He has been since I was nine years old and first convinced my mother that I should be allowed to read him openly, not under beds and in back corners of the library. I have devoured everything I've ever been able to get my hands on, including the introductions he writes for his short stories (introductions that went a long way toward convincing me that short stories were an art form that should never be neglected). One of my favorite stories, "Home Delivery," was written for an anthology called Book of the Dead—an anthology of ZOMBIE STORIES. A whole book of nothing but ZOMBIE STORIES.
To my pre-teen mind, this was the ultimate of delicacies, the dessert to end all desserts. I already adored zombies in all their forms, and the idea of a whole book about nothing but zombies was just...well, it was staggering. But alas, for all that I had won the day on the topic of King himself, I had not yet convinced my family to buy me horror anthologies, and Book of the Dead passed outside my reach forever.
Or so I thought. I was rummaging through the books on the free book table at this most recent Boskone (and did I mention that my NESFA Press book, Letters to the Pumpkin King, is available now as both a hardcover and a gorgeous signed, slipcased edition?) when a copy of Book of the Dead literally fell into my hand. Oh happy day!
It's taken me a month to read my long-awaited treasure. Not because I was savoring it: because that was how long it took me to fight my way through. What a difference a quarter of a century makes.
The table of contents for Book of the Dead is made up entirely of male names. Some of them are unfamiliar to me; it's possible that there's a woman writing under a male pseudonym lurking somewhere in that list, camouflaged and content. But since they're all male names, and this was an invite-only anthology, I think it's reasonably safe to say that the first zombie anthology was very much a boys' club.
Most, if not all, of the stories in this book were written specifically for this book. When King talks about "Home Delivery" (I think in Nightmares and Dreamscapes), he indicates that there were questions about how much flexibility the modern zombie really had. Each of these authors really worked to find a unique take. And that unique take is so overwhelmingly straight, white, and male that it's actually jarring. Multiple stories—as in, more than one—focus on the plot of "try to rape a woman, zombies will eat you." Like, that is the core moral of the story. "Rape = zombies." It'd be sort of neat if it worked that way in the real world, but...
Of the stories in this book, two have female leads; one of the female leads is Chinese-American (she's also one of the only characters who shares POV with more than two other people). There are more rape stories than stories involving women with agency. (Interestingly, one of the two female leads, who is also one of the women with agency, was written by Stephen King.) There's one story about a little girl that made me uncomfortable in that "this book would have been taken away from me, and rightly, when I was twelve" sort of way, and I was reading Clive Barker at that age.
It may sound like I'm being overly harsh on this book, and in some ways, I am. It's a very simplistic, borderline sexist view of the zombie apocalypse, and for all the "unique takes" it contains, most of them didn't seem to work too hard to show us anything different that wasn't "oh boy oh boy I can get away with showing naked dead people." And at the same time...
This is where we started. These people weren't writing Yet Another Zombie _______ Story, they were writing, in many cases, the first story of its type. They were building a foundation. And I wonder how many people read this book, said "I could do so much better," and turned around to start constructing what would become the modern zombie obsession. I wouldn't call this a good collection now, because we've gotten so much better than most of these tales would have allowed us to be. But it's a foundational collection, and I'm glad I read it, even if I would recommend The Living Dead or The Living Dead 2 (and Zombiesque and about a dozen others) before I would recommend it.
We've shambled a long way, baby.