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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