A review that originally appeared in Black Static #13:-
Cern Zoo: Nemonymous Nine
Edited by D. F. Lewis
(Megazanthus Press paperback, 265pp, £10)
This ninth volume in the Nemonymous series collects together 24 stories, all inspired by the cryptic tags Cern Zoo and published without the authors’ identities being linked to the stories, though their names are shown on the back cover. Some of the stories concern zoos, some of them are about the Large Hadron Collider built by CERN, and some of them reference the Cerne Abbas giant, and a few don’t have any connection at all to Cern Zoo, or at least none perceived by this reviewer, which isn’t to say that a connection is not there.
Opener ‘Dead Speak’ falls into the Hadron Collider camp, with journalist Linda meeting a scientist who hints at terrible consequences if CERN’s grand experiment is not stopped, deftly capitalising on ‘real world’ fears about just such a catastrophe, but although it’s well written the story doesn’t really go anywhere, ending in a spiritual cul de sac that toys with the God not playing dice gambit in lieu of anything more solid. There’s not much more to the second entry, the siren song to literary fetishism that is ‘Parker’, a three page prose poem about a man bonding with his pen. It was however more enjoyable, both for the precision of the writer’s prose, and the general air of quirkiness. With third story out of the gate, Cern Zoo unleashes its first big gun. Set in a bar called The Cerne Abbas, ‘Artis Eterne’ is an elegant tale of a man who, quite literally, decides to live in the moment, and by doing so achieves a kind of immortality. There’s a strong mood feel to this and sense of place, with the narrator a wayward soul who only finds what he is looking for when he returns to the place where he first lost it. It’s a fantastical story, but with a firm enough grip on reality to make you think just maybe it could happen as described. ‘The Last Mermaid’ is another winner, a beautifully written fable about the fate of the mermaid and how it brought down the House of Hapsburg, with delightful imagery and rich prose, and a feel of sleazy decadence that put me in mind of Huysman and others of that ilk.
The longest story in the book, ‘The Lion’s Den’ was also my personal favourite, a tale with the whiff of J-Horror about it and more than a hint of Kotzwinkle’s Doctor Rat. The story opens with a young man sacrificing himself in the lion’s den, and from there it develops into a tale of a haunted zoo, with the animals roaming free at night or simply disappearing altogether, while their keepers are barricaded in the control room and not believing what they see on their CCTV monitors. This variation on the lunatics taking over the asylum builds gradually and with assurance, the author slotting in details of zoo life that compel belief, and giving us characters with whom the reader can easily identify, all leading up to a finale of understated menace, one that like Machen’s ‘The Terror’ suggests man’s reign over the animals may finally be over.
To abandon linear reviewing altogether now, it seems to me that generally the shortest stories in this collection are the weakest, though not necessarily bad in themselves. ‘Dear Doctor’ is nothing more than a joke, the whole thing very tongue in cheek, and pretty much the same can be said about ‘Just Another Day Down On The Farm’ and ‘Sloth & Forgiveness’, both of which juxtapose animals and Hadron Colliders for comedic effect and with varying degrees of success. Cutting to a short of a more sinister complexion, ‘Pebbles’ is all about the power of suggestion, with a young boy meeting a girl on a beach and helping her take pebbles up to her house, the real thrust of the story being what has happened to her family and why is she there alone, with the hint of answers we may not wish to hear.
Somewhere just past the halfway mark we get a double whammy of horror stories, or rather stories that are more overtly horrific than their companion pieces. The world of street musicians is focused on in ‘Turn The Crank’, with a sinister organ grinder and his monkey wreaking havoc among the busker set, the back story stretching into the past, and a resolution that succeeds in being both downbeat and triumphant in the same beat. It is perhaps the most traditional piece on offer, but no less successful for that, with a skilled and beautifully paced delivery, and touches of detail that bring the life of street performers to the page with a compelling authenticity. There’s yet more creepiness in ‘The Devourer of Dreams’, a title that reeks of Lovecraft, and a monster to match, a strange, spider-like creature that can feed on the dreams of men, and a writer who milks it of their essence to fuel his own creativity. The story holds the attention all the way, with its truly unnerving creature, and a framing scenario in which the matter of creativity is addressed and the reader’s collusion solicited.
From horror to science fiction, with ‘The Ozymandias Site’ about an alien expedition from Cerne to a derelict world that is almost certainly Earth, mankind’s current status indicated by the title with its Shelley reference. In this complex piece the aliens are a form of gestalt, and their group psyche is disrupted by arguments over the action to be taken regarding what they find. Strong in its depiction of the aliens and their concepts of intelligence, this is a subtle and absorbing story that will probably need a couple more readings to tease out all its levels of meaning and nuances. ‘Being of Sound Mind’ has a retired man welcoming into his house a young girl who thinks he is her grandfather, and naturally enough the authorities suspect the worst, but the truth is far stranger. There’s an intriguing concept at the heart of this story, which deftly blends a growing sense of unease with an appreciation of the very best in human nature.
‘The Rude Man’s Menagerie’ sees a return of the Cerne Abbas giant, whose chalk outline is found in the female protagonist’s back lot, but as with M. R. James’ ‘The Mezzotint’ this is a picture that changes, the figures of animals appearing each night alongside the man. The woman protests this enslavement, but can only defeat it when she is ready to fight the rude man on his own terms. There’s a Peter Pan quality to ‘Mellie’s Zoo’, with Paul leading abused and neglected children to a special zoo where they will find the ideal animal, but while Mellie takes consolation from her new friend there’s a sinister feel to the story as well, the possibility that these animals will break out and destroy the adult world. ‘Strange Scenes From An Unfinished Film’ has a movie buff learning rather more than he wants to about the methodology of the largely unknown director he is obsessed with, in a disturbing story with a strong atmosphere of nihilism at its core.
These stories, along with seven others, make up a collection that has more surprises in store for the reader than most, one where nothing can be taken for granted other than the unexpected.