Short Story Review: “Bad Penny” by Carrie Laben

2 of 5 stars.

This tale takes one insignificant hamlet’s quirky town lore and turns it into historical fiction, barely. In Western New York State near Lake Erie, unincorporated Town Line–according to lore–voted to secede from the Union in the Civil War. Neither the North nor the South noticed/cared.

As for their role in the war, 5 men took off for Canada, 5 men went south to join the Rebs, and 20 men donned the Yankee blue. Generations later the town’s claim to quirky fame was aired when it was realized that if the historic vote took place, they had never voted to rescind said secession. In the post-war patriotism of 1946, they formally rescinded and rejoined the US to the delight of journalists looking for a sensationalized story. Cesar Romero [the original television Joker to Adam West’s Batman] emceed the festivities. These are the Wiki-facts.

The tale overlays a veneer of characters of then [during the Civil War] and now [just post WWII]. It’s not the full immersive Erik Larson treatment of fictionalized history, but it does draw a spotlight to the quirky tales hidden within many a town across the land.

This tale appears in Shades of Blue & Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War edited by Steve Berman. I’ve previously read this author’s “Underneath Me, Steady Air”.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “The Swell of the Cicadas” by Tenea D. Johnson

4 of 5 stars.

This is a lovely little ghost story in that it’s written from the POV of a Civil War battlefield ghost. In life, the speaker was not participating in the war, but rather Cat was shot by a stray bullet while crossing the adjacent woods while on an errand for her Mistress.

The slave’s ghost was left to mingle with those of the blues and grays left on the battle field and other non-participant causalities. While the world moved on from the war, the spirits were largely trapped in their animosities for decades until peace settled across the ghostly valley. Now, all of the spirits watch crowds of tourists come to gawk at their history oblivious to the unsettled around them.

This tale stands out in the interactions of the ghost with her environment. She notice of, reaction to and interaction with the play of the forest, the dappling sunlight through the leaves overhead, the whirr of the cicadas. Things as simple as wind and rain pull and disperse the ghost as she moves through her environment:

The sky darkened as the raindrops turned fat and multiplied. Cat struggled to keep her composition as parts of her were saturated and fell to the ground, trying desperately to rejoin the whole before she moved on. She slowed and waited for herself to catch up . . . Cat could see no more. Her vision blurred and prismed as the rain became a downpour and washed her away.

The night came and, painstakingly, she reconvened. As she materialized a wet wind blew through the grove, lifting the hem of Cat’s dress. She made it across the road and to the swollen ditch. She stood in the dark, at the edge of the water, willing herself to disappear. Around her the wilderness swelled with the sound of cicadas, until she could hear nothing but their reedy eruption. . . . She fell slowly, piece by piece into the water. Where the moonlight had moments ago picked out her edges, the glow of her was gone now, and each part of the spirit and once-flesh was lost to the liquid darkness.

This tale appears in Shades of Blue & Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War edited by Steve Berman.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Raw Recruits” by Will Ludwigsen

2 of 5 stars.

This is a ghost story without showing any ghosts. In the style of many 19th century stories, the tale is related through letters without depicting any of the action firsthand.

During the Civil War, a Northern Colonel writes a series of letters to his commanding general. In the first he relates a visit to a psychic with another officer. The psychic accurately relayed the location of a dead uncle’s hidden wealth by allegedly channeling the uncle himself. This lead to a plot to channel the spying capabilities of deceased Union soldiers to best the Southern army.

The psychic is leery but is convinced for double money. A vague suggestion sends troops to their doom. The location of the troops was correct, but the level of preparedness was not. Perhaps the ghosts or the psychic have other motives . . .

The breadth of the story is limited by the singular speaker writing to, not just a singular reader, but to his boss. It’s also levels removed from the action by the filtering process of time [the delay between action and relating those same events] and letter-writing. A mix of letter writing and action would increase the immediacy of the tale.

This tale appears in Shades of Blue & Gray: Ghosts of the Civil War edited by Steve Berman. I’ve previously read Ludwigsen’s “Acres of Perhaps” which I liked and recommended.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Saxophone” by Nicholas Royle

4 of 5 stars.

In an interesting twist of alt-history, this tale depicts a ravaged Iron Curtain separating Communist Soviet Union’s sphere of influence from that of NATO’s. The tense border between East and West Germany led to shots fired, war escalating, and eventually biological warfare. Hungary and Yugoslavia are the worst ravaged, with most of the population turned to zombies and a dark trade in live organ harvestings. Harvested American military organs bring an especially hefty price on the black market . . .

The metaphor of zombies as denizens of warzones is both unique and particularly apt. It is a tense and joyless existence. The fully cognizant zombies try to keep their heads together [literally] to keep on going, even after the loss of their “lives”. Memories of better times, ie living times, are bittersweet.

Hasek, the main zombie POV, played jazz saxophone when living, now he doesn’t have the breath for it. Nor the instrument. That doesn’t stop him from fingering his air-sax out of habit as he tries to bring a little imagined joy into his music-less reality.

This tale appears in Book of the Dead edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Eat Me” by Robert R. McCammon

3 of 5 stars.

While this short tale centers on zombies, it’s less a zombie tale and more an allegory. About love. Especially about finding love in the later stages of life. And in that, it’s sweet. If not a little gory.

Jim is a zombie. But then again, everybody is a zombie these days. But Jim is a particularly lonely zombie. In his prime, that would be when he was still living, he had his work to keep him feeling fulfilled and set to a comforting routine. But in death, the busywork doesn’t even matter. Nor does his timeliness. So Jim is left to his thoughts and he thinks about the one thing that he thinks matters–love. And he wanders the streets mindless of where he’s going, as he dwells on the elusive subject of love.

All around him, Jim sees other zombies shuffling along in their various states of decay looking all the worse for it. None look particularly happy; they all seem lonely. He stumbles upon a nightclub with its harsh music and skeletons grinding up against each other in some sort of bizarre courting ritual. The entire scene is so far from his comfortable Brahms music in his calm house. In one corner he sees a beautiful, well she would have been beautiful in her prime before she lost her nose and a few fingers . . ., he sees a beautiful female who also looks uncomfortable being in the nigthclub . . .

This sweet tale shows that it’s never too late to find love and to accept love. It’s never too late to change one’s habits. And when one finds love, to allow it to completely consume you. Yes, consume, because that’s what zombies do. And it’s beautiful.

This tale appears in Book of the Dead edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector. I’ve previously read this author’s “The Deep End” which I highly liked.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Less Than Zombie” by Douglas E. Winter

Less Than ZombieLess Than Zombie by Douglas E. Winter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This tale responds to the Post-Modern classic, Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel. Perhaps it makes this tale too narrowly aimed for the literary critic. Reading Ellis’ novel first isn’t necessary, but recognizing where it’s coming from helps.

Ellis’ novel incorporates all of the depraved and callous decadence of works like William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch which depicts the sexually loose and drug infused world of the fringe beats drifting between Europe and North Africa in the 1960s and applies it to the 1980s teen culture of urban and suburban upper middle class America which saw heroin epidemics around Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago. Both novels offered POVs through the lens of shifting drug hazes, loose fluid graphic sex and sexuality, prostitution, rape, snuff films and dead bodies. Both were received incredulously by those who couldn’t fathom what could bring society to this lowered state.

An answer is provided in this short tale, in which the speaker and his social circle are beyond jaded one year into a zombie apocalypse. Written in the style of Ellis’ novel, scenes are lifted from the novel and overlaid with undead, albeit without the tongue-in-cheek of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies turn on Jane Austen’s more famous novel.

Does this take somehow lessen Ellis’ work? Yes and no. Yes, in that it provides a more palatable reason [zombies] for the decadence than the practically “no reason at all” in the original. The original is so shocking that it isn’t believed by many to be possible. But I vote, “No.” This doesn’t lessen Ellis’ work. It shows the door that would send much of society down this very route. Zombies as a genre have evolved from tales of ghouls without social implications into complex social commentaries showing the tenuous hold on civility that actually exists. One hurricane, one riot, and an entire social structure can crumble. Humanity has shown this repeatedly.

This tale appears in Book of the Dead edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “The Good Parts” by Les Daniels

2 of 5 stars.

Reading like a modern day folktale, this tale focuses on a zombie’s perspective after most of society has fallen. Like most folktales, it defies logic–offering little in the development of zombie lore. Interestingly, zombies carry residual memory which they at times act upon, though that, too, is treated inconsistently.

“He” is a lumbering, nearly 500 lb. zombie. Not good at actually catching live human prey, he uses his weight to push into any kill site to get to what he considers the good parts of the prey. A virgin in life, he likes to gorge on the genitals and groin region of slain humans. He also tends to loiter at the porn store he patronized while living.

One day he meets a female zombie and they nest together. They even have zombie sex, though it ends badly when his decaying parts rot off inside his new partner. Residual memory on her part pays off when she remembers how to use a can opener. She feeds from scavenged canned goods for the next 9 months while their lovechild develops . . .

The tale bounces from puerile to merely logically and biologically inconsistent. The passing of time is also problematic as living humans mature at a known rate. Decomposition, too, has a rate of progression. The two work on completely different scales that cannot be aligned as they are here.

This tale appears in Book of the Dead edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector.
 
 
 
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