Blood, Brains & Bullets: A Zombie Apocalypse Anthology
Chris McInally & Dane Hatchell (Eds.)
Screaming Banshee Press
I have a huge soft spot for zombie fiction, reading dozens of novels, novellas and anthologies each year, but I’ll also readily acknowledge that the quality of that fiction can vary wildly – from high-calibre novels like Aaron Dries and Mark Alan Gunnells’ philosophical and engrossing Where The Dead Go To Die, and Adam Baker’s bleak, fatalistic masterpiece Outpost (the first in his Spektr series) to multi-titles series that really just pass by in a blur and do little to challenge the stale and moribund nature of the genre. So I knew that I absolutely had to review Blood, Brains & Bullets: A Zombie Apocalypse Anthology as soon as I saw it announced for pre-order on social media. It wasn’t just the menacing, atmospheric piece of cover art by illustrator Matt James that drew me in, but also the amazing line-up of veteran zombie apocalypse authors that the publishers had brought together. There’s Alister Hodge (author of the amazing Plague War trilogy that I’ll be reviewing soon), Dave Jeffery, Lee Murray and Lucas Pederson, not to mention Jake Bible, author of Dead Mech and the galactic bad-ass Roak series from Severed Press. That line-up seriously impressed me, and together with the thought put into the cover-art, back-cover blurb and editing, made me put the anthology to the top of my reading pile as soon as I got my hands on it.
[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.]
Editor Chris McInally opens the collection with the fast-paced, frantic and gore-soaked Executive Order: Z which follows the President of the United States and a rapidly-diminishing band of Secret Service agents as they attempt to evacuate a White House overrun with the living dead. I really enjoyed this story, and not just because McInally is an excellent writer with a knack for bringing the undead hordes to shambling, flesh-tearing (un)life. It’s also an imaginative and original take on a worn genre trope: practically every zombie book written in the last few decades has some mention of the President being overrun in Washington D.C., gruesomely torn apart in the Rose Garden or in the Oval Office; heck, it’s one of the key images in the opening credits of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Yet, as far as I can tell as a long-time reader of the genre, we’ve never actually seen a story take place from the point of the view of the President and his staff; his downfall is usually just one brief but notable element of the general downfall of humanity. It’s a fun, fast-paced and guns-blazing story with a surprisingly sobering ending, and makes an attention-grabbing start to the anthology.
Gaia’s Final Embrace by Dane Hatchell sees three teenage couples in rural West Virginia suddenly confronted with the deadly results of continued coal mining in the region. However, as the title of the story suggests, these aren’t your average zombies created from a blood-borne virus or ancient curse; no, these particular undead have been sent by Mother Nature herself to take vengeance on humanity’s continues attempts to strip-mine the planet. Hatchell has created some rather creepy and unsettling zombies for this story, and there’s a genuine sense of terror that he expertly ratchets up as it becomes apparent that they don’t play by the rules humanity has expected from decades of mass media. With an ending that’s especially melancholy even for a genre featuring mass death and apocalyptic destruction, Hatchell has penned one of the strongest stories in the anthology.
True Mettle is set in the same universe as Alister Hodge’s fantastic Plague War trilogy, which sees a zombie outbreak occur in Australia and follows the desperate attempts of civilian survivors and the remnants of the Australian Army to resist the undead and then attempt to take back a devastated country. While a real analysis of the books can really only come in an actual review of each title, suffice to say that a combination of skilful writing, excellent research and fresh, incisive attitude towards the results of a zombie apocalypse make Hodge’s trilogy some of the best novels I’ve read in the genre in quite some time. As for True Mettle, Hodge uses his story to demonstrate once again the gritty, haunting realism of the world he’s developed; a gripping blend of the usual cynicism and destruction found in the genre, bolstered by a grim determination by the remaining Australians to retake their country and survive as something other than isolated bands of survivors. Protagonist Rose Barker is an NCO promoted to lead a platoon, one of many that guard the gigantic wall protecting the liberated parts of Australia. Not only does she have to contend with the millions of undead attracted to the wall, in an attempt to launch a counter-offensive, but also a murderer in the ranks of her new command. Cinematic in scope and plotting, and with some truly breath-taking writing as Hodge artfully depicts the sheer size and malevolence of the zombie masses, True Mettle is another fantastic, first-rate story in the collection.
Dave Jeffery is a fantastic horror author and one of my favourites in the genre, demonstrating an impressive ability to compose horror stories that deftly range across subgenres, while always demonstrating an innate understanding of how to produce chilling, atmospheric and highly memorable horror writing. Jeffery delivers once again with Temple of the Flesh, which sees a man wake up from a night of heavy drinking to discover that something has happened to the local population while he was sleeping off the after-effects of a weekend-long bender. Jeffery has a knack for memorable settings which is fully on display here, as the protagonist stumbles past people who have toppled over in mid-stride, untouched in death; there’s something genuinely unsettling about the corpses and their stasis, as there is with our viewpoint character’s increasingly strange reactions to them and their condition. Accompanied by some gorgeously deranged language and a vividly twisted imagination, Jeffery creates a short but deeply compelling story with an unexpected and nauseating twist that deserves to be followed by a sequel, or expanded into a full-length novel.
A New Breed by Lee Murray opens with a fast-paced and superbly orchestrated chase scene, as a small group of survivors try to outrace a horde of the undead. An unexpected and brutal twist mere pages into the story throws a harsh light onto protagonist Roberts, and the grim decisions that survivors would have to make in the apocalypse. Even an encounter with a well-fortified farmhouse turns sour, as the pursuing zombies start to exhibit a worrying level of intelligence and begin laying siege to the house and its inhabitants. It’s not really a spoiler to say things don’t magically get better, and the ending and overall theme of the story reminds me of Adam Baker’s action-packed but grim Spektr novels. Bleak but powerful, Murray is a fantastic storyteller of the undead apocalypse, and I’d like to see more stories from her in this vein.
Lucas Pederson is another author on my review short-list, having recently brought a copy of his delightfully bonkers sci-fi thriller, Clint Clusterfuk. His contribution to the anthology, Given to Rot, sees two young friends dig up a strange metal chest in the middle of rural Iowa, innocent childish curiosity accidentally unleashing an ancient curse that – you guessed it – leads to an undead uprising. Only these particular zombies aren’t caused by your standard virus or bacteria, but hideous scorpion-things that climb inside a person’s head and turn them into meat puppets. There’s shades of Wrath of Khan’s Ceti Eels here, though Pederson’s creations are far more unsettling than the ones Admiral Kirk had to confront in space; Pederson very obviously has a gift for creating vivid and intensely disturbing creatures that stand out in comparison to the genres usual bland, shambling corpses. The menacing creatures pursue a trio of survivors away from the relative safety of shelter into Badlands where the remnants of humanity are as dangerous as the creatures that caused humanity’s collapse. Tense, bleak and laced with despair, when combined with his unusual take on the zombie archetype, it’s obvious that Pederson has penned a memorable and engaging zombie story.
Doug Goodman provides us with reZ Dog, one of the most unusual, original and enjoyable zombie apocalypse tales I’ve read in a very long time. Mike is a Navajo citizen turned zombie hunter, accompanied by his faithful dog Chaco, the titular reZ Dog. The Navajo Nation had resisted the zombie hordes that had plagued the rest of the United States for some time, but now they had arrived and started kidnapping the young and the elderly; yep, that’s right, abducting rather than immediately devouring – another reason why Goodman’s story stands out amongst so many excellent competitors. The zombies are unusual, and cunning, but the heart of the story is the relationship between Chaco and Mike, the hound far more intelligent than the rest of his kind but still limited by being unable to speak. Chaco is a brilliant character, full of heart and finely-honed as a protagonist despite the story’s short word-count; add to all of this a fascinating insight into the Navajo Nation trying to survive the apocalypse, and you have a thoughtful, engaging and entertaining story that manages to inject vigour and colour into an all-too-frequently bland genre.
The anthology closes with Fifty Cal Cancer from Severed Press favourite Jake Bible, a tale set in his popular Dead Mech universe, a near-future setting where a Mad Max-style situation exists, bandits and cultists clashing with more organised collectives that run supply convoys through the desert and the ever-present hordes of the undead. That’s all bad enough, but the defenders of one convoy are suddenly presented with an even deadlier foe – advanced, firepower-heavy mechs piloted by dead men. They have the support of a Mech piloted by a live, breathing pilot, but that just means they’re stuck in the middle of a hellish, guns-blazing duel; one that’s awesomely written by Bible, full of kinetic violence and pulse-pounding action. It’s a fantastic high-point to end the anthology on, and has made me move Dead Mech up in my review pile as a result.
Blood, Brains & Bullets is the sort of anthology that is so desperately needed to ensure that the zombie apocalypse genre doesn’t disappear under a deluge of bland and generic titles that fail to engage with the core concepts of the genre. Each of the stories in the collection delivers enough high-quality, blood-soaked action to sate even the most jaded and blood-thirsty zombie fan; but they also provide readers with a series of unique, engaging and original takes on the undead and the social ramifications of corpses coming back to life. This is all thanks to the excellent work by the editors of the anthology, who gathered together a first-rate cast of authors to help breath (un)life back into the genre. Blood, Brains & Bullets is a deeply impressive debut for Screaming Banshee Press, and I eagerly look forward to what they publish next in the Horror genre – I will certainly be watching them closely.