By Alex Carrigan
Jonathan Maberry is probably one of the most notable horror authors alive today. With five Bram Stoker awards and dozens of books, comics, and anthologies to his name, this New York Times bestseller has defined himself as one of the greatest horror authors of all time. In the latest collection of Maberry’s work, Empty Graves: Tales of the Living Dead, fifteen of Maberry’s previously published stories and one new story have been collected to show the author’s range of zombie fiction. With a foreword written by Dawn of the Dead star Ken Foree, this anthology covers the zombie tale in a wide variety of settings, cultures, and tones, all to show how dynamic the living dead can be in fiction.
Each story in the collection is preceded with a short introduction from Maberry explaining how he came to write each story and what he wanted to explore in the work. With a collection spanning nearly two decades of Maberry’s work, it is fascinating to see the connecting threads that hold it together like the last sinewy muscles keeping a shambling corpse’s limbs attached. While there are some commonalities throughout the stories, such as many stories occurring right at the breakout of the zombie pandemic or the zombies keeping similar traits throughout (slow walking, blackened blood, maggot infestation), it’s the thematic elements that make Maberry’s collection stand out.
First, Foree’s introduction isn’t the only connection this anthology has to George A. Romero’s pioneering Living Dead film franchise. Maberry knew and worked with Romero before the director’s death, and the author was inspired by Night of the Living Dead when it was first released in 1968. Several stories are directly influenced by the work, such as “Cadaver Dog,” whose characters deal with an outbreak caused by a falling space probe, a reference to the film’s explanation to the plague. Then there’s the two-part stories “Lone Gunman” and “Not this War, Not this World” which is set in the Living Dead universe and follows a lone soldier trying to survive, whether it’s hiding under mounds of zombie corpses or taking shelter in what is implied to be the same farmhouse from the film. These stories play with tropes from Romero’s films but in a way that allows for examination of other subjects, such as “Cadaver Dog’s” clash between generations and gender and the two-parter’s look at Vietnam-era soldier mentality.
As mentioned previously, several of the stories also use zombie tropes and elements in other cultures and time periods in order to explore these elements in new contexts. Some are transplanted to other countries, like “The Death Poem of Sensei Ōtoro,” which moves the zombie story to late 19th century Japan and has the zombie virus represent the growing Western influence as it clashes with samurai and feudal Japanese culture. Then there’s “A Small Taste of the Old Country,” set in the late 1940s in Argentina and mixes the zombie with German, Austrian, and Romani culture for a tale of revenge and retribution.
There are also a few stories that play with periods of American history and use the zombie as an element of folklore. “Calling Death” uses coal miner country folklore to show how the zombie can represent the evils caused by greed and environmental destruction. “Pegleg and Paddy Save the World” is a mostly comedic tale that reveals the truth of the Great Chicago Fire as one part supernatural event and another part absurd escalation. Lastly there’s “Son of the Devil” which examines how the zombie can be a tool of revenge as part of America’s history of lynching and hypocritical and pious Christianity. Each of these tales show how the zombie can be a force of nature or a force of evil inflicted on the innocent and the guilty, and how the myths around them can be amplified by cycles that are difficult to break due to how ingrained they are in American culture.
However, some of the strongest stories in Maberry’s collections are the ones that use zombie tales to tell stories about familial love and attachment. “Gavin Funke’s Monster Movie Marathon” is a tragic tale of one man’s attempt to survive the zombie apocalypse while still holding on to the now zombified relationships he has. “Jack and Jill” follows a boy with cancer, one who knows death is coming for him, forced to watch as death comes much faster for his family when an outbreak happens in his farming community. Lastly, in one of the strongest pieces in the collection, “Sisters” follows two young girls who were raised in the post-apocalyptic setting doing everything they can to survive when they come to find humans are more dangerous than the zombies. Each of these pieces are a lot sadder in tone, but also the more effective. In these tales, the zombie apocalypse is the reckoning with death we all have to face, but with characters now seeing how little control they have or how it can easily control can be taken away from them no matter what they do.
Empty Graves is peak horror fiction. Every story plays with the zombie tale in fresh and impactful ways, using their settings and themes to explore the full range of emotions and character beats that can emerge in the apocalypse. Maberry’s collection is a great entry for those who want to see more experimentation with genre fiction, and each person who reads is sure to find at least one story that will be their nightmare or their fantasy, depending on how they see themselves in the apocalypse.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Empty-Graves-Tales-Living-Dead/dp/1680572237
Alex Carrigan (@carriganak) is an editor, writer, and critic from Virginia. He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Empty Mirror, Gertrude Press, Quarterly West, Whale Road Review, ‘Stories About Penises’ (Guts Publishing, 2019), ‘Closet Cases: Queers on What We Wear’ (Et Alia Press, 2020), ‘ImageOutWrite Vol. 9,’ and ‘Last Day, First Day Vol. 2.’ He is also the co-editor of ‘Please Welcome to the Stage…: A Drag Literary Anthology’ with House of Lobsters Literary.