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Book Review: Better Off Undead edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Daniel M. Hoyt

* Genre: Paranormal Fantasy, Anthology
* ISBN: 0756405122
* ISBN-13: 9780756405120
* Format: Mass Market Paperback, 320pp
* Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
* Pub. Date: November 04, 2008

With the intriguing title Better Off Undead the reader could be excused from thinking that this new anthology from DAW books, and edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Daniel M. Hoyt was a paean to everything undead. It is, in part, but while this collection has a lot of comic paranormal fantasy, the stories are also heartfelt, and always, always creepy. Divided into four sections, Afterlife, Spirit, Flesh, and Undead, the anthology runs the gamut of undead stories.

The reader will notice three Hoyts in this collection, an editor and two writers. Whether they are all related I don’t know (I’m pretty sure the two writers are a married couple), but the first of the writers is also the first story in this collection. Sarah A. Hoyt’s “A Grain of Salt” is an Asian mythology based tale of the afterlife. Hui Fang has died before his time, a very young man and unmarried. His parents, wishing him happy in the afterlife, arranged for his body to be married to a dead woman’s bones. Unfortunately, they didn’t vet the young woman quite well enough and Hui and his new wife end up running through Hell.

Hoyt’s tale is unique in this anthology for its use of Asian mythology, instead of traditional Western tropes. As well, it has wonderful plot twists and funny little jokes about the bureaucracy of Hell. This story ends happily, and was an excellent choice for drawing in readers.

“The Poet Gnawreate and the Taxman” by Dave Freer takes the old adage “only two things are certain: death and taxes” and twists it on its head. Most people assume that at death, at least the taxes end. But what if taxes were even more certain than death? The story is clever, taking a trope and flipping it over and looking at it from a different direction. Through in a witch, and a macabre seen reminiscent of Sweeny Todd, and you get quite a great story, with a funny and lighthearted end.

Laura Resnick’s “Infernal Revenant Service” posits an antithesis to that tool of the devil, the IRS. The protagonist has passed away, and now must submit his application to heaven before he can enter. But his sins, while not numerous, may give him a stay in purgatory. Is there a way to lessen that stay? The dialogue between the protagonist and Saint Lucy, his interviewer, reveals there just might be. This story has lots of give and take dialogue; the same sort on might encounter between two businesspeople doing a deal, or in a job interview, but with a hilarious twist. Resnick’s story is definitely my favorite of the Afterlife section, and probably of the whole anthology.

Esther M. Friesner, well known for her comic fantasy and SF, tells the tale of a wizard who gets his comeuppin’s in “Mummy Knows Best”. Friesner uses this story as an opportunity to poke a little fun at the Hollywood establishment, with all its stereotypes. A very funny piece of fiction, Friesner’s Egyptian mythology based tale is a bit about feminist empowerment, but mostly it is about giving overly clever people their just desserts.

Opening the “Spirit” section of the anthology, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s “Genius Loci” ended up being a disappointment. I had heard good thing about the author, but this haunted house story was more the beginning of a story than something complete. An archeologist comes to stay in a house rumored to be haunted by a spirit a Pacific Islander. Yarbro fails to really build any suspense, only having the archaeologist feel eyes on her, as she sleeps. When the final reveal about the nature of the spirit ends the story in way that should have created surprise or fear in my mind, I just went “Huh?” The story wasn’t scary, or funny, or even complete. I expected better, and was left with an ashen taste in my mouth after reading this dull tale.

Alan Dean Foster has his protagonist encounter a deceased but formerly famous person in “Ah Yehz”. Not familiar with the person in question, I didn’t get the full enjoyment out of this story that Foster wanted, but it was an enjoyable tale bout being careful what you say in life, because you just might get it in death. Partially a morality tale, and partially just a completely strange encounter, this story has appeal, but only to a limited group of people familiar with the famous person in question.

Carrie Vaughn’s “Gamma Ray Versus Death” is a superhero tale. After all, what happens to superheroes when they die? They have such abnormal powers; it can’t be the same as for the rest of the peons. Although Vaughn follows the trope of bringing the protagonist back to “life”, it is not in the standard fashion one usually expects from superhero tales. A fine addition to the anthology unique in setting and particulars, from the stories.

Irene Radford breaks with the comic nature of the forgoing tales to write a sadder story about an attempted suicide. Though the story ends sweetly, with a love created, this haunted house story is sad, and will hit close to home for victims of violence. With just the right mixture of hope and sadness, “Museum Hauntings” is emotionally poignant.

“My Tears Have Been My Meat” opens the “Flesh” section of the anthology. Nina Kiriki Hoffman brings to life a truly frightening tale about wife abuse, and the fears of those trapped in such horrible situations. The protagonist’s husband is truly evil and at his death, he returns. Hoffman’s contribution is truly frightening because of its immediacy and truth. There are women who live with the very fear realized by the protagonist. Though the story doesn’t really fulfill the mission of the title of the anthology, it is still an excellent story, though sensitive readers should be careful in reading it.

Every woman has ideals about their perfect man. “The Perfect Man” by Fran LaPlaca, tells the story of one woman’s attempt to create just such a being. But can men ever really deny their nature? In this Frankenstein style story; LaPlaca reminds us that for all a man’s good traits, there will always be some that are less than savory. Quite funny, with a surprise ending that is hilarious.

Jay Lake’s “Two All Beef Patties” is sure to become a favorite among all fans of zombie stories. When the dead begin to fail to stay dead, Lake’s protagonist begins to think that perhaps being dead isn’t such a bad thing. But even undeath isn’t perfect, and the young narrator soon learns that even the undead crave something. The search for that something drives the plot of this story, and any zombie fans with smile with delight at the final solution.

Devon Monk’s little girl protagonist just wants to have her dead dog back. But necromancy has its drawbacks, and when the girl of “That Saturday” manages to bring her dog back, she could not have imagined the consequences. Monk seems to have two stories moving here, and the author probably would have been better off writing two different stories using this character, since the beginning is unrelated to the ending. The two plots switch places right in the middle of the story, and while I understand that Monk thought there was a necessity of the first to bring about the second, I think it could have been written better. Still, the story is cute, and for any reader who has ever loved a dog, this story will have them nodding their heads in agreement.

Robert Hoyt’s “Walking Fossil” is a Jurassic Park/undead story. When a construction worker finds a giant lizard on a construction site, he thinks it nothing less than a dinosaur. To his delight, he finds it is true. But the coworker who helped him find it thinks the beast would be better off dead (though to exist, it has to be undead – a thought never crossing the mind of the humans). So the reader gets a chase scene and a weird mix of dinosaur and undead story, which is an extremely creative idea for a funny little narrative.

We finally move into the final section of the anthology, “Undead” with “Night Shifted” by Kate Paulk. Vampires have to make a living too. Out poor protagonist has to be a clerk in a late-night convenience store. But even the most inoffensive of vampires can be sought out by so-called “vampire hunters”. What we get is an uproarious story of a vampire who just wants to be left alone. This is great story telling, full of action and adventure, but overlaid with a sense from the narrator of incredulity. Great reading.

“Twelve Stepping in the Dark” is about vampires who want to cure themselves of the disease of vampirism. Like their alcoholic counterparts, vampires too can keep themselves sober from the need for blood – at least in theory. Another story of vampires trying not to be trouble, this story is entertaining, but doesn’t have quite the verve of Paulk’s contribution. Nonetheless, the “disease” idea of vampirism is given new life through Rebecca Lickiss‘ story.

In “Gobble, Gobble, One of Us” by Charles Edgar Quinn, the fad mentality of vampirism is made the butt of a joke. Quinn’s vampire hunter protagonist does all he can to kill vampires after a close brush with a vampire nearly made him one. But what is a vampire hunter but a failed vampire? Quinn’s story turns the vampire hunter from hero to anti-hero.

Amanda S. Green’s “Bump in the Night” is one of those stories writers sometimes write about being writers. In this one, however, our writer writes something that is a bit too personal, and we find that not all stories are fiction. A clever story, if not very creepy, it stands out from the crowd in this anthology. It has the sort of black humor that makes sense in an undead story.

The anthology concludes with S.M. Stirling’s tale of a vampire family in “Separation Anxiety.” This is a truly dysfunctional family, and the skilled writing of Stirling wraps up the anthology well with a mixture of creepiness and humor. It’s almost a Mafia story with vampires, at least in the sense that the motivations and back-stabbing would work well in either setting. Stirling again proves why his work is worth reading.

Better Off Undead is an excellent collection. The stories engender any number of emotions, none of them are so much like the other that the reader will feel they are reading the same story over and over again, and Greenberg and Hoyt have divide them up well, as well a chosen good reading material. My only regret is that this book will not be published in time for Halloween, as it would make for good stories to read aloud to scare your friends. Still, if you like undead stories or you’ve wanted to see someone make fun of the seriousness of most paranormal fantasies, this is a good anthology to read.