Interview with Otto Penzler, Editor, ‘Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!’


While there are a great many zombie anthologies on the market these days, few are as comprehensive as Otto Penzler’s newly published collection Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!. Following on the success of his prior anthology of supernatural horror, The Vampire Archives, Penzler’s massive tome exhaustively surveys the breadth of popular literature for the finest tales of the restless dead, both new and classic. The remarkably consistent quality of these stories proves that the editorial talent that Penzler has displayed over a long and fruitful career knows no bounds, be it applied to crime stories or the living dead.

Penzler and I recently spoke about Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!:

Your life reads like a bookworm’s idea of heaven: Bookstore owner, editor and writer, along with a stint running your own imprint. How did all of this life in books begin?

Much like everyone, it started with reading, which I did from the time I was teeny. I seldom wanted toys for Christmas or birthdays; always books. And I saved them, which got me started (inadvertently) collecting. I now have about 58,000 first editions of mystery fiction.

I was asked to co-write a book that eventually won an Edgar, The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, which immediatelt branded me an expert. My partner on the book, Chris Steinbrunner, and I worked on it for more than four years. Just before it was published in 1976, I started my own little publishing company, The Mysterious Press. When I moved into midtown Manhattan at the end of 1978, a friend and I bought the brownstone on 56th Street (for $2,000 down!) and, with all that space, I thought it would be fun to open a bookshop. It wasn’t really planned, but more than 32 years later, The Mysterious Bookshop, now in Tribeca, is still hanging in.

As I look at the table of contents for Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! I find myself amazed at the breadth and scale of your selections. To see W.B. Seabrook*, the guy who wrote The Magic Island, alongside Robert E. Howard, Joe R. Lansdale and H.P. Lovecraft is very exciting. It’s an embarrassment of riches for any reader. How did you go about selecting these entries?

When I start a new anthology, I make a list of what I think I should consider. It’s a big list. OK–it’s a HUGE list. I also read a bunch of reference books and make notes to be sure that I read everything that seems to have importance or, at least, a lot of fans. I read about 450-500 stories for the subtly-titled Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! and, inevitably, selected those I liked the best.

Part of any editor’s job is setting guidelines for what does and doesn’t belong in a collection, and I imagine that even just defining what qualifies as a zombie must have been challenging. Did you finally settle on a definition for zombie? What was your selection criteria like?

I wanted to be inclusive and definitive (with a monster book this size, it better be!) so defined zombies as dead people who come back to life. In the very modern era, they are mainly depicted as brain-eating, rotted corpses with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. I find that pretty narrow, though I lot of good stories have been written in this tightly constructed definition. Although they weren’t called zombies until much later, there have been creepy characters risen from the dead in literature for a very long time. The Victorians wrote some great stuff there, much as they did about vampires and ghosts, and writers for the pulps could really let it go when they brought zombies into their stories in the 1920 and ’30s.

Mystery, crime and suspense literature have been abiding interests throughout your career, but in the last few years you’ve worked with supernatural topics, including what I’ve heard described as the definitive collection of vampire fiction: The Vampire Archives. What prompted this transition?

Money. The first giant book I edited, The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, was extremely successful, so my editor asked if I could do another big book, and what should the subject be? I suggested horror. He’s smarter than I am and said the one word: vampires. Since I earn some of my living by editing anthologies and, as usual, was desperate for a check, I thought this was a great idea. Since then, of course, I’ve continued to edit these 1000-page, double-columned telephone books, including The Big Book of Black Mask Stories (sort of a sequel to the Pulps), The Big Book of Adventure Stories (the most fun you can have with your clothes on), a ghost story collection coming out in the spring and a giant collection of locked-room and impossible crime stories scheduled for next fall.

I see that Zombies! Zombies! Zombies! is described as “tasteful”. Can you elaborate?

Tasteful was probably a bit of wordplay, but it also reflects the fact that my taste ran more to stories that were really well-written rather than those that simply tried to out-gross everyone else.

If a reader has an opportunity to read only one story from Zombies! Zombies! Zombies!, which one would you recommend?

Very tough call, of course, since I don’t know the taste of this hypothetical reader. However, the stories that jump to mind are Seabrook’s “Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields” because it’s such a comprehensive introduction to the genre, and David A. Riley’s “After Nightfall” because it is, holy moley, so damned scary.

*Note: take a moment and read about W.B. Seabrook. An interesting fellow – Matt.