I wouldn’t write so much about the horror genre if I wasn’t a world-class expert, and it is in that role that I’ve noticed that, along with vampires, zombies are pretty popular these days. Or are still popular, or are popular again. It’s a little difficult to pin down which it is with zombies – with vampires, the modern surge of romantic and occasionally anti-romantic popularity can be traced directly to Anne Rice. With zombies, their very existence can be traced to George Romero, because zombies-as-flesheaters didn’t exist until him, and even he didn’t intend them to be zombies originally, but that’s what people called them, so he went with the flow (the whole “braaaaains” thing doesn’t even come from Romero, but from Return of the Living Dead, which is a damn spoof!). But Romero has always been too much of a cult figure to explain the current mainstream popularity of zombies, and it certainly isn’t the consistent popularity of his subsequent films that has kept the fire burning. So possibly some mixture of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, which was heavily influenced by Romero, and Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, which is a remake of...
You know what, it's Romero, even if some people in the audience don't know it. Even the book from which I'm drawing today's stories, The Living Dead edited by John Joseph Adams has the words "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth", which is obviously Romero's line, written across the back cover. It has no direct reason to be associated with this out of several dozen zombie story anthologies, but there it is, because that line is the true explanation of every zombie outbreak we've read about or seen on film since 1968.
But it's a shame that zombies have come to mean only one thing, undead flesheaters, when they used to have their roots in Voodoo and the occult -- that stuff could still be very interesting and eerie if anybody bothered to do it. Which leads, sort of, to today's first story. It's called "The Song the Zombie Sang" by Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg. This one dates back to 1970 -- it first appeared in book form, I believe, in Ellison's collection of collaborative stories called Partners in Wonder, and has been pretty consistently anthologized ever since. For whatever reason, I'm just now getting around to it, despite the long-time love/hate thing I have going with Ellison, and the fact that Silverberg is probably my favorite science fiction novelist. To the point that now, when I think about reading a science fiction novel, I think about Silverberg first, and then go ahead and read Silverberg, to the exclusion of pretty much every other SF novelist you might wish to name. This is my loss, no doubt, but the point is that Silverberg is sort of my ideal when it comes to that genre: thoughtful, imaginative, entertaining, prolific to the point of craziness, but with a variety to his bibliography that most writers with as many books to their name as Silverberg has could not begin to boast. He's even written at least one genuine horror novel, 1973's The Book of Skulls, about a group of college students on a quest to a mysterious desert monastery that supposedly holds the secret of immortality. What seems like a pretty ground-level look at an old SF concept goes pitch black pretty fast, and it's one of the Silverberg novels I've read that lingers most.
Ellison, of course, has written in all sorts of genres, including horror, and if you tried to claim otherwise he would stab your face/sue you (I have to mention here that in The Living Dead, "The Song the Zombie Sang" is credited to Silverberg and "Harlan Ellison®" -- I have never seen that before or since, so Ellison I guess gave up on the idea of trademarking his name, but that's still awesome). None of this changes the fact that "The Song the Zombie Sang" isn't really a horror story. It's a science fiction story that draws from a horror concept to create a world where Nils Bekh, deceased concert musician, can be brought back from the dead to perform. He doesn't shamble out on stage, dripping flesh and bang on paino keys, though. For one thing, his instrument is the "ultracembolo", but also because he's entirely conscious and aware, not just that his name is Nils Bekh and he's expected to perform, but that he's dead, and medical science has reached the, some would say unfortunate, point where death can be eradicated if you should choose, or if the choice should be made for you, and so for two years, any time Bekh has been needed for a concert, a switch is flipped and he's alive again. After, the switch is flipped again, and he's not.
Though I don't know what the actual breakdown of labor was, "The Song the Zombie Sang" feels a lot more like an Ellison story than a Silverberg one, mainly because, for all Ellison's talk about demystifying the act of writing, he's still always been given to praising a good writer as, say, someone who "truly hears the music." This is what the story's about as well, because the central conflict is between, not so much Bekh as the current idea of Bekh, and Rhoda, a young music student who once idolized Bekh but now sees him as a perversion of the art that once meant so much to her:
"...These others, the ones who applaud and grovel and suck up to you, they don't know, they have no idea, but I know. How can you do it? How can you have made such a disgusting spectacle of yourself?...I heard you when I was a child...You changed my whole life. I'll never forget it. But I've heard you lately. Slick formulas, no real insight. Like a machine sitting at the console. A player piano. You know what player pianos were, Bekh. That's what you are."
Whatever salient points Rhoda might be making, it's hard not to think that, as a music student, she's acting a bit big for her britches and the story doesn't disagree. What's interesting to me, though, is that Ellison and Silverberg's idea of a zombie as filtered through science fiction, becomes another kind of robot. Not just robot, but a Frankenstein monster (a concertgoer explains the process that brings Bekh back by to his wife by telling her "about the residual electric charge of the brain cells, the persistence of the motor responses after death" and describing galvanic responses in severed frog legs), which itself was a sort of robot. But in "The Song the Zombie Sang", it's Voodoo, as well, and all this mass of folklore and superstition and horror traditions wound up together to form a zombie story that, in contemporary terms, is much closer to a film like They Came Back, Robin Campillo's film about zombies who are undead, but not much different on the surface. At their core, as human beings, that's something else again, but Campillo's film, and Ellison and Silverberg's story, are both about the sadness of losing that humanity, and being aware of it. And both lead to the same conclusion.
Compare all this with Dan Simmons's "This Year's Class Picture", and you have...well, not that far from the same idea, really, but in the case of Simmons's story, it plays out against a very Romero-ian backdrop. This is no doubt because Simmons originally wrote "This Year's Class Picture" for Still Dead, editors John Skipp and Craig Spector's follow up to their splatterpunk classic Book of the Dead, itself an anthology that was specifically intended to be made up of stories that existed in the zombie apocalypse universe created by Romero in his, then, three Dead films. Which means “This Year’s Class Picture” is a flesheater story – that’s really all that’s meant by keeping it in Romero’s universe – but at the time that was still novel. Even so, flesheater story this may be, there is still virtually no flesheating in it. There is, in fact, only one non-zombie character, and that is Miss Geiss, an elementary school teacher of thirty-eight years who, despite the gruesome collapse of civilization, is determined to carry out her duties for as long as she can, even if her students are all moaning, undead cannibals.
This is the set up for one of those gleefully – which is not to say “any good at all” – tasteless splatterpunk stories from the 1980s, and unfortunately beyond, whose ostensible purpose was to expose the unspoken horrors of everyday life and turn over the rock of society to reveal the detestable insects of our psyche. Or rather, this seems like the set up for one of those stories, but that’s not what it is at all. Simmons does mine his premise for some cheap gags involving school lunches and so forth, and he takes a surprisingly grim shot at children when he has Miss Geiss note that trying to teach zombies wasn’t too much of a step down from what she’d been used to. Otherwise, though, “This Year’s Class Picture” is surprisingly heartfelt.
I must say, I approached this story with some trepidation. In a writer/reader sort of way, Dan Simmons and I go way back. The connecting thread is, well look at that, Harlan Ellison, who somewhere or another sang Simmons’s praises, this being long before Simmons had anywhere near the success he currently enjoys. Ellison discovered Simmons at a writer’s workshop at which Ellison was a featured instructor – Ellison flipped for Simmons’s horror story “The River Styx Runs Upstream”, and yelled at him until Simmons promised to be a writer forever (the story of their meeting is related twice, once by Ellison and once by Simmons, in the introduction and forward to Simmons’s collection Prayers to Broken Stones, and the telling are notable for their differences in tone). Ellison’s words led me to seek out Simmons’s first novel, Song of Kali, which I must count as among the very best horror novels, certainly right near the top of the best modern horror novels, I’ve ever read. Also in the pro column is Summer of Night, a long horror novel about growing up in the 60s that beats Stephen King at his own game; The Hollow Man, about the awfulness of actually being able to read minds (a novel whose tone and general outlook is not too far away from, he look at that, Robert Silverberg’s similarly themed Dying Inside); and Hyperion, the first – and only one I’ve read so far – of Simmons’s hugely ambitious and already classic science fiction series. However, there’s also Carrion Comfort, which, great title or no, Bram Stoker Award or no, is a hellishly turgid slab of a book that would reveal Simmons’s greatest weakness, which is his desire to dump every last scrap of research he’s done for a novel into that novel, so that you, the reader, know that he wasn’t simply dicking around that whole time he was at the library. See also Darwin’s Blade (which ends with a sniper duel, though, so it’s not a total write-off) and Fires of Eden, a book that seems to have followed from discovering that Mark Twain once spent a lot of time in Hawaii, and wondering if you could take that seed and grow it into an especially bad Michael Crichton novel (the answer, improbably, is yes).
His more recent work, such as the acclaimed novels The Terror and Drood, I have no opinion on, though I’m not so far removed from having read Simmons’s great stuff that I no longer have any interest in reading them. And a story like “This Year’s Class Picture” does help remind me what kept me reading in the first place. As I implied before, this isn’t a story about easy shots or caricatures. Feeling ungenerous as I was when starting the story, I assumed Miss Geiss would be portrayed as some ridiculous strict spinster type, who hated joy because she’d never felt any and wanted the world, and I guess her new zombie students, to pay for that. But no, she’s a lovely woman who, while alone now, and possibly not a woman with a rich romantic history, has nevertheless lived – she tries to teach her students geography by showing them old vacation slides of places she loved but would now never be able to revisit – and anyway, virgin or not (the story never says outright, one way or the other, and provides nothing more than hints that this is even something to think about), she is not mocked for that, or sneered at. This choice is not one the splatterpunks would have understood too well, because if we can’t express disdain for those whose existences aren’t rock ’n roll enough, then what are we even doing this for?
But before he was able to write professionally full-time, Simmons was a teacher, and the daily aggravation, frustration, and the love and commitment, of that profession is all over “This Year’s Class Picture.” If it builds on anything from Romero’s early trilogy – and I suppose what I’m about to say might count as a spoiler – it’s Bub, the zombie who learns from Day of the Dead, and in this way Simmons was able to take an absurd and seemingly hopeless situation of his own devising and make me believe that maybe, in the world of the story, in Romero’s universe, what Miss Geiss was doing was actually worth doing. The fact that he’s able to do this while also including a massive zombie attack/massacre proves that Simmons either knows the market, or is good at that whole layering thing. I’m going with the latter (well, both) because elsewhere in “This Year’s Class Picture” is a comparison of the zombie children with the Galvanic principles also referenced in “The Song the Zombie Sang” and, you know, Frankenstein. Simmons, like Ellison and Silverberg, hasn't forgotten where zombies came from. And somehow, his story manages to find a kind of light within the source of its despair.