Hersham Horror and is a collection of 21 stories (or 22 if you buy the print version) about the titular monsters. I have to say that I'm not the greatest fan of zombies (especially since one of them ate my dog) but I had high hopes for this book after enjoying Hersham's first collection Alt-Dead and seeing the names of some of the authors contributing stories. Given that the Alt is short for alternative I was also hoping for some new takes on the zombie trope, willing to have my views changed. I'm pleased to say that, on the whole, the collection achieves that and, with one or two exceptions, this is a really strong, enjoyable anthology.
There is some "standard" zombie fare in here but it was good to see that a lot of the stories really did try to do something different. Most notable in this regard was Alison Littlewood's Soul Food - quite possibly my favourite story in the collection which has the most tenuous link to zombie mythology but which provides a thought-provoking, and moving tale that puts a whole new slant on the phrase "you are what you eat".
The collection opens with Gary McMahon's Thus Spoke Lazarus which is a revisionist take on the bible story of the raising of Lazarus. It's cleverly written and, as a lapsed catholic, I enjoyed it immensely. There's a moment in the story when the risen Lazarus realises why he's been raised from the dead and I experienced a frisson of pleasure as I realised too. A great ending to the story and a great opener for the book.
The "religious" theme is also used in Adrian Chamberlin's The Third Day, though in a less humorous (I'm sure Gary's tongue was firmly in his cheek when he was writing his story) - and more post-apocalyptic - way than Lazarus.
Humour is a feature of a few of the stories. It works well in Stuart Hughes' Ded End Jobz, a story whose subject matter would generate some cracking headlines in the Daily Mail but which ends rather abruptly, less well in Blind Date by David Williamson. The latter requires a suspension of disbelief far beyond the norm and strays to close to offensive to be really funny. It also contains, at one point, a "breaking the fourth wall" moment. This is either an example of clever, post-modern meta-fiction or just bad writing.
Mark West provides a lovely little vignette of a story in In Cars which crams a lot into its short length and beautifully captures the feel of extreme horror colliding with mundane reality.
Other highlights are Stephen Bacon's Scarlet Yawns (the best title of all the stories) which channels the spirit of The Thing with its paranoia and body horror set in an isolated Scottish theme park and Stuart Young's White Light, Black Fire in which the zombies aren't the worst monsters and which also contains some metaphysical ruminations about the nature of the soul.
It was a brave decision to include a story which uses The Holocaust as its backdrop but I'm afraid Shaun Hamilton's Acceptable Genocide fell into the trap of being exploitative, a little too lurid in its descriptions of the horrors meted out to the inmates of Auschwitz. The reality of what happened in the concentration camps is horrific enough. To use them in a story about zombies seems somehow disrespectful.
Dave Jeffery's Ascension? is probably my favourite story in the whole collection. It's a beautifully written slow-burner of a story that has your perceptions changing the further on you read. In a less overt way than Stuart Young's story it presents the human survivors of "zombie apocalypse" as the real monsters and raises questions as to what "humanity" really is. It's classy stuff.
So has Alt-Zombie changed my views on zombie fiction? Not entirely - I fear the bandwagon will roll on for a while yet - but it has proved that talented writers can discover something new and different from within the tropes and mythology of the living dead. Alt-Zombie is a strong collection in which the highlights far outweigh the occasional stumbles. There's gore and gross-out yes, (though not as much as you might expect), but there are also cleverly written, thought-provoking stories. Hersham Horror have produced another fine quality product and it's one I heartily recommend.