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Review by
Steven W. Woeste
Editors:- Richard Gilliam, Martin H. Greenberg, Edward E. Kramer.
Publisher: Penguin Books USA/ROC
PB $5.99

CONFEDERACY OF THE DEAD is many different things, most of them good. Of the good things, included is a large amount of reading material for your money, almost 500 pages in paperback for about $6. Most of the stories are good, too, though some are just average, and a few are marginal.

CONFEDERACY OF THE DEAD is an anthology of horror stories, usually told from the Southern perspective during the civil war. While the war is the setting for some of the tales, it is a minor backdrop or mention for others. That’s only to be expected, considering the wide range of writing styles, lengths, and the personalities of the writers.

The best stories are those by the masters, like Karl Edward Wagner, and Algis Budrys. Though trained as a physician, Wagner had been writing horror stories for years before appearing in this collection. I personally first noticed him when I read his short story “Sticks”, back in 1976. Now, like then, he told tales of creeping dread, in the most ordinary settings. Budrys has written novels of feverish and fantastic imagination. Both are in fine form in this collection, with Wagner having written “Hell Creek”, and Budrys’ penning “Grabow and Collicker and I”.

To whet your appetite, “Hell Creek” is about German soldier, Becker, serving in the Confederacy, but in an alternate history to our own. There, the Civil War has taken a different turn, with England helping the South by breaking the Union blockade of the seaports. The war threatens to drag on into the 1870s. The history, however, is not the point of the story. Ever the practical, rational German, Becker attempts to apply standard military tactics to dealing with a close encounter of the walking dead. Will they work? Will he live? Maybe you’ll get the book? Despite it starting as a fairly conventional zombie story (with a morality tale tossed in for good measure), it is a good character study of someone, who despite his military training and rigid habits, can put those aside when the “tried and true” techniques just don’t work.

“Grabow and Collicker and I” shows what a short story can be when crafted by a true master. Imaginative, vivid, unusual, intense, and all the other usual superlatives can be applied here, and not do justice to it. Without giving the story away, it can be summed up with a statement one of the characters (Grabow) makes; “assume you died….and I offer you a second chance?” While that’s the essence of the story, there is much more to the specifics than that. What would it be like for a soldier, fighting in the most desperate battles of the Civil War, to be unkillable? How would you come to regard yourself, or others like you, as you are shot away, piece by piece, incapable of dying? The living won’t have you, and others like yourself shun you. What point is there to existence? Again, what might have been an ordinary “Frankenstein” type story, where the patchwork dead are brought back to life, is instead a superb examination of what immortality really means. “Yes, there’s advantages” as one of the characters states, but it’s the disadvantages that are the devil in the details.

And what of the other tales? While I would like to say they are all as outstanding as the above two, they are not. Of the others, there are certainly strong entries, like “Two Yellow Pine Coffins”, “Terrible Swift Saw”, and “The Third Nation”. Most of the other stories are decent, while a few are inferior. For whatever reason, one of the most common themes in the collection is the walking dead; at least half a dozen stories feature them. There are a handful of tales with witches, and a few with ghosts. One or two of them are really not horror stories at all, like “Beast” and “The Face”.

You’ll certainly find stimulating reading in CONFEDERACY OF THE DEAD; it’s best stories easily make the grade. However, the majority of them are only typical examples of “thinking” stories, and use familiar plots. Whether or not you’ll find the whole book carried by just some of its stories is a choice you’ll have to make.

BookWyrm rating3

This review copyright 2001 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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