Filler content with themes – Part 2

Following on from last Friday’s post, the second part of a feature on themed anthologies that originally appeared in Black Static #53:-

THEMED ANTHOLOGIES (continued)

As the title might suggest, there’s a comedic element to many of the stories in JEWS VERSUS ZOMBIES (Jurassic London eBook, 92pp, £2.99), edited by Rebecca Levene and Lavie Tidhar, with any profits from sale of the book going to charity. And I should perhaps mention that there’s a companion volume Jews Versus Aliens.

This anthology of zombie stories with a difference opens with ‘Rise’ by Rena Rossner. Twelve yeshiva students decide to sleep on top of graves in an attempt to imbibe the wisdom of their occupants, but instead of the wise men they seek the students settle down on the graves of their wives, who rise out of the earth to commune with them. Beautifully characterised and with some lush, descriptive passages, this is a story that celebrates life through the presence of death, with the female zombies not minatory at all, but helping the students and letting them go when it is necessary. It’s a warm, life affirming story, with more than a touch of delicious humour. Ofir Touche Gafla’s story is set in a future where the dead have returned to life, but Solvi has grown tired of all that this renewed existence has to offer him, even Goth metal and celebrity status, and so he goes to ‘The Scapegoat Factory’ who give the dead purpose to their lives by allowing them to take the blame for unsolved crimes. It’s a fascinating idea, but in spite of that and regardless of the title, scapegoating is only a side issue in this lively tale of zombies searching for a way out of the tedium of their lives. There’s a wealth of incidental invention, throwaway ideas that put me in mind of the oeuvre of Rhys Hughes, and some pleasing touches of humour.

I’m not at all sure what to make of ‘Like a Coin Entrusted in Faith’ by Shimon Adaf, which seems to be all over the place, with references to Artificial Intelligence, time travel, Jewish mysticism, a midwife who helps deliver demon babies in return for the ability to keep her own dead son alive, and that’s just part of it. With prose passages intercut with epistolary episodes, it keeps the reader guessing what will happen next, and it’s certainly intriguing, with a wealth of ideas, but it’s also one of those pieces where you need a cryptic crossword mind set to have any hope of grasping whatever pattern is lurking there. We get a more regular zombie apocalypse courtesy of Daniel Polansky in ‘Ten for Sodom’, with Ben trapped on top of his building and plotting ways to thwart the appetites of the rapidly approaching zombie horde. While it doesn’t do anything much new with the theme, this is a convincing word picture of a man stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, and trying to summon up the courage to do what he must. Sarah Lotz takes a different tack with ‘The Friday People’, giving us a picture of a generation of old people who never seem to die, who just plough on into the future while their children age and see opportunities slipping away from them. In some ways it reminded me of Dan Simmons’ story ‘The River Styx Runs Upstream’ though in that tale the zombie state was used as a metaphor for dementia, whereas Lotz’s concerns are primarily to do with financial impact. You can, and it’s not a particularly long stretch, even see the central concept of the story as a metaphor for our own society, with a constantly growing population of older people, though having passed the sixty year milestone myself this is not a place I really want to go to.

‘Tactrate Metim 28A’ by Benjamin Rosenbaum is, near as I could figure, a bunch of rabbis arguing about scriptures and a couple of them setting off a zombie plague by raising a dead rabbi to ask him to clarify a point about cucumbers, and after that it just gets silly. This should have been funny, but with the constant declaiming and almost as many footnotes as there were sentences, I found it tiresomely annoying. One of those occasions when you remind yourself that it’s for charity, grit your teeth, and read on. There’s a touch of Bradbury to ‘Wiseman’s Terror Tales’ by Anna Tambour, the story of Irving Wiseman who wants to build rockets when he grows up but while away serving in WWII he is besieged by a cohort of dead women who want him to design brassieres. It is a glorious confabulation of fact and fiction, with the dead women who come to visit Irving just fantasy figures from the pulp magazines he reads, making you wonder if what is really going on here is simply a sublimation of libido, but regardless of what interpretation you put on the material it can’t be denied that Tambour has produced a warm, funny, and ultimately moving story of life in the midst of death.

Lastly we have ‘Zayinim’ by Adam Roberts, set in an alternate reality where in the wake of a Nazi victory in WWII everyone except the Jews became zombies. An embattled group of Jews fight to survive while a young woman looks for the key to safety in the pages of Nietzsche. Again, it’s pretty much business as usual regarding the zombie apocalypse, at least in the picture of a small group fighting against terrible odds, but Roberts makes it that little bit special through the backdrop to the action, related in an almost fable like infodump and with the humour attendant on his main character, the young Jonie seeking wisdom and answers in the pages of Beyond Good and Evil, but not quite grasping what she is reading, susceptible to all sorts of misunderstandings. The story brings this brief collection to a pleasing finish.

First there was Dark Minds and then there was Darker Minds and now, logically enough, we have DARKEST MINDS (Dark Minds Press, 204pp, £7.97), edited by Ross Warren and Anthony Watson. After an introduction by the editors in which it is revealed that the theme behind the anthology is “the concept of crossing a border”, one that I felt was at times so loosely interpreted as to be meaningless, we get down to particulars with an unhappy rich man setting off on a ‘Vacation’ courtesy of writer Glen Krisch. The crux of the story lies in the nature of the vacation being offered, and to reveal that would be a spoiler, but I can say that it is a fascinating concept, one that has implications both as reality and metaphor, and the story itself is beautifully written, with subtle hints in the text of where protagonist Callahan is really coming from, his motives for taking such a drastic step.

Robert Mammone’s story examines the plight of ‘Refugees’ trapped in a detention centre and the dilemma of the officials who have to deal with them, but in this case a particular family is not at all what it seems to be. It’s an interesting story, one that touches on our fear of the unknown and latent xenophobia lurking behind outwardly civilised behaviour, but at the same time in this case it appears that the fear is justified, as the plot careens towards a monstrous and horrific denouement, one that reveals the outré nature of these outsiders. ‘The Great Divide’ by Clayton Stealback is the first person narration of a man who obviously has serious mental health issues, with the gist of the story hidden in the cracks between lines of meaning, so that a picture eventually emerges of something far more sinister than what we see in the foreground of the story. It’s an interesting attempt at delineating madness on the page, but a little too obliquely slanted to entirely succeed for my liking. After the death of his wife, the protagonist of Ralph Robert Moore’s story ‘The 18’ begins to see her likeness in the faces of countless other people, and this in turn leads to a revelation about the nature of reality. As with most of Moore’s stories, this is fast paced and packed with offbeat ideas, the plot gripping with its revelations, albeit to me these did seem a little too obvious to have gone unremarked on by the rest of humanity for so long, and then culminating in a final breakthrough with regard to the consensus reality that both undercuts and validates all that has gone before, a celebration of uniqueness in a world where all seems the same.

Like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, Martyn, the hero of Mark West’s ‘Time Waits’ has become unstuck in time, the net result of all his attempts to save a minute here and a minute there being an ontological shift in the nature of his existence. Underlying the narrative is a subtext about valuing the time we have, to think carefully about the ways in which we spend those precious hours and minutes. Gary Fry gives us a subtle, detailed portrait of an elderly woman coming to the conclusion that she is dissatisfied with her life, that long ago a wrong turn was taken or forced on her, ‘The Catalyst’ for this change the discovery of a mouse buried in a tin in her garden. It’s a tale of dark, brooding psychology, with far more hinted at than is actually revealed, where one thing leads to another culminating in a cathartic but shocking denouement. ‘Under Occupation’ by Tom Johnstone is a slight piece in which a heartless bailiff gets his deserved comeuppance courtesy of a spectral presence, and is well done, with some slight frissons along the way to a conclusion that is satisfying for those of us who like to see the bad guy getting a taste of his own medicine, even if it’s largely a case of fiction writing cheques that reality so often fails to pay out on.

Benedict J. Jones enters the fray with weird western ‘Going South to Meet the Devil’ which reads like the myth of Black Shuck transplanted to a Mexican/USA border setting and multiplied by a factor of ten. Gripping from the start, it’s a hugely entertaining piece, with excellent characterisation, vivid realisation of time and place, and an engaging supernatural menace, and I thoroughly enjoyed every last word of it. Like the Stealback, Andrew Hook’s ‘Bothersome’ is a depiction of somebody’s mental state, in this case I believe that of an elderly woman in a home and suffering from dementia. It’s a torrent of fractured words and imagery, beautifully conveying the muddled thoughts of the story’s protagonist, and engaging on that primal level, but with little to offer anyone in terms of story, the mantra of beginning, middle, and end.

‘The Sea in Darkness Calls’ by David Surface is the story of Jack, estranged from his wife and children, a guest who has overstayed his welcome in the house of his brother, and woven into the plot are images and memories from the past, focused on the death by drowning of a child, an act that haunts Jack. There are hints that everything is not quite as Jack wants us to think, that he bears more than a slice of the blame for his marital breakup and that something even more terrible is hidden in the past, with the story moving inexorably to a denouement that is tragic and haunting. Beautifully understated, Tracy Fahey’s ‘Walking the Borderlines’ gives us a matter of fact account of an encounter with the numinous and the fallout from that. The event itself is slight, nothing more than a hint of something dark in the shadows, something easily dismissed by the rational mind and in broad daylight, but the emotional toll of that moment lingers down the years and there is a high price to be paid in a story that has about it a feel of authenticity, that this is what it is really like to cross paths with a spectral presence.

And so we come to ‘It Came from the Ground’ by Stephen Bacon, the last and the longest story in the anthology, and the best by a country mile, whatever that is. It’s 1994 and photographer Jason is in war torn Rwanda with ambitions to take a picture that will define the decade and, coincidentally I’m sure, push his career into the stratosphere. Along for the ride and to help, are wife Karen and assistant Joel, who he suspects of having an affair. In search of a machete wielding, one-armed child warlord they set off into the heart of darkness with a local guide. But Africa turns out to be far more strange and deadly than they ever expected. From first word to last this story is gripping, with Bacon superb at drawing his characters, their motivations and the subtle undercurrent of tension that runs between them. He is equally adept at capturing the strangeness and minatory atmosphere of the African setting, with dead bodies scattered about a landscape that is rich in menace. And finally, after setting up a situation fraught with peril, injecting weird artefacts and events into the narrative, he unleashes a monster that is as unsettling and novel as it is deadly. Underlying all this are very human concerns, with a subtext that enquires how a child is transformed into a murdering warlord, what circumstances are required for such a thing to happen, and how can the world look away, and on the more personal level how much of Joel’s ultimate fate hinges on circumstance and how much on Jason’s antipathy. It is a brilliant story, and worth the price of admission alone.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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One Response to Filler content with themes – Part 2

  1. Pingback: Filler content with themes – Part 3 | Trumpetville

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