Overall, 21st Century Dead like many other anthologies I’ve read turns out to be another mixed bag. Some stories are great, many of them are okay, and then there are some real stinkers in the pile.
What this anthology does RIGHT is branch out from the classical zombie tales of George A. Romero or the current dominant property of The Walking Dead. It tinkers with the zombie genre to show how much more can be done with these creatures who are often used as cannon fodder. 21st Century Dead is a good book for this. If you are looking for more zombie stories which don’t stick with the tried and true formula, I suggest reading The Living Dead anthologies by John Joesph Adams.
What follows below is a quick summary of each story and how I felt about them.
Biters by Mark Morris – In a world where the zombie virus is close to being cured, a young girl is charged with caring for a zombified infant. Through a series of unfortunate mistakes, the young girl learns secrets which change her life. As the opener for the anthology, “Biters” wasn’t as strong a story as many of the others in the rest of the anthology. While it wasn’t a bad story in any shape or form, it is quickly overshadowed by most of which comes ahead.
Why Mothers Let Their Babies Watch Television by Chelsea Cain – A Two-page short story about a mother whose frustration with her baby leads her to shake it to death. However, the baby doesn’t quite stay dead. Being with how short it is, this story doesn’t leave much of an impact on the reader. It is easily forgettable and doesn’t pack quite the punch a short story like this should.
Carousel by Orson Scott Card – In this world, the living and the dead coexist and Cyril, the main character isn’t happy about this. His wife returns from death and makes it very clear she wants her children to join her. Against Cyril’s wishes, his wife helps to end the lives of their children and they appear to be much happier. Cyril leaves his home and finds himself at a carousel where he is able to speak with God about the current state of affairs. Once again, it isn’t a bad story but it also doesn’t seem to jump out at me either as being super good. Once more, another forgettable story.
Reality Bites by S.G. Browne – Zombies are now the stars of reality television but oversaturation of the market has made them not so interesting anymore. However, Evan Carter, an independent producer, has come up with a brand new idea of a television show revolving around Ted, a zombie who can actually think, speak, and feel. A satire on the entertainment industry and Hollywood, this story doesn’t take itself seriously at all and it is wonderful because of this. While this story is limited to simply the idea of pitching a television show about a sentient zombie, it is also a commentary on today’s culture, television programs, and the idea that audiences are braindead.
The Drop by Stephen Susco – Honestly, I don’t really know what this is even about. I read it and got something about a video game, a woman coming back from the dead, and then a guy in an apartment closet. Unfortunately, this is probably the weakest story of the entire anthology. Maybe I missed something but it didn’t make any sense to me and didn’t hold my interest much.
Antiparallelogram by Amber Benson – In a futurist dystopian world, society is divided by colored implants placed under their wrists. A poor, nameless protagonist dreams of escaping the fate of the orange ID, which means they will be exterminated within one year of being marked. Hoping to land a job in a store which offers the incentive of hazard-pay, the nameless protagonist hangs around the store awaiting the chance to gain employment. However, the protagonist isn’t the only one who has been watching the store. A chemically zombified man kidnaps the protagonist and offers him a chance to escape his fate if only he will steal a hidden batch of chemicals inside the store in which he wanted to work in. This is easily one of the best stories in the anthology and brings something completely unique and interesting to the table.
How We Escaped Our Certain Fate by Dan Chaon – In this world, zombies aren’t much of a threat as they are a nuisance. A father and son have a strained relationship especially after the son is forced to kill someone who attempted to rob his father’s store. While their relationship is returning to normal, his zombified wife starts coming around their home at night which would further complicate their relationship. While is story attempts to hit an emotional string in the reader, I think it ends too soon to have the intended impact. Once again, it wasn’t a bad story at all, but it also didn’t bring anything memorable to the table.
A Mother’s Love by John Mcllveen – Marissa must feed her son Cedric during a zombie apocalypse. Problem is Cedric is a zombie and humans are starting to become harder to find in the world of the living dead. A bit of a cliche at this point but the story itself was entertaining.
Down and Out in Dead Town by Simon R. Green – When the dead start returning from the grave, there is nothing about them resembling their former selves. They don’t eat people. They don’t do anything other than exist. These undead are placed inside dead towns and forgotten about much like the main protagonist in the story. He’s a man who has lost his job, his family, and his home. He decides to visit one of these dead towns and finds he has much more in common with the dead than the living. The comparison between the homeless and the living dead is effective and makes you stop to pause and think. Great story with a social message.
Devil Dust by Caitlin Kittredge – Lizzie is hospitalized after a horrible car accident which left her husband dead. The circumstances immediately become clear that this wasn’t a car accident and Lizzie sets out to get revenge against those who wronged her and her husband. One of the better stories in the anthology with a satisfying conclusion and an excellent take on a different type of zombie story.
The Dead of Dromore by Ken Bruen – An elite squad of mercenaries is sent into zombie infested area to rescue the daughter of a very rich man. Obviously, things don’t go as planned and these badasses aren’t so badass by the end. While this one isn’t breaking any new ground in the zombie genre, it does meet the need of having a military action story in between all the other stories which try to branch out in different directions. Entertaining and brief.
All the Comforts of Home by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow – In a world reborn after the end of the previous one, a man recalls the chaos and madness in humanity’s final days and the actions he took which led to his survival. Another one of the better-crafted stories in the anthology. It tells a story of survivor’s guilt and having to continue living with one’s sins.
Ghost Dog and Pup Stay by Thomas E. Sniegoski – Murphy the dog dies protecting his young owner, Mitchell, from a dark entity which is uncovered during a hurricane. His soul is returned to Earth after he is told by the Old Dog and Old Man in the sky that Mitchell is a special boy who could cause either massive chaos with guidance from the dark entity or aspire the world to greatness. Murphy was his guardian and must now guide the replacement puppy, Jack, to save Mitchell from the corruption. As much as this sounds like a children’s horror story, it was easily my most favorite of the anthology.
Tic Boom: A Slice of Life by Kurt Sutter – A man with turrets syndrome drives a school bus around and speaks to headless corpses. He is one of the only survivors of the zombie apocalypse because of his condition but he isn’t all right in the head. He kills humans and zombies alike. Another story where the protagonist feeds humans to zombies. While the concept is interesting, the story is much too short and the cliched ending didn’t help it much either.
Jack and Jill by Jonathan Maberry – Jack Porter is dying of cancer. There is a massive storm coming and its predicted to be one of the worst to hit his area. With the storm come the zombies and it is a fight for survival for the terminally ill child and his family. My second favorite story of the anthology. It draws upon confronting the concept of childhood death and accepting fate. Truly a page turner and certainly makes me want to read more from Maberry.
Tender as Teeth by Stephanie Crawford and Duane Swierczynski – Justine was having a drink at a bar when suddenly she is knocked off her chair and awakens in the hospital to discover its months later. Then the horrible news is broken to her. She was a zombie, she ate an infant, and it was captured in a photograph which had gone viral. Carson, the photographer, and Justine embark on a journey to take another photo to show she has been cured. This is also one of the best stories in the anthology. It explores the idea of acclimating to being human once more and dealing with the struggle of having committed atrocities while not actually remembering them.
Couch Potato by Brian Keene – Adele is a little girl with a drug-addicted mother who neglects her. A breakout of Hamelin’s Revenge, the virus which came from rats and turned people into flesh-eating zombies, doesn’t change much for Adele’s situation. Her mother still neglects her and sits on the couch watching television until her drugs run out. Being familiar with Brian Keene’s catalog of work, it was nice to see another appearance of Hamelin’s Revenge in a short story. After having read Dead Sea and Entombed, I’m certain Adele’s fate was not going to be good regardless of whether she survived this story or not. Overall, it is what I expected of Brian Keene which is always enjoyable to read.
The Happy Bird and Other Tales by Rio Youers – Two years after a war which tore apart his life, Raif Ceric is still coping with the loss of his family, his town, and the general devastation. A warmongering dictator forced his soldiers to take drugs which made them immune to feeling or even caring about the atrocities they were committing. Raif manages to capture one of the soldiers responsible for the death of his family and attempts to bring him back from the abyss of the unfeeling and uncaring. A wonderful story about the trauma and horrors of war and the aftermath in which the common person is left to pick up the pieces of their broken lives. Excellent work and certainly makes me want to read more from Rio Youers.
Parasite by Daniel H. Wilson – Unfortunately, this story closes out the book and I don’t think it should have. I had no idea what was happening and didn’t understand it. There was a war, there were metal spiders, and the narrator was dead but his spirit was still alive. I don’t know and I’m not going back to see if I can figure it out either. The previous story should have closed out the book.