I have long been a fan of Christopher Golden's anthologies. The man has a knack for choosing really interesting stories, by really good authors. His collection, 21st Century Dead, is no exception. I read this book, cover to cover, in about three days. Every story is top-notch. In some stories, people are the heroes, in others, people are worse than the living dead. Each story has something unique to add to the zombie cannon. 21st Century Dead contains stories by familiar names, as well as some that may not be so familiar. It's always so hard to pick favorites from anthologies this good, but I will do my best.
Jonathan Maberry wows with "Jack and Jill", the story of two twins who shared everything, until Jack was diagnosed with cancer. Jill continued with school, while Jack began treatment for the cancer. After that, things weren't the same. Jack and Jill continued to be close, but not in the same way. They couldn't experience the same milestones, and both knew that one day he was going to die. Enter a rainstorm that quickly turns into a flood, which is apparently not scary enough. Then, Maberry begins the zombie apocalypse. Cue images of children at school set upon by zombiefied teachers, friends, and neighbors. Continue with a family's struggle to save both their children and themselves on their farm. And finish with forms moving through the flooded corn fields, briefly illuminated by flashes of blinding light. Holy mackeral. Welcome to Maberry's nightmare!
Just how far will a woman go to avenge her murdered husband? "Devil Dust" by Caitlin Kittredge has the answer! Lizzie concocts a strange powder from exotic plans in a dilapidated shack in the woods. With the powder, she visits each of the men responsible for her husband's murder, passing the powder off as homemade meth. What happens next is harrowing, but strangely appropriate. You can't help but root for her as one by one she decimates the people who took so much from her. Her vengeance almost makes the reader sorry for the sad-sacks she takes down. Almost. Until you read what they did to her husband, Stephen.
Brian Keene brings us a story of a little girl who has always been alone. "Couch Potato" details the struggle of little Adele, whose mother is an addict. All day long her mother sits on the couch and watches TV, passing in and out of consciousness. Little Adele is left to do everything for herself, bathing, brushing her teeth, and even feeding herself. Despite the neglect, she loves her mother very much and doesn't want to abandon her when the zombie apocalypse begins. A kind neighbor boy offers to take Adele in, but she refuses. He helps her secure the apartment, and then goes back to his own apartment with his mother.
My absolute favorite story was "Ghost Dog & Pup: Stay" by Thomas E. Sniegoski. I'm a sucker for animal stories, especially when I suspect the hero may be a Boston Terrier puppy. (I used to be afraid of dogs until my parents got a Boston Terrier puppy, then I learned to love all dogs. Though I'm a real sucker for a Bostie! At left is a picture of Lily, my parent's Bostie.) A boy with a special gift is guarded by his faithful dog, Murphy. One day during a terrible storm, Murphy and his boy come across a strange stone in the woods by their house. Murphy saves his boy from the spirit within, but loses his life in the process. It's up to the new puppy to win over the grief-stricken boy and become the new guardian. I was rooting for the ghost dog and his puppy partner the whole time (while wiping away the tears, Sniegoski knows how to wring them out of you!) I suspected the pup was a Boston because of the description of the bat ears, short and stocky frame, and the penchant for sleeping under the covers. Anyone with a Boston Terrier knows that they are notorious cover-stealers!
21st Century Dead is extremely versatile, and will have you on a rollercoaster of emotions the whole time. Some stories are scary, some make you question the norm, and others are tear-jerkers. Whatever stories you prefer, I guarantee you'll find something in this anthology!