Filler content with ghosts and haunted worlds

Reviews of two collections by Jeffrey Thomas that originally appeared in Black Static #60:-


Like many past practitioners in the weird tradition, including most obviously Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft himself, American writer Jeffrey Thomas has a foot in both the science fiction camp and the territory occupied by the spectral tale.

By way of illustrating the point, we have his 2013 collection GHOSTS OF PUNKTOWN (Dark Regions Press pb, 254pp, $17.95), which was popular enough to merit a second printing in 2016. Arguably Thomas’ most famous creation, Punktown is a city built by human colonists on the Choom inhabited planet of Oasis. It has become famous for both the diversity of life forms that dwell there – not just creatures from other planets, but those from other dimensions – and the high level of crime. It is the milieu in which Thomas has set this collection of nine science fiction tales, all with a strong horror element.

After a far ranging introduction in which the author discusses the nature of ghosts, Punktown’s history, gives us some of his thoughts on each story, and provides a guide to Punktown eateries (just in case you ever visit), we get into things proper with ‘In His Sights’ a story featuring recurring character Jeremy Stake (I reviewed the novella Red Cells in #41), who is a chameleon like individual, able to alter his appearance to look like somebody else. Unfortunately here he has become trapped with the appearance of an alien member of a race mankind is at war with, and thus the target for an assassin who thinks he really is what he appears to be. It’s a strange, off kilter story, one in which the past and present overlap, as do matters of personal identity, with not even Stake knowing clearly who he is. But while the philosophical concerns add depth to the story, Thomas knows to give us the requisite bang for our buck, with some heavy armaments drill to liven up the chain of events. Fallen out of love, Cynthia returns to the Punktown of her childhood days in ‘Relics’, only to become embroiled in the competition between two collectors of alien artefacts and the computer that serviced all her wishes when she lived there before. It’s an intriguing, multi-layered story, one that contrasts religious statuary with mechanical life forms, and shows that both cling to a tenuous existence courtesy of the humans they serve and who serve them.

There’s murder in a museum in ‘A Semblance of Life’ and it’s up to LeBlanc, a clone and former super soldier, to figure out where his loyalties lie. Superficially this is a very simple piece, one in which there is a mystery to be solved and a bigot gets his just desserts, but underneath all that there are serious questions being asked about the nature of humanity, of what it is and how we can recognise it. Short enough to be classified as flash fiction, ‘Bitter Brains’ is a slight but well told account of an alien festival and the humiliating tradition that impinges on it, the story not really going anywhere, but scorching with the self-loathing of the protagonist.

Roy, the protagonist of ‘Disfigured’, is a surgeon specialising in horrific body modifications for the rich and attention seekers, but he refuses to operate on a beautiful young woman in a moment of principle. Again the story delights with the wealth of invention, the various ways in which people can hurt themselves and others, but at its heart is a debate as to what is acceptable in the realm of cosmetic surgery, with both sides of the argument given a fair hearing. It is a story that has more than a tad of bearing on our modern world and the things that can be done to enhance and alter appearance. In ‘Imp’ a man who delves into the darkest corners of the internet finds himself haunted by an image that even he finds disturbing. This is perhaps the most extreme of these stories, credibly so given the subject matter, touching on our addiction to pornography and need for ever more “potent” material. It brings home to us exactly what this means by giving a very human face to the suffering, making of the objectified victim an albatross for the consumer’s neck.

‘The Room’ tells of the strange relationship and love affair of sorts that arises between syndicate fixer Quick Billy and the genius student Candy, whose studies go terribly wrong. It is perhaps the least convincing of these pieces in the details, the cogs and cranks of storytelling, but with a mood of poignancy and sense of loss that makes me forgive and overlook anything else. Swift in ‘Into My Arms’ is adopted by one of the Bliss, an alien race that thrives on suffering and seeks out humans to inflict pain. From Swift the Bliss wants the nanomites that help recreate his memories of Talane, the woman he loved and lost. Underlying the surface of this story is a meditation on the nature of pain, both physical, mental, and emotional, the ways in which it operates in our lives, the purpose if any, and in contrast to that an examination of the way in which memory works, all of it wrapped up in an engrossing story that put me very much in mind of the early SF of George R. R. Martin (‘A Song for Lya’ etc.).

The longest story in the book, ‘Life Work’ begins with the android Hanako befriending an elderly lady in the building where they live, while gangland enforcer and assassin Huck is falling out of favour with his employer. It ends with them both engaged in a life or death firefight with the teen gangs that have turned a nearby park into a no go area. This is the story in which Thomas lets rip, piling action on top of action, with a Die Hard vibe running throughout, and yet another strand of the story arising from the presence of a sentient plant that imitates the form of others. I loved every second of it, and it was a powerful and effective end to a dashing collection of science fiction horror stories.

With a 1 August release date, hot off the presses collection HAUNTED WORLDS (Hippocampus Press pb, 248pp, S20) is a fusion of traditionally slanted and futuristic fiction, showcasing Thomas’s talent. The book has a superb cover and evocative interior illustration by Kim Bo Yung. It opens with an introduction by Ian Rogers, after which we get to the fiction, conveniently divided into two sections titled ‘Our World’ and ‘Other Worlds’, which is I hope self-explanatory.

In ‘Carrion’ fifty five year old Lambert, having been abandoned by his younger wife, takes up residence in the country, becoming fascinated by a piece of roadkill he sees every day on his drive to work. The roadkill and the process it is going through become emblematic of mortality and the certainty of death in a story that builds its effects with real skill, detailing the development of Lambert’s obsession with the idea of death and the growing feeling that for him everything is over, in all but name. In a way it feels like a horror rendition of the male menopause. The narrator of ‘Spider Gates’ is an adult relating an adventure from her teenage years, when she and a group of friends became momentarily fascinated with the legendary cemetery in the woods of the title, and subsequent events concerning a missing girl and her autistic brother’s visions. It’s an unsettling piece, moody and atmospheric in its evocation of the landscape, at the same time capturing perfectly the feel of teenage angst and then injecting elements of the weird and macabre, with the truth behind the myth even more disturbing, for what it reveals of mortality.

Kent, the protagonist of ‘Feeding Oblivion’, has a mother in a retirement home whose roommate is suffering from visions of centipedes crawling out of the walls, but coincidental with this is the overturning of his own comfortable life and signs that the rot has set in to the world itself. Again, this is a story where, like ‘Carrion’, insects becomes emblematic of decay and signifiers of mortality, but it is made all the more powerful by the subtle and understated way in which Thomas conveys such truths, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and trusting that our imaginations will provide more in the way of chills than his text ever could. A rather sinister figure, ‘Mr. Faun’ is a living exhibit at an art gallery, one who becomes the focus of attention for an artist whose work has been denigrated by the gallery’s curator. It offers a compelling storyline, one that explores the foibles of the art world, while at the same time incorporating themes of morality and aesthetic indifference to human plight, all ending with a deliciously cheeky punchline.

Like Lambert in ‘Carrion’, the protagonist of ‘The Left-Hand Pool’ drives down country backroads to work every day and is fixated on a female co-worker, but at the same time he is immersed in memories of the past and his failed relationship with his father. The story builds a mood of anticipation, and then delivers its wonderfully understated and subtle payoff, with once again the reader left to anticipate what will eventually happen, the nature of the tragedy for which the foundations have been so assuredly laid. I loved it. In ‘riaH gnoL’ the attendant at an amusement arcade tells strange, obliquely slanted stories to the customers, the effects mounting until we can no longer be sure of what is happening. There is a lovely sense of ambiguity to this tale, with the reader left to wonder if there is a ghost in the machine or something more sinister going on with Nanette, the narrative continually wrong footing us on its journey to the unsettling end reveal. Nate in ‘The Toll’ is contacted by an entity that sets him a terrible choice, Thomas bringing this simple piece to an elegant conclusion, one that hints at the redemptive power latent in the human condition, while at the same time asking if there really is any point to it all.

Lan’s decision to give a Christmas present to a street person in ‘Saigon Dep Lam’ has unforeseen consequences of the “no good deed goes unpunished” type. Thomas does a splendid job of bringing his Vietnam setting to vibrant life on the page, showing how the days of the war still haunt that country, while Lan herself is brilliantly realised, a victim of wartime injuries who is determined not to let her disfigurement rule her life, the story finally culminating in a revelation that touches on the true nature of this reality. There’s a zombie feel to ‘The Green Hands’ as Zetter is pursued through the world by people with green hands, whose touch made his wife disappear. It’s a story in which paranoia takes centre stage, as the protagonist begins to suspect everyone of being in league with those who are hunting him, finally culminating in his being overrun by the “monsters”, but along the way we have clues that hint at an unhappy relationship in Zetter’s marriage and suggestions that what is happening is simply an externalisation of some inner conflict.

The ‘Other Worlds’ section of the book opens with another story titled ‘The Green Hands’, this time written with a surreal vibe, as Zetter wanders through an alien landscape and bears witness to various wonders, but at the same time never escapes the feeling that he is the fox being hunted by the hounds, making it a mirror image come dream state rendition of the previous tale. It’s a story that oozes a sense of the unreal, but at the same time is grounded very much in our own reality with a final revelation that suggests what is really going on with Zetter, though Thomas is too canny to do more than hint and the story all the more effective for it.

There’s a similar sense of the nightmarish in ‘Good Will toward Men’, with its opening depiction of the torments of the Damned in Hell, made even worse by a visit by a deputation of Angels who inflict the “joys” of Christmas on a chosen few, including protagonist Andrew. In a way the story serves as a metaphor for the state of affairs in our own world, with punishment in lieu of justice and unfairness at the heart, the consolations we receive simply whatever crumbs drop from the high table. Beneath the surface of the narrative, Thomas along with Andrew appears to be raging at the injustice of it all, the hypocrisy of do-gooders who stick plasters on wounds instead of addressing the real causes of suffering, with a side swipe at the two-faced nature of the Christian religion and its concept of “forgiveness”. Despite the back drop that is almost cartoonish in nature, this is arguably the most serious minded and polemical of these stories, with the protagonist (and possibly the author – certainly this reader) finding hope only in the form of those who fight against this system, the rebels determined to bring down both Heaven and Hell.

‘The Temple of Ugghiutu’ reads like something Dunsany might have penned, though with sharper edges, chronicling a shepherd boy’s encounter with the worship place of an alien deity, and what he learned of the terrible truth behind the legends. It’s a comparatively mild piece, a tall tale told to the credulous around the campfire on a night when the wind howls and there are wolves off in the darkness. We’re back in Thomas’ home away from home of Punktown for ‘Drawing No. 8’ in which an artist is hired to replicate a destroyed work of alien art, and finds himself involved in a plot to summon the alien deity Ugghiutu. It’s a fascinating story, told with real verve, capturing the joy of artistic creation and at the same time conveying something of the sinister nature of black magic, a dark tale in which dreams and reality overlap and where a good man is suborned by his ego into serving a bad cause. Echoing back of the very real bloodshed is something of the cosmic, a monstrous being who is inimical to life as we know it.

When ruthless developers move in on an area of Punktown, street urchin Posy gets to ride the ‘Redemption Express’ in a heartfelt story at whose centre is the idea that community is not a place but the shared bonds of the people who live there. It is undershot with a subtext disapproving of the exploitation of the urban landscape, what we in our world refer to as “gentrification”, albeit in Punktown imposed along far harsher lines, and there is a certain satisfaction in seeing the bad guys get what’s coming to them, even if it’s tainted with the realisation that there are always going to be more bad guys. What you take away from the story though, is the caring personality of Posy, the way in which she stands by her friends, even those who have passed away, Thomas showing us that there is more of compassion and concern and dignity in her person than all the mercenary scum and corporate punks in cheap suits. It’s a great end to a strong collection, albeit it’s not quite the end because Thomas gives us some lengthy story notes, revealing the origin of each piece and some of the things that went into these stories. These are two collections that deserve a place on the shelves of any lover of good fiction.


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