Books are a lot like people. Sometimes the most popular ones—the charmers, the egomaniacs, the ones wearing sunglasses inside a club—turn out to be nauseatingly superficial and lacking any substance whatsoever while the unassuming ones who may be perceived as introverted wallflowers turn out to be engaging, thoughtful and endlessly intriguing individuals who turn out to be lasting—and life-changing—friends.
Here’s what I mean. The Book of the Living Dead is essentially a collection of undeniably classic horror stories (published between 1824 and 1940) by a laundry list of literary icons: Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, H.P. Lovecraft, Mark Twain, Jack London, Alexander Pushkin, Washington Irving, etc. but the cover is decidedly wallflowerish: a murky, completely forgettable graveyard scene with this ho-hum tagline: “Explore the other side of mortality with the world’s greatest writers.” Yawn…
This anthology has been sitting in my “to read” pile for months—but I’ve always seemed to find some other more appealing book to pull out and read. Day in and day out, The Book of the Living Dead sat there like a wallflower girl at a dance sitting unnoticed in the corner twiddling her thumbs. Thankfully, I was craving some spooky historical short stories for Halloween and remembered this anthology.
Note to self: never judge a book by its cover.
But the reason why I will keep this anthology in my library is the inclusion of so many wonderful old stories that I’ve never read before. Théophile Gautier’s “The Amorous Corpse” (1836) was simply brilliant, revolving around a poor country priest who becomes besotted by a strikingly beautiful courtesan and unknowingly begins a nightmarish descent into depravity with one of the undead. London’s “A Thousand Deaths” (1899) pits a sailor drowning in San Francisco bay—and later resuscitated—against a mad scientist (who happens to be his estranged father) who transports him to an uncharted South Sea island from horrific experiments in bodily revivification. Thomas Burke’s “The Hollow Man” (1933) follows a “thin figure of pain and woe” as it travels from its unmarked grave in Africa to the streets of London in search of an old friend. Sir Hugh Clifford’s “The Ghoul” (1916) may have been the most disturbing selection, about an alleged man of science who witnesses a necromantic atrocity deep in the jungles of Malaysia.
In the anthology’s introduction, editor Stephens opines why undead creatures like vampires, zombies, mummies, and reanimated corpses in fiction are so intriguing to writers and readers alike:
“Death is creeping up on us all and sooner or later it will strike each of us down. We do our best to ignore it, but our time is running out. Many people are confident they know what will happen after that, but no one really knows for sure. Belief is not the same as knowledge, no matter how much we may want to convince ourselves that it is.
While the idea of life after death greatly appeals to most people, becoming one of the living dead is not, of course, what they have in mind. The tales of this book take the desire for a continued existence and turn it into a nightmare. Everyone also has a strong desire for the return of loved ones who have passed on. These tales also play off that to create some chilling images. This book is about the dark side of life after death…”
So, horror fans, please check out this beautiful wallflower of an anthology—find an empty chair at your local Barnes and Noble and sample a few of these timeless stories. The Book of the Living Dead isn’t just a stellar collection of historical horror gems, it’s also an invaluable reference for anyone who enjoys following the evolution of horror through the centuries. I loved this anthology—this literary equivalent of a nerdy Jessica Alba—and I hope you do too.
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.