Death’s Head Press
I absolutely love the Zombie Horror genre and will happily read countless examples of the genre, probably until the day that I die. But I don’t think it’s a particularly controversial statement to say that the quality of titles in the genre can vary considerably, to put it in a polite manner. Sometimes I want more than books filled with generic zombies and two-dimensional characters that I’ll struggle to remember after finishing the last page; sometimes I want actual quality in my Zombie fiction. And for me, quality doesn’t come any higher in the Horror genre than the work of Christine Morgan, so I was eager to snap up her latest anthology, Dawn of the Living Impaired, when it was released a few months ago. I’ve read a number of Horror shorts by Morgan previously, though never a full collection, and I’ve always been deeply impressed by her writing, and unsettled by her stories. So I was eager to see what freshness she could wring from an often stale genre, especially after seeing the fantastically gross-out cover art by Justin T. Coons that Death’s Head Press commissioned for the collection.
[Note: As always with my reviews of anthologies and short story collections: to keep my reviews as brief as I can, I only focus on those stories that I particularly enjoyed, or which resonated with me in some special way. This is not necessarily a reflection on any authors whose tales I do not discuss, or the quality of their work; it is simply a way to ensure I don’t ramble on forever about a single book.]
The collection opens with titular Dawn of The Living Impaired, which has an amusing take on the genre – a morning talk show with two ‘talking heads’ debating issues during a zombie uprising – specifically, the nature of the rights that the undead have. A scarred general verbally spars with a psychiatrist and president of the National Alliance for the Living-Impaired. Morgan injects some deep, dark humour into the story, especially with the ending, but there’s also some interesting – and occasionally uncomfortable questions asked of the audience, both in the story and of the reader themselves. What if the undead could be contained and cured, partially, but only at very great cost? At what point does society approve of the bullet over the pill and rehabilitation? And would it even be fair to the undead themselves to try and harness them back into the society they had permanently left? A thought-provoking story lurks just underneath the humour and stinging satire of mindless talk shows.
Seven Brains, Ten Minutes takes a bizarro horror turn, as Morgan places us inside a hellish, amateur gameshow involving zombies and a desperate man trying to save both his life, and the life of a friend. It’s a stomach-churning tale that had me going pale and feeling rather queasy within the first few pages from Morgan’s nauseatingly good descriptions of brain-eating, let alone the delightfully messed-up ending. But despite my squeamishness, it was still an entertaining and horrifying tale, one that demonstrates just how skilled Morgan is as a writer, able to deftly slide between subgenres at will and compose memorable stories within them. After that, The Barrow-Maid moves the time period from modern-day to the Viking age, which is always a welcome change. Now, this was a very different story to the previous ones in the collection, and cleverly positioned; it has a slower pace, ratcheting up the atmosphere and tension, as a slain warrior’s promised love drinks poison and follows him into the afterlife after his death in battle. But the expected Valhalla is nowhere to be seen, and the reality of death far more terrifying. The descriptions of the place Hildirid finds herself are both chilling and unsettling, especially due to their familiarity, as is the position she is placed in, forced to defend her dead beloved from those she considered friends and comrades. Though Morgan saves the best for last, as the tale takes an unexpected twist and turns into a fast-paced and gory undead vengeance flick, complete with zombie Vikings and, the most awesomely, an undead hound.
One of the longer stories in the collection is Cured Meat, which has an intriguing air of experimental writing about it. Seen from the point of view of a long-dead zombie, it follows a group – a clan almost – of the undead in the years after the apocalypse. Now the dead congregate together, fending off others like themselves, and also wild, rabid dog packs. It’s an interesting idea and well-told, really getting into the group dynamics of the undead as they revert to a sort of instinctive pack behaviour and survive a day at a time, communicating in grunts and gestures. It would be interesting to see this expanded into something novel-length, going into further detail about how the dead behave, and perhaps even how it developed initially.
Set during the tyranny of the Third Reich, Be Brave is perhaps my favourite tale in the collection because its backdrop is one of the lesser-known horrors of that regime. One of the policies pursued by the regime was the forcible relocation of people from their lands to allow ‘purer’ Aryans to be settled. However, this didn’t just take place in occupied countries, but also internal German territories, where men, women and children would be forcibly evacuated so that their ‘betters’ could take over their lives. A young girl, forcibly evacuated towards one of these areas, and a man fighting back against his own town’s evacuation, come together against this sinister backdrop. Of course, given the theme of this anthology, that eventually results in zombies. Nazi zombies.
Family Life marks another turn in the anthology – this is a much lighter story, based around the life of an undead family. Imagine something akin to Modern Family, except everyone is already dead and rotting. The tale gives Morgan a chance to bring in some zombie-based humour based around the usual family concerns. The teenage daughter who’s gone vegetarian and refuses to eat brains; the father in law who’s even more difficult to understand now he’s crawled out of the grave; looking after the undead toddler. There’s even a hilarious undead version of Cinderella, edited by the mother as a bedtime story to become Zombiella, complete with a giant brain coach. Though even here, in a lighter tale, Morgan gives us an unexpectedly grim ending that makes you question just how far you’d go to support and protect your family in the apocalypse.
Good Boy is a distressing and heart-wrenching tale that puts a sorely-needed spotlight on a section of humanity that rarely gets a look-in when zombie apocalypse fiction (or any other apocalyptic fiction) is written – the disabled. Baxter, a Shephard mix, is the titular Good Boy, staying with his disabled owner when her friends abandon her; her wheelchair would only slow them down with the undead approaching. It’s a depressingly realistic scenario, and one that only becomes bleaker as the story progresses. The ending is depressing, as is only to be expected, but Morgan tells the entire story with a great deal of realism and sensitivity, ensuring that it lingers in the back of your mind long after you finish both the story, and the collection as a whole.
Finally, the collection closes with Thought He Was A Goner, a rather strange tale based around a young Herbert West (the protagonist of Lovecraft’s Reanimator serial) and his school days, and the girl who has a crush on him. We get a terrifying insight into how West first started experimenting on human corpses, but it’s also leavened with some dark humour as he tries to deal with the notion of someone having a crush on him. Blended up with some humorous references to events in the original Reanimator tales, it’s the perfect end to the collection.
Having come to the end of Dawn of the Living Impaired, I find it impossible to come to any other conclusion than to say that this is an outstanding and multi-faceted collection of zombie horror stories that truly demonstrate Morgan’s skill as a horror writer. These stories may all formally reside within the Horror genre, but each one sits in a different subgenre – from historical horror, to body horror, all the way through to Bizarro and even psychological horror. That’s impressive enough, and yet each of the stories also demonstrates a consistent ability to employ differing writing styles suited to each subgenre; three-dimensional characters with impressive depth for short stories; incisive and often thought-provoking insights into the human (and post-human) condition; and a deft and often surprisingly dark sense of humour. Dawn of the Living Impaired is a first-rate collection that, in my opinion, cements Christine Morgan’s place as one of the best horror writers in the genre in the 21st Century.