‘This Year’s Class Picture’ was originally published in 1992 in the anthology ‘Still Dead’, when author Dan Simmons was much less well-known than he is today. It had a huge impact at the time, winning the Stoker, Sturgeon and World Fantasy Awards for short fiction over the following year. Subterranean Press have decided to re-issue this relatively early horror novelette in a deluxe hardcover edition as part of their on-going project to publish limited edition collectable volumes of all Simmons’ key works.
The story follows a day in the life of American primary school teacher Ms. Geiss, a spinster in her sixties who has taught fourth graders for the last thirty-eight years. She is such a dedicated teacher that not even the fall of civilisation seven years ago has prevented her from continuing to educate and encourage the children in her care. As zombies took over the planet, Ms. Geiss’ classroom remained a beacon of order and discipline in an ever more unruly world. So it was almost inevitable that when the last of her living pupils succumbed to the zombie plague, Ms. Geiss merely tweaked her entrance requirements and started to teach zombie children instead of living ones.
The day on which the story is set is a special day for two reasons. First, it’s their annual class picture day, when Ms. Geiss takes a photo of all her pupils to put up alongside the thirty-eight pictures of her previous years’ pupils already on the wall. Second, a new zombie child has found its way to the boundary of the school site. Although her class is already full, Ms. Geiss can’t bring herself to shoot him in cold blood so, instead, she brings him in to join the others.
Of course, teaching a class full of pint-sized, flesh-eating zombies has its own challenges. Not only do you need to avoid being eaten alive but there’s also the question of how you ensure your undead pupils pay attention during lessons. Ms. Geiss has several innovative ways of addressing both problems, managing to keep order and simultaneously reward good behaviour in this newly transformed world much as she did in the old one. However, the countryside outside her school is filled with undead adults who are dying to have the primary school teacher for lunch. Can she keep herself safe, so that she can continue to deliver an enriching curriculum for her inattentive charges?
At around nine thousand words, this is quite a short novelette, yet Simmons manages to pack an awful lot of material into that confined space. Ms. Geiss comes across as a woman whose dedication, both to her profession and to the charges in her care, knows no bounds. She is not, however, a model of perfection. On a couple of occasions, her private musings betray a deep intolerance of aspects of the pre-apocalypse world that she viewed as ‘politically correct’. On the other hand, her private life prior to the fall of the world of man was tragically lonely.
Ms. Geiss may be the only sentient character that we meet in the story but that doesn’t stop Simmons from differentiating her zombie pupils from each other, making clear through their actions that they are still individuals, even in their reduced state. He also does a great job of making this horrific scenario come to life – as it were – through the use of telling details, such as the origins of the nuggets Ms. Geiss uses as ‘learning rewards’ for the pupils or the things she does to new boy Michael to ensure he won’t pose a danger to her or to his fellow students.
‘This Year’s Class Picture’ is a wonderfully life-affirming tale of how to remain human in the midst of disaster. For those genre fans who only know Simmons from his hugely popular SF novels, this horror story is likely to be a revelation. For everyone else, it’s a case study of how effective short fiction can be if written by a true storyteller. Subterranean Press are to be congratulated for reissuing it in a standalone edition nearly a quarter of a century after its first publication. I hope it finds the new audience it so richly deserves.
(pub: Subterranean Press, 2015 . 54 page deluxe hardback. Price: $20.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-764-6)
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