Zombie stories tend to be large scale stories - after all, when the dead rise, it's the end of the world as we know it. Even when books or stories are focused on a small group of survivors, there's nothing narrow about the apocalypse, and that's usually reflected in the tale being told.
So I must admit I felt a little trepidation when I heard about Appalachian Undead, the new anthology from Editor Eugene Johnson and Apex Publications. Here's an anthology dealing with a relatively small (if thriving) subgenre, set in relatively small (if notorious) region of the United States. Sure, it sounded like a great idea for a short story, but a whole book of them? I could see it being a little too niche, a great title backed with a group of stories that would eventually blend into an indistinguishable mess.
Boy, was I wrong. What Johnson has turned in is a fresh and varied approach to the living dead, brought to life by a great crop of writers who were obviously energized by the idea of taking the ultimate survival scenario and staging it in a place where survival has always been a hard won achievement for anyone brave enough to live there.
Johnson has defied redundancy by carefully selecting stories that vary in their approaches to both the zombies and the Appalachian setting. You'll find some zombies built in the Romero model of slow and instinctual, while others have retained a spark of intelligence, cunning and even identity. Some of the writers use the Appalachians merely as a backdrop, while other infuse their stories and characters with the superstitions, traditions and rawbone toughness that's often attributed to the Appalachian people.
It's those stories that fully embrace the Appalachians as a region and as a people that are the most successful: Elizabeth Massie's When Granny Comes Marchin' Home Again, for example, in which the zombie apocalypse begins not in a secret government laboratory, but in an old women's kitchen with a strange combination of moonshine and magic; or Calling Death by Jonathan Maberry, who takes the mining tragedies that are so tightly woven into the region's history and elevates them to hellish new levels; or Sitting Up With the Dead by Bev Vincent, which gives a deadly new spin to an old tradition.
There's also Brother Hollis Gives His Final Sermon From a Rickety Make-Shift Pulpit in the Remains of a Smokehouse That Now Serves as His Church, a first-person narrative by Gary A. Braunbeck in which a pastor, his faith shaken by the rise of the living dead, finds a new way to believe - and to sacrifice. Spoiled by Paul Moore is another standout (and not just because it's one of the gorier stories in the book); in it, two women (one of which is pregnant and mute) hole up in a mountain cabin that comes under siege from the living and the dead.
The fact is, it's difficult to pinpoint a weakness anywhere in the anthology. Johnson has built the book with a mix of established names and newer talent, and the finished package does not come close to wearing out the welcome of its central idea - it does, in fact, leave the reader wanting even more. Appalachian Undead is an absolute blast to read, and should serve as the perfect antidote for those dreading the end of the Halloween season.
Order Appalachian Undead from Apex Publications.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.