This collection of nine zombie tales from Splatterpunk Awards regular Christine Morgan gets off to a humorous start with its title story, “Dawn of the Living-Impaired”. Zombies are running rampant, but the military can handle them – that is, until the Zombie Rights Movement intervenes, arguing that the walking dead can be rehabilitated. The story depicts a TV news debate between a military official and a psychiatrist who supports zombie rights; although opening as a parody of political correctness (“Whenever someone refers to someone else as ‘dead meat,’ or claims to be ‘dead on their feet,’ it reflects poorly on our clients”) the narrative evolves into something rather different. The central conceit is the development of an appetite-suppressing patch that, theoretically, can be used to turn zombies into productive members of society, perhaps even retaining memories of their loved ones. The reader is first invited to scoff, and then to take the idea seriously – even if doomed to fail, the scheme seems tragic rather than laughable.
“Seven Brains, Ten Minutes” is another story where gross-out humour is offset by a poignant touch. The narrator is a young man who has survived the zombie apocalypse by pretending to be a zombie himself; as he reluctantly prepares to keep up appearances by tucking into a human brain, he reminisces about how the zombie apocalypse started – and the friends he lost. While all of this culminates in a sick-joke punchline, the story does manage a considerable degree of emotional weight.
At this point, a reader could be forgiven for expecting nine flavours of zombie parody. But with its third story the collection takes a left turn with “The Barrow-Maid”, a completely straight-faced story that relocates zombies to the age of Vikings. A woman named Hildirid agrees to be killed so that she can be with her deceased beloved, Sveinthor; but despite drinking what she took to be poison, Hildrid awakens to find herself on the funeral ship with Sveinthor’s body. It turns out that the brew she swallowed was actually a sleeping draught – but before long, the dead are rising in a more literal manner.
“The Barrow-Made” is one of three historical stories in the collection. The second, “A Tower to the Sky”, is set in ancient Sumer; it takes the time to build up a textured historical backdrop, only to tear it down when the local slave population becomes the epicentre of a zombie outbreak. Living millennia before zombie films were invented, the Sumerians have to work out a defence plan from scratch. The third historical story, “Be Brave”, begins with two girls named Klara and Helgie being sent to a League of German Girls camp in Nazi Germany. An accident involving a strange gas causes the dead buried in the grounds of the camp to rise again, leading to an ironic situation in which the zombies show greater unity than the Nazis could ever have hoped for.
Another of Christine Morgan’s recurring twists on the zombie genre involves playing with points of view. “Cured Meat” is told from the perspective of a zombie, intelligent enough to understand that its victims are similar to itself, but completely lacking moral concerns. There are things that can be eaten, things that cannot be eaten, and things that must be avoided to survive – anything else is a question of tactics A typical excerpt: “It screams. It thrashes and kicks… We grab. An arm in my hand. Warm. Pulsing with life. The other-kind screams and screams and shrieks.”
“Family Life” takes things back to comedy, with the story of a nuclear family of zombies who go about their daily life (death?). Grampy sits around drooling, teenage Caitlin listens to life metal on her earphones (“When I was her age, the edgy your-parents-will-hate-it music was all about death and darkness and nihilism”) and the youngest kid enters the room with a thumb in her mouth – but not her thumb. While this is a one-joke story, the joke leads to some good observations about human nature: the family members view their past-selves – their living selves – with genuine distaste, even fear. Indeed, they even have a fairy tale about a zombie Cinderella, whose hideous pink self is replaced with rotting beauty in her happy ending.
“Good Boy” depicts an argument between two apocalypse survivors: one wants to help his injured girlfriend, the other says that it is too late and that she must be abandoned. A fairly typical zombie scenario – except that the story is told from the perspective of the woman’s dog, who views the human characters as the Bitch, the Mate and the Abandoner. The dog is still man’s best friend, and cares little about the apocalypse – its limited mind is focused more on remaining housebroken. This could have been a tale of broad comedy but, once again, it succeeds in conveying emotional heft.
The collection ends with “Thought he was a Goner”, a prequel to H. P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West – Reanimator” set during West’s schooldays. His rather naive classmate Sarah develops a crush on this bookish new boy, and when Herbert turns out to have an interest in dissecting small animals, Sarah’s attraction to him grows only stronger. Then, after the local bully Sebastian suffers a nasty accident, Herbert gets to take his research to a new level…
Although none of the stories in this slim collection are groundbreaking, each one comes up with a good twist on the zombie genre. Those who have long since become weary of the living dead may not be converted; but for anyone who is fond of the area and would like to see it explored from a few unorthodox angles, Dawn of the Living-Impaired and Other Messed-Up Zombie Stories is a treat.