, loses sight of its essential ‘zombieness’ in the process. This story takes an incarnated spirit of Death’s viewpoint of the whole process, with the natural order of death being subverted by a mysterious force. While there are sparks of good humour and interest here and there throughout the tale, again, it fails to come together properly and the pay-off, while evocative, is unsatisfying.
The Rotting Carrion
Adam Repentant: This one’s a stinker, largely because it doesn’t really seem to know what it is doing but also because the story seems to sprawl larger than the short story format allows. The story sets Adam – the original man – up as a sort of alternative devil figure without really taking the proper time to establish the background of the world or the characteristics of that figure – and then throws zombies into the mix as a substitute for Lucifer’s army of fallen angels. The whole thing fails to come together and gel though it might get better with a longer treatment.
Killing the Witch: The oddness of this tale, a dark take on the Oz stories, should be enough to make it a fun – and disturbing – read, as many reinterpretations of childhood classics often are. This one fails to take off though, again, perhaps because of the constrictions of fitting everything in to such a short tale. In the end it just feels rather contrived and a little pretentious, though the idea of recasting Dorothy’s companions as various forms of beast and undead is a good one the story just falls horribly flat.Fetal-Fied Gigolo: Another story that doesn’t really seem to know what it is, shifting viewpoints and angles from an obsessive bereaved mother with a fascination for voodoo through to a grotesque possession and a comeuppance/twist that just seems cheesy when it is executed. This one also feels out of place amongst the rest of the stories and more suited to a general horror anthology than this collection.
Wall-Eyed: This one is just a stinker. While freakish enough it doesn’t really fit with the genre of zombie fiction, or even the broader undead label really, the pay-off is predictable and the story really doesn’t make any effort to pull you in. Undead fish, seriously, without the decency to even be funny.