Filler content with two reviews of the same book

Back in 2002 I received D. Harlan Wilson’s The Kafka Effekt to review for The Dream Zone and decided on a whim to write my review in the same style as the book, but I wasn’t sure if this would be acceptable and so wrote a ‘bog standard’ review as well, sent both in and told editor Paul Bradshaw to use whichever one he preferred. Paul published them both.

So from issue #12 of The Dream Zone, two reviews of The Kafka Effekt by D. Harlan Wilson (which do you prefer?):-

THE KAFKA EFFEKT by D. Harlan Wilson – Reviewed by Peter Tennant using “The Method”

The Reviewer confronts The Book. The Reviewer is annoyed. He had thought that he was receiving a book by Harlan Ellison, a writer whose work he admires, but instead The Book is written by a D. Harlan Wilson, a writer The Reviewer has never heard of, and in such cases The Reviewer feels that inevitably there will be a very good reason why he has never heard of the writer. The Reviewer is, after all, a very well read guy, with his finger on the pulse. The Reviewer feels that he has been made a fool of. Someone is going to regret this. The Book is a paperback, 8.5 inches by 5.5 inches, with a photograph of the author on the back cover. He looks nothing like Harlan Ellison. The front cover is black with a red stick figure of indeterminate gender in the centre. The Reviewer notes the spelling of Effekt in the title. He starts to write “TYPO” on a sheet of notepaper, but then reconsiders. The spelling seems too deliberate to be an error. The Reviewer finds this intensely annoying. How can he be sure anything when the author indulges in such liberties? How, for instance, can he know that the title refers to the Czech writer Franz Kafka and not the American singer Melanie Safka? This author is setting out his stall from the start, an agenda that is subversive to the core, with even the sanctity of language unacknowledged. The Reviewer thinks hard for a moment and then smiles. He writes the word “PRETENTIOUS” on his notepaper. The Book has 216 pages and contains 44 stories of varying length. Some of the stories are only one page long, while the longest is 26. Some of the stories contain drawings. There are sections printed in block capitals, LIKE THIS, and other sections where heavier print is used, like this. Gloating, The Reviewer writes the word “UNEVEN” directly beneath the word “PRETENTIOUS”. The Reviewer is on a roll now. He feels that he has the measure of THE KAFKA EFFEKT and this D. Harlan Wilson guy, who has the temerity not to be Harlan Ellison. He imagines himself in a public urinal standing next to D. Harlan Wilson, each of them furtively staring over the other’s shoulder to see who has the biggest cojones. It’s time to rumble, for The Reviewer to scoop out and swallow down the raw meat of THE KAKFA EFFEKT, and regurgitate it in easily digested morsels for the delectation of the audience he envisages hungering after his opinion, only The Book is not yet ready to be consumed. Picking it up, The Reviewer finds that he can no longer open The Book; it has become a closed book. In fact, on closer inspection, the object in his hand turns out not to be a book at all, but something else entirely, an unknown artefact masquerading as a book, for reasons regarding which he can only conjecture. As The Reviewer watches stitching along the side of The Book begins to slowly unravel. The Book wriggles out of his grasp, as if imbued with a life of its own, and shucks off its book skin. Revealed is an oblong slab of what, at first glance, appears to be gleaming white powder sealed in plastic. The Reviewer panics, recoiling in shock, certain he has been made the victim of some heinous conspiracy. D. Harlan Wilson is trying to infect him, to pollute his mind with an addictive and hallucinogenic substance of unknown provenance. Particles may already have been absorbed into his bloodstream through skin contact and racing towards his brain. Frantic, The Reviewer tears his clothing and begins to claw at his own flesh, the skin peeling away in great sheets until he has ripped off his entire epidermis, intangibles such as genitals and body hair falling away in this route of the flesh. The Reviewer finally stands revealed, not as some flayed androgyne but as the beautiful woman of his secret desire. He turns to a mirror and the image that confronts him is that of a Miss Nude World finalist, or the actress Jenny Agutter as she appeared naked in the climactic barn scene of Equus, his absolutely favourite film of all time. An unearthly sense of calm descends on The Reviewer and he turns once again to THE KAFKA EFFEKT, seeing that it is not powder at all, but a cache of small gemstones, perhaps smuggled out of a South African diamond mine concealed in the bodily orifices of the author. Smiling The Reviewer picks up the bag containing these small but perfectly formed gemstones that are the stories of D. Harlan Wilson and holds them to her breast, over the spot where her heart lies beating. She closes her eyes, to dream of professors of philosophy debating in public urinals and body organs that speak to the constituent whole, of messages that are world without end and women with strange growths sprouting from their foreheads, to enter the mind-set of the writer, entwining reality and the writer’s vision until they merge seamlessly, one and indivisible evermore. Meanwhile, in a hotel room half a world away, Harlan Ellison lies abed with his mouth slightly open, and as a distant church clock tolls midnight he ejaculates into a tin cup.

THE KAFKA EFFEKT by D. Harlan Wilson – Reviewed by Peter Tennant

TDZ readers will already be familiar with the work of D. Harlan Wilson and this attractively packaged collection of 44 stories from Eraserhead Press is a fitting celebration of his quirky talent. Each story is self-contained, a world unto itself, and it is useless to demand logic from them, they exist simply on their own terms, as a causal chain of bizarre events and coincidences that reboot the world in their own likeness as you read, harbingers of an order of reality where the odd is the rule rather than the exception. Recurring images include people removing skin suits to reveal who they really are and body parts that possess minds of their own, while elsewhere there are allusions to literature and philosophy, ingenious wordplay and typographical effects. There are also moments of horror, albeit that kind of horror that holds us spellbound with fascination at the same time it repels, and plentiful flashes of humour, dark and otherwise, especially in my favourite story, ‘Stagefright’, which applies modern philosophy and literary criticism to the small matter of urinating in public. Exuberant and brimming over with ideas, this collection will nonetheless for most, I suspect, be an acquired taste, best consumed in small measures rather than gulped down wholesale. Wilson’s work is too idiosyncratic to ever win him a large audience, but in a time of brand name publishing it’s vital that people go on writing stuff like this, fiction that defies our expectations of storytelling and the written word, and does so in a manner that’s refreshingly off the wall.

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Filler content from Lake Wu

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #37 back in 2004:-

Wheatland Press pb, 246pp, $19.95

Each story in this first collection from talented writer Jay Lake comes with an illustration by the artist Frank Wu, images that bring the prose alive in new and exciting ways, suggesting that the book is a collaboration in the true sense of the word and not simply a matter of a hired gun artist coming in to add a few frills after the hard work has been done.

The collection opens with ‘The Courtesy of Guests’, a beautifully written story in which two evolved humans return to destroy the world that gave their kind life, and an alien shapeshifter joins forces with a sentient city to prevent this happening. Lake has an eye for the extraordinary, and his characters are a compelling blend of the known and strange, making their interplay a source of endless fascination. ‘The Trick of Disaster’, in which a Clown visits a small community in search of sinners, is reminiscent of Cordwainer Smith’s short work, a superb evocation of the sinister quality of clowns and revelling in its inversion of customary values. The savage and moving ‘Eglantine’s Time’ has a genetically advanced woman wreaking revenge on her creators, a story that examines the moral issues attendant upon technology and gives them a human dimension without descending into the realms of polemic. ‘The Scent of Rotting Roses’ is set in the wake of the collapse of a galactic civilisation, with scavengers visiting isolated worlds in search of lost technology, and this time getting far more than they bargained for, the story serving up a fascinating medley of ideas and people, but ultimately not quite convincing. In contrast ‘G. O. D.’ is provocative, witty and entertaining, an assemblage of three vignettes on the theme of deity, touching upon myth, fairy tale and religion. ‘The Angle of My Dreams’ has a young boy inspired by the Challenger disaster to discover the secret of flight, this in turn serving as a metaphor for his troubled relationship with his grandfather, the one a dreamer and the other too scared to imagine anything more than he can hold in his hand, a moving account of innocence and redemption. ‘Tall Spirits, Blocking the Night’ involves an encounter with otherworldly beings, an eerie and effective tale packed with unsettling imagery.

‘Who Sing but Do Not Speak’ is perhaps the least effective story here, detailing the quest of an insectoid being for beauty, with little to offer the reader except as curiosity piece, while ‘Glass: A Love Story’ is a clever adaptation of the Greek myths, as a man falls in love with a woman made out of glass and undertakes a trip to the centre of a labyrinth to win her heart. ‘The Murasaki Doctrine’ is the longest story, a novella in which a human colony world is invaded by insectoid aliens and the humans fight to warn the Earth before the enemy’s nefarious scheme can be put into operation. More than any of the other stories this is pure adventure, reminiscent in many ways of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, taking off at a terrific clip and never slowing the pace for a moment, packed with incident, invention, action and memorable characters, not least of them the old warhorse Murasaki herself. In the truly horrific story ‘The Goat Cutter’ a young boy encounters the Devil, an evocation of evil so strong you can almost feel the corruption coming off of the pages and taste it in the back of your throat as you read. ‘Jack’s House’ is another tour de force of invention, a vast domicile abandoned by its human owner and fought over by packs of mice, rats, cats and other, more nebulous creatures. Joshua the rat leaves the house in search of an alliance with the dogs to save his tribe from defeat. Imagine The Wind in the Willows rewritten by Stephen King and you’ll have some idea of what this one is like. Finally in ‘The Passing of Guests’ we pick up the story of Port and Ahriman, the sentient city and alien shapeshifter of the first story, incalculable millennia in the future as they confront the heat death of the universe and cast about them for an alternative, an elegiac piece that nicely rounds out the collection, with its hint of a new beginning and endless possibility.

Reading Lake one cannot help being reminded of other writers (Smith, Heinlein, Leiber, Asimov etc) and yet, while written in a recognised tradition and wearing their influence lightly, these stories are uniquely his own, dealing with themes that are universal, fashioned with all the skill of a born craftsman and fired with the passion of the true iconoclast. It’s early days yet, but I suspect that this young writer has great things ahead of him (Editor/blogger’s note – sadly Jay Lake passed away in 2014).

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Filler content with somnambulists

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #35 back in 2003:-

Marion Arnott
Elastic Press pb, 204pp, £6.00
reviewed by Peter Tennant

Arnott is a relatively new writer who has made a very real impact in a short time, scooping up awards and honourable mentions like they’re going out of fashion, and all of it much deserved. This latest offering from Norwich based Elastic Press collects together eleven of her stories, touching on themes of misogyny, child abuse and man’s inhumanity to man, horrors of the everyday that Arnott distils down and renders tangible with the precision and skill of a master of the short form.

The collection opens with perhaps her best known story, ‘Prussian Snowdrops’, originally published in TTA’s sister publication Crimewave, which is set against the backdrop of Hitler’s Germany and has an inquisitive newshound investigating what happened to the inmates of an asylum in the country, a chilling secret that plunges him into the depths of an ethical dilemma. Anyone with a passing knowledge of 20th Century history will of course realise exactly where this story is going, but Arnott’s gift is in the way she makes situations that seem familiar and predictable appear hideously unreal, developing them with a rigour that brings out even more of the latent horror. The problem becomes for the reader, as for her protagonist Karl, not so much a matter of knowledge as what is to be done with this terrible information. Karl is led to accept that there are more vital issues in life than his career, but also to the realisation that he simply does not have the courage to back up his convictions, and we are thrown back on our own resources, left high and dry and wondering how we would act if the same thing happened to us. This is a beautifully crafted story, one that engages both the emotions and the intellect, while refusing the reader comfort from either.

‘Fortune’s Favourite’ shares a similar milieu but is an altogether slighter piece, with Norwicki blessing his luck all the time while never realising what soon becomes apparent to the reader, that the train he is on is bound to a concentration camp, the quality of the writing complemented by the acid irony of the end. A similar feeling informs ‘A Small Miracle’, in which a woman recovers from what was thought to be a terminal illness, only for her husband to realise that she is a completely changed person, someone who now accepts the tents of a faith she has rejected all her life, calling into question the exact nature of this miraculous recovery and the bargains that people make with providence.

At forty pages ‘Dollface’ is the longest story in the collection and one of the most impressive. Charlie is distraught at the imminent death of the father who has looked after him ever since his mother walked out on them many years ago and from whom he has inherited many of his own misogynistic attitudes. He finds solace in an internet chatroom with the enigmatic caller known only as Dollface, a person to whom he can reveal more of himself than ever before, though as she draws him out Charlie is led to question his memories of the past and all that he thinks of as right and true. It soon becomes obvious where this is going, but such is Arnott’s skill at construction and giving her characters depth that this transparency is pushed into a siding as the reader is carried along on a rush of dark dreams, recovered memories and clues that can only add up in one way. The story is a subtle and powerful evocation of misogyny, and a terrible indictment of attitudes we all too often pay lip service to through simple thoughtlessness.

The title story ‘Sleepwalkers’ reads like a condensed version of Alice Hoffman’s novel Property Of, as the abused Anne-Marie finds redemption of a kind through the love of Ricki, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, two lost souls reaching out to each other in the night and doomed to fail. The grim ‘Princess’ attempts to get inside the mind of a child abuser and succeeds to deliver a chilling picture of aberrant psychology, a monster whose motives make sense entirely when taken on his own terms, while ‘Angel’ is the story of a woman trying to win the heart of a married man and refusing to face up to the reality that she is just being used, a bitter little threnody on the war of the sexes. ‘Yes’ is one of the few low points in the collection, as Mick the milkman receives poetic justice in payment for his sexist ways, a story that is perhaps too much a by the numbers revenge piece, too obviously rooted in wish fulfilment, with the depiction of Mick’s behaviour coming close to parody, and palls in comparison to the others.

From the worst to the finest with ‘Marbles’ (also first published in Crimewave), which is my personal favourite and yet another exercise in the masterly plot construction that is Arnott’s forte, with a middle-aged woman secretly terrorising the old man who has just moved into the street where she lives. At first our sympathies are entirely with the put upon Ken, but as the story progresses and more parts of the jigsaw slot into place the moral high ground shifts; we come to see that Miss Buchan is not simply mad, but that there are sound reasons for the way she acts, and perhaps there are those of us who applaud her behaviour. The skill and ease with which Arnott puts this story over complement the moral dilemmas that it addresses, and she tears your heart out with the very real pain of the people who come so dramatically and convincingly alive on the page.

‘Underground’ is the shortest story and also the slightest, a snapshot of a woman being abused by a man on a tube train and attempting to turn the tables on her molester but finding nothing other than futility in the act. Finally we have ‘Madeleine’ which puts a fictional spin on a famous court case, that of a Madeleine Hamilton Smith in 1857 accused of murdering her lover Emile L’Angelier, using it as a mirror to reflect double standards in the society of that day and perhaps our own also.

Arnott’s stories are not comfortable reading, perhaps especially for the male reader; nor should they be as the horrors she evokes and then dissects in such meticulous and panful detail are very real, issues that affect us all. She straddles the boundary between Horror and Crime fiction with ease, and her work should appeal to both sets of readers. This collection is one any serious lover of short fiction will want on their shelves and contains three of the finest examples of the form that I have seen in recent years.

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Filler content with cold print

A review that originally appeared in The Dream Zone #12 back in 2002:-

COLD PRINT #3 – Reviewed by Peter Tennant

Cold Print doesn’t have the professional look of some magazines, with card end pages in lieu of a wraparound cover and 54 A4 sheets side stapled but, to put that in context, it costs only £2 and you get plenty of content for your money. And, to be fair, it doesn’t really look that shabby. The print is clear, the layout uncomplicated and there are few typos. Artist Steve Fabian provides a striking Cthulhuesque image for the cover, while most of the interior illustration consists of photographs that have reproduced rather well. The content splits roughly down the middle between fiction and non-fiction, and is a heady eclectic brew, editor John Ratcliffe publishing apparently whatever takes his fancy. There are three interviews, with writers Stephen Palmer, Nicholas Royle and Jon Courtenay Grimwood, all of whom have interesting things to say, Grimwood in particular providing good copy. In ‘Heaven or Hell’, a regular feature, writer Beth Webb offers her favourite (and worst) books, films, music etc. (think ‘Desert Island Discs’, but with a wider scope). There are reviews, with an emphasis on obscure poetry collections, and a comment piece by Rupert Loydell in which he disses the comics medium, but so good-naturedly fans needn’t bother to take offence. Two oddities round out the non-fiction, ‘Latency, Loss and Recapture’ by Robert Joyce, looking at the artistic potential of old Super 8 film stock, and ‘Against the World’ by A. C. Evans, which I’d guess is a spoof but maybe not, an article with plenty of learned asides about one of those forbidden books Horror writers are so fond of. Like I said, eclectic. Of the fiction ‘Muezzinland’ is the most accomplished, an escapade in some future Africa which intriguingly blends high tech and tribal culture, though sadly this isn’t a story but a taster extract from Stephen Palmer’s novel of the same title. Nearly as good, and certainly more self-contained, is Steve Redwood’s grotesquely imagined ‘Stillborn’, which cleverly explores an unhappy marriage through the metaphor of the child the couple never had. In ‘Oblivion Fade’ David Murphy presents a grim, media dominated world of the future and examines the effects of this self-imposed dystopia on one individual. Not so satisfying is one page ‘Transparency’ by Robert Garlitz and Rupert Loydell, which is more in the nature of prose poem than story, compellingly phrased certainly, but too self-indulgently abstract. Similar problems afflict ‘A Blue Plastic Bag’ by Ian Robinson, which again is well written and intriguing, but ultimately too vague to deliver on its early promise. Cold Print is an interesting magazine with a lot to commend it, and a bargain at only £2, though I can’t help feeling it suffers somewhat from too wide a focus and in trying to be all things to all readers will leave many only part satisfied.

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Filler content with birds

A review that originally appeared in The Dream Zone #12 back in 2002:-

FOR THE BIRDS by Joseph Farley – Reviewed by Peter Tennant

This neatly produced volume from Cynic Press contains fifteen stories by American writer Joseph Farley, and is very much a book of two halves. The first seven pieces have a “found art” quality to them, where context defines identity, with little to justify their status as stories other than inclusion in a volume of the same. ‘House Painting’ is, more or less, a description of a family painting a house, ‘Waiting For The T’Bus’ is about somebody waiting for a bus and ‘A Conversation With Alvin’ is… You get the idea. Occasionally, as with ‘Bicycle Ride’, the most developed of these, we get the hint of something much darker going on in the background, but it never becomes more than supposition. What we have here are incidents presented as stories, not particularly well written or memorably characterised, with a few moments of humour as the only saving grace. They create an air of anticipation, but never deliver on the promise. Then Farley abandons naturalism and gets his act together, almost as if making a conscious decision to reward the reader for persevering through this trial by tedium, and the next eight stories are sheer delight, the humour coming to the fore and linked with bizarre imagery and compelling whimsy. As an example, the mock ironic ‘Promised Land’ has the Israelites emerging from the wilderness and finding that the land of milk and honey isn’t all it was cracked up to be, a debacle testing Moses’ spin doctory to breaking point. ‘The Big Z’ deftly applies the fine art of pyramid selling to religion, while ‘The Great Man Of The People And His Son’, a canny study of emotional overkill, has the world quite literally flooded by an absurd outpouring of public grief in the wake of the Great Man’s demise. ‘Beware The Storm Troopers’ will probably strike a chord in the heart of many a small press editor, as members of an indifferent public are rounded up by armed men and marched off to attend poetry reading (ve have ways to make you listen!). The collection ends with ‘Invertebrate In The Making’, in which the narrator’s backbone is removed so that he can be just like all the rest of us. The metaphor’s strong, but picking too hard at the implications is probably not good for the ego. Short and pithy, these stories seize on everyday absurdities and magnify them to telling effect. They show that Farley is a comedy writer to be reckoned with. It’s just a pity about the first half of the book.

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Filler content with a green face

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #67:-

Dedalus pb, 224pp, £9.99

Originally published in 1916 and Meyrink’s most famous novel after The Golem, this is a work rich in occult tradition. Set in a Holland flooded with refugees of all nations, it is the story of Fortunatus Hauberrisser, whose life is changed when he discovers a hidden shop of curios and its enigmatic owner.

Hauberrisser is haunted by visions of a mysterious green face, which he believes to belong to the Wandering Jew of European myth. He attempts to find the shop again and the owner of that face, getting involved with various occult groups, but instead he encounters the beautiful Eva, with whom he falls in love.

The two are souls destined to be united in a mystical wedding and ascend to some new level of being, but before they can declare themselves Eva is abducted. Hauberrisser searches for her in vain and instead decides to study the occult in the hope of securing the key to her release. Against a backdrop of catastrophe he struggles through to a new and shattering realisation of the nature of the universe.

This is a book rich in ideas, its text dense with occult imagery and thought, fascinating theories about the nature and purpose of our lives, and I think it would take me several readings to unravel all its sense. There is excellent characterisation, Meyrink demonstrating a keen eye for human foibles and appreciation of the lengths to which men can be driven in desperate times, and a subversive streak of humour as counterpoint to the general air of seriousness, with Hauberrisser and his friend Baron Pfeill happy to puncture the pretensions of those around them.

Meyrink also excels in creating a vivid sense of place, Holland in the days before WWI, with its diverse populace living in the shadow of disaster to come, which casts a fin de siècle feel over the whole work, while the various mystical groups, with their respective manias are all beautifully realised. The giant sailor who seizes Eva can’t help but bring to mind Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and perhaps strikes the note most out of tune to the modern ear, serving as the occasion for some racist comments that seem completely at odds with the attempted projection of spirituality, but allowances must be made for the time of writing and while the unduly PC will find cause for real concern the rest of us can smile ruefully and shake our heads at past folly.

Translated by Mike Mitchell and with an informative and illuminating afterword by Franz Rottensteiner, The Green Face is a fascinating text by a writer not as well known to UK readers as he perhaps should be, and Dedalus, who are now just one volume away from bringing all of the author’s novels back into print in English language editions, are to be thanked for keeping Meyrink’s work in the public arena.

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Filler content with flying machines

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #67:-

Cemetery Dance Publications hc, 336pp, $27.95

Stephen King is afraid of flying, as he makes abundantly clear in the introduction to this anthology, categorising it as an activity with “all the charm and excitement of a colorectal exam”, and never mind all those statistics showing how safe air travel is compared to other modes of transport. Flight or Fright contains sixteen stories and one poem. Two of the stories, by Joe Hill and King himself, are original to the collection, while the earliest of what we have on offer, Ambrose Bierce’s flash fiction from 1899, predates powered flight itself. King also provides story notes for each literary gem, while co-editor Bev Vincent in his afterword relates how the anthology came into existence, among other things.

Opening story by E. Michael Lewis is told from the viewpoint of a US loadmaster who, in lieu of his usual ‘Cargo’, ends up with the unenviable task of shepherding the dead bodies of children back from Jonestown. There are hints of the supernatural to the story, but hints is all they are, with the real thrust of the narrative having to do with men under pressure in an extreme situation and how they can become unnerved, even the most professional. It is an unsettling story primarily because it highlights the evil and inexplicable acts human beings are capable of. We have an outré entity in ‘The Horror of the Heights’ by Arthur Conan Doyle, a tale from the early days of manned flight, when heroic aviators competed to attain ever greater altitudes. In this story one man has a theory about what may exist at certain heights. While it remains a gripping read, the backdrop to the story has already been rendered null. The joy here is in reading of the aviator’s exploits, seeing the clues planted in the text as to what may exist up there, and the final, inevitable revelation as to the horror of the heights.

Perhaps the most famous horror story ever written on the fear of flying, Richard Matheson’s ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ picks up on the idea of gremlins with a protagonist who believes that he sees a creature on the wing of the plane in which he is travelling, and that it intends to cause a crash. Wilson is unable to convince anyone else of the truth of the situation, is just another man afraid of flying who is willing to cause a scene, and the beauty of the story lies in his descent into madness and the ambiguity with which Matheson infuses the narrative, so that we can never really be sure to what degree the things he is seeing are real or simply the hallucinations of a frightened mind.

Ambrose Bierce’s one pager ‘The Flying Machine’ is more about human gullibility than manned flight, with people willing to invest in something as fanciful as the titular flying machine despite all the evidence that it is a very bad idea. It’s a neat idea that doesn’t outstay its welcome. In ‘Lucifer!’ by E. C. Tubb a man steals a time travel device from some future tourist, and though he can only go fifty seven seconds into the past it is enough for him to indulge all his vices, including gambling and murder. Finally he gets hoist by his own petard thanks to an unfortunate incident with an airplane. There are a lot of good ideas here, the story rich in invention and showing how this very limited form of time travel might be made to work, though ultimately it is a story about a bad lot getting his much deserved comeuppance, and as such it pleased me very much. An apologist for state sponsored torture gets on board the wrong plane in Tom Bissell’s ‘The Fifth Category’ and, like the protagonist of the previous story, ends up on the rough end of poetic justice. Bissell does a good job of critiquing American policy on the subject of torture and, in the character of John, provides us with an eloquent spokesperson, albeit one who lacks the self-honestly to see what he really is, with his love of putting things in compartments and thus enabling himself to pardon and justify the inexcusable. The telling is calm, but in the final analysis this is a very angry story, and rightly so.

A guilt ridden man seeks redemption of a sort in ‘Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds’ by Dan Simmons, a bright, short story that effortlessly blends together guilt and bad memories, cleverly conflating the crash of a Gulfstream jet with the image of a rollercoaster ride into oblivion. Cody Goodfellow’s ‘Diablitos’ has a man who smuggles stolen cultural artefacts back into the States become the victim of an ancient curse, with things going very wrong on board the plane he takes. It’s a familiar plot, but made special by Goodfellow’s epic writing style and the horrific images of plague and disaster with which he fills the tale. Time travellers from a post-apocalyptic future seek to save the remnants of mankind by stealing people from doomed airplanes in ‘Air Raid’ by John Varley, another story with a science fictional twist and a wealth of incidental invention to carry us through to the bittersweet end note.

One of two previously unprinted stories, Joe Hill’s ‘You Are Released’ was my personal favourite. It is told from the viewpoint of passengers and crew on board a plane that is in the air when what appears to be a nuclear war breaks out. Hill captures perfectly the tone of voice of each member of his diverse cast, their growing sense of panic as events unfold and it becomes obvious that this is not an exercise or a false alarm. It is, out of all these stories, the one that feels most pertinent to the world as it is today, the story that has the greatest chance of coming true, and all the more unsettling for that. From strongest story to the one I felt was the weakest with ‘Warbirds’ by David J. Schow. A man whose father served in the USAF during WWII seeks out a member of his father’s old crew to verify an “urban” legend that has haunted him. There’s a wealth of detail here, and it was made all the more interesting for me personally in that the air crew operated out of a base in my native village of Shipdham, and yet in among all that detail it felt very much that Schow had lost sight of his goal, so that at the end I wasn’t much clearer about the point of it all than I was at the beginning.

Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Flying Machine’ is an elegant fable set in ancient China, but at its heart is a harsh moral lesson about the uses to which new technology will be put, the beauty of the words and the underlying sense of sorrow at what takes place demonstrating Bradbury’s oeuvre at its very best. ‘Zombies on a Plane’ by Bev Vincent does pretty much what it says on the tin, as a group of survivors try to escape the zombie apocalypse that has engulfed the civilised world by taking to the skies in a plane. This is a tense, cinematic tale, one that brings to mind the remake of Dawn of the Dead, but ends with a reminder that we always carry the seeds of our own destruction with us, that fate is a hard and uncaring taskmaster who’ll catch us on the way out if he misses us on the way in. Set in WWII, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ finds Roald Dahl in a bittersweet mood, his explanation of what happened to a missing airman presenting us with a vision of a post-death gathering of slain pilots, a hint at something truly celestial, a brotherhood that endures beyond death and eclipses mortal rivalry.

Peter Tremayne’s ‘Murder in the Air’ presents us with a variation on the locked room murder mystery, a dead businessman found in an aircraft toilet. Fortunately criminologist Gerry Fane is aboard the plane to cross question the suspects and come up with an explanation for the seemingly impossible crime. Engrossing and thoroughly entertaining, this had about it the feel of a cosy detective story, but one decked out in modern technological trim. The protagonist of Stephen King’s tale is ‘The Turbulence Expert’, employed by a mysterious authority to travel on planes for reasons that become horribly obvious as the story unfolds. It’s a novel idea and developed with King’s usual flair and gift for making the impossible sound not only credible but eminently likely. Nor does the author stint on the horror of the situation, as his hero’s “gift” hinges on his ability to visualise and live through plane crashes. Finally we have prose poem ‘Falling’ by James Dickey, which is based on a true story and gives us a stream of consciousness account of the last moments of an air hostess who has been sucked out of a plane at 33,000 feet up. It is a powerful piece, made all the more so by the vividness of Dickey’s imagery, and the at times almost erotic manner in which he depicts his character’s plight.

Overall this was an excellent anthology, one that captured the very best in airborne thrills and spills, but it probably won’t find an audience among those intent on convincing us that it really is more dangerous to travel by car, or be showing up on the bookshelves in airport stores any time soon.

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