In my scariest childhood nightmare ever, a man hears a weird whistle that draws him like a siren into a ruined mansion — where he’s cut into mincemeat by an unseen, supernatural entity. In the scariest play I’ve ever seen, “The Woman in Black,” a vengeful undead wraith preys on whoever sets foot in her decaying home. In the last movie to genuinely frighten me, “The Grudge”, a hideous harpy with wild, ragged hair hides out in a haunted house and murders every unlucky visitor (even tracking down and dispatching folks who heed the obvious warnings to get out).
So it was quite an unusual, sum-of-all-fears reading experience to find those elements combined in a single bone-chilling, atmospheric comic titled “Pigeons from Hell.”
The ultra-creepy comic is based on a 1932 short story by Robert E. Howard. (Yep, Conan’s creator did more than just churn out yarns about pumped up he-men with Viking hats. A buddy of H.P. Lovecraft, he too was a master of the horror genre and the pair engaged in a robust correspondence about the supernatural.)
The chiller is just one of 30 great zombie tales in The Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics, edited by David Kendall.
You might expect that a 453-page anthology packed with nothing but zombie stories would get old in a hurry. But nothing could be further from the truth. What I love about this book is the astonishing variety of plots, themes, and visual styles.
In the blackly humorous “Dead Eyes Open,” the theme of discrimination is explored when millions of people return from the dead with their minds fully intact. The first celebrity “returner” is Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame. The undead former child actor pleads for acceptance of the new minority group and an end to the “re-murder” of his kind by trigger-happy vigilantes.
Based on an old folktale, “The Zombie“ takes place in Africa, where voodoo has its roots and zombies are the tragic victims of sorcerers.
In “Necrotic: Dead Flesh on a Living Body,” an Egyptologist discovers that mummification provides the key to immortality — with a terrible price.
The book offers a visual buffet, featuring styles ranging from the three-dimensional realism of the space-zombie story “Flight from Earth,” illustrated by Roman Surzhenko, to the minimalist avante guarde approach taken by artist Iain Laurie in “Pariah.”
Previously, I’d never found zombies either interesting or all that scary (after the shock of my first viewing of “Night of the Living Dead” as a kid). Unlike vampires and werewolves, who have an inner life and are often tortured by guilt, zombies are almost always presented on film as mindless, flesh-eating killing machines. And usually pretty easy to kill, once you figure out to shoot ’em in the head. (Often they can be taken out of commission by a baseball bat or solid uppercut).
But the stories in this collection pose some deep philosophical questions. “Zombies,” for example, explores that old trick of mimicking the infected to slip by them — dating back at least as far as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and parodied to hilarious effect in “Shaun of the Dead.” The shocking ending raises the question, “How far would you be willing to go to survive?”
Varying rules and explanations for zombism abound; the creators are not restricted by the mythology established in Hollywood by Romero. Some zombies are created the old fashioned way by wicked voodoo practitioners, while in “Amy,” disembodied alien invaders travel light-years to animate the corpses of earthlings.
You know, when “28 Days Later” came out, many reviewers praised director Danny Boyle for “reinventing the zombie genre.” Bull. While deserving of kudos for its grim, digital-video look, artistic flourishes and thought-provoking climax, the zombies themselves were the same brainless, cannibalistic monsters of “Night of the Living Dead” and its sequels — just a whole lot quicker.
And while the character-driven “Walking Dead” graphic novel and the TV series based on it boast some intriguing situations and relationships, these truly ARE your father’s zombies. Comic book writer Robert Kirkman makes no claim to have re-invented the genre. He doesn’t believe it needs re-invention. In his intro to Volume One, he extols the virtues of well-scripted zombie flicks like the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, acknowledging his debt to them. Really, the mess hero Rick Grimes and his fellow survivors find themselves in could have been ANY end-of-the world scenario; those shambling, “classic” zombies are just a plot device.
But in “The Mammoth book of Zombie Comics,” you WILL find the genre re-invented again and again in delightful, deliciously scary ways.
MEANWHILE ON THE HOUR OF THE BEAST FRONT…
In promoting my new horror novel Hour of the Beast (http://freedomshammer.com) I attended the S.C. Book Festival. One of the many fascinating characters I encountered was fellow author Tarrin Lupo, who was hawking books in the booth next to me. Tarrin’s latest work is a historical adventure novel entitled Pirates of Savannah. And to draw visitors to the booth he actually dressed as a pirate. What’s more, he displayed an intriguing prop: a Swedish boarding ax pistol, a gun with a lethal-looking ax attached like a bayonet. Needless to say, in South Carolina where every guy with an ounce of testosterone is a card-carrying member of the NRA, quite a few male visitors couldn’t resist picking up the weapon.
Tarrin’s approach has inspired me to come up with a prop of my own. My idea: a mummified werewolf hand floating in a jar of formaldehyde. I’ll tell visitors I ain’t sure it’s the genuine article…then again, I ain’t sure that it’s NOT. I bought it from a curiosity shop that was going out of business and the owner thinks it had traveled with a carnival in the 20s and 30s. Scrawled in black marker on the rusty-lidded old jar are the words “Do not open jar. NEVER rub hand against open wound.” And here’s the kicker: a card in front of the jar will bear the price tag: $35,000! A special effects artist and fellow lycanthrope enthusiast from the Werewolf Café forum has promised to create the hand — let’s see what she comes up with.
I’m keeping a video diary of my book touring adventures. Click below to hear the pirate guy.
And here’s a bit including a lady who writes mysteries in which the crimes are solved by dogs!