Looking back at the BOOK OF THE DEAD
As famed writer, editor, musician and vanguard to the Splatterpunk literary movement John Skipp comes aboard the Fangoria terror team (with his new monthly column NIGHTMARE ROYALE – here), the occasion serves as a good excuse to assert Skipp’s credentials in the horror universe by celebrating the underappreciated and visionary zombie short story anthology he co-edited with Craig Spector, THE BOOK OF THE DEAD.
In order to truly grasp the impact of BOOK, it’s necessary to try and imagine the pop culture climate of 1989 and the general public disdain for Video Nasties; before the idea of mobile cannibalistic corpses was so ubiquitous that Fulci footage has been used to peddle computer software. In ’89, there were no such thing as cuddly, domesticated zombies, no mainstream acceptance of rotting cadavers, and Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD was still deemed by most to be a hugely disappointing stumble. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD provided only a twinkle to the notion that zombies might one day function as incidental set dressing behind A-listers spouting snappy banter in blockbuster comedies. For then, zombies were as serious as the cold graves out of which they crawled, their movies bearing an outlaw mystique, adored only by horror fans with the hardest of cores, and to withstand their gore was to attend a demonstration on human anatomy lesson as poor, slow saps were disassembled down to their grisly bits and dispassionately devoured.
BOOK coincided with the campaign by a group of horror writers to ford any confining river of good taste and push the verges of explicit violence—to found a new republic of extremity that was the seal of good Splatterpunk. BOOK features many of these writers in fine, disgusting form, yet it’s also loaded with childishly gross moments, moments included for their own sake and that are an insignia of bad Splatterpunk. In their intro to the collection, Skipp and Spector defended the violence and encouraged society to face horror and not flinch, also hoped that readers might be able to draw some kind of social analogy when meeting the zombies ahead.
Skipp and Spector’s savviest decision as editors was to have the BOOK stories transpire along any number of phases in the Zombie Apocalypse timeline, thereby avoiding the same “makeshift band of survivors discover that, hey, other people are the real danger” forehead-slapper that has fueled so much subsequent zombie fiction. BOOK ranges from the very moment the anthill was kicked open (Richard Laymon’s lame serial killer versus zombies mash-up in “Mess Hall”) to pursuing a new life amid the ashes (“Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” by David J. Schow has a particularly adaptable fellow seizing the opportunity to turn the concept of cannibalism back onto the zombies) to a world where Romero’s films exist alongside the Apocalypse as a sort of harbinger to the eventual endtimes (Nancy A. Collins disturbing modern romance “Necrophile” from the second volume).
Another aspect to the stories that keeps them fresh is that not all of them hew to the mythology as proposed by George Romero, even with Romero endorsing this collection by penning the introduction. Robert McCammon’s Stoker-award winning “Eat Me” has zombies conversing, dancing, and falling in love, and in Edward Bryant’s “Sad Last Love at the Diner of the Damned”, even has them starting a family…
Highlights are many: Stephen King’s “Home Delivery” is a very rare delving by King into the world of zombies (No, CELL doesn’t count). As much a sketch of life in a tiny island fishing community as a terrifying battle between a pregnant widow and a very familiar waterlogged corpse, ‘Delivery’ was reprinted in King’s 1993 collection NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES, albeit in a tweaked version as Soviet characters were recast as Chinese in a nod to political modernisation. BOOK is also the first appearance of Joe R. Lansdale’s popular “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Deaert with Dead Folks”, a schizophrenic and very funny novella that takes images out of classic westerns and scribbles all over them with the kind of incomparably insane plotting found in his freewheeling DRIVE-IN novels.
The majority of the BOOK stories are as applicable to the societal decay of the new millennium as when they were to the year when they were first published, although there are a number of allusions to the self-centeredness that characterized the “me” decade from which BOOK sprung. Douglas Winter takes on the trendy novelist of the day with his “Less Than Zombie”, a sharp pastiche on the hollow trappings of wealth and infuriating solipsism that typifies the writing of Bret Easton Ellis. Considering them now, a number of the stories have lost their edge in that some of their most disturbing imagery has become improbably familiar; taboos that were first crossed here in ’89 have since been burst again and in a much louder fashion. The shock of infanticide, of a teacher sniping her reanimated former students from the roof of her school as they toddle forward, gnashing their baby teeth, in Dan Simmons’ “This Year’s Class Picture” has now become something that propels the pre-credits teaser of the very first WALKING DEAD episode. The nauseating notion of consuming another’s flesh as a substitute for sex in “Eat Me” can today be seen in several dramatizations of the real-life Meiwes case from Germany.
Skipp and Spector followed up the first BOOK in 1992 with STILL DEAD: THE BOOK OF THE DEAD 2 (the intro this time courtesy of Tom Savini). Many of the individual stories from both volumes have been reprinted elsewhere as zombies have surged in popularity, but the entire BOOK enchilada has been out of print for years. This scarcity is the likely culprit behind why BOOK is usually omitted in discussions or essays regarding the history of zombies in pop culture. So even if you’ve never read BOOK and refuse to pay exorbitant eBay fees for the chance to do so, let’s all tip our hats to Mssrs. Skipp and Spector having the foresight to corral an all-star author lineup and help the living dead make an impression with something other than their teeth.
Read John Skipp’s review of Adam Cesare’s VIDEO NIGHT here.
Read John Skipp’s review of Barbie Wilde’s THE VENUS COMPLEX here.