Aftershock & Others by F Paul Wilson
There are some authors I could sit and listen tell their stories for hours. Their voices and storytelling styles just fit my own sensibilities. F Paul Wilson is one of them. I’ve read all his books and with Aftershock & Others (Tor-Forge, 2009), I’m filling in a missing collection from three years ago. The good thing about this particular book, apart from the stories themselves, is the diary-like reports of activity. While not intended as an autobiography, it does offer a fascinating statement of how an author fills in his time when not writing short stories. He does seem to have crammed in an amazing number of air-miles without ever getting an electronic game or film made. Not a bad achievement when the tickets were on someone else’s tab.
“Dreams” is a particularly elegant inversion of expectation in a Frankenstein story. It’s sufficiently different that, no matter what the context — this was actually for an anthology of Frankenstein stories — it would always stand out. This is not merely due to the gender dysphoria issue but, more importantly, to the essential victimisation that led to the incorporation of this particular brain in the composite body. There’s something rather pleasing about the idea of the woman now having the physical strength to take revenge in such a direct and personal way. “The November Game” is a sequel to Ray Bradbury’s “The October Game” — one of those really pleasing stories when the horror comes from the implications of the last line. Although this story doesn’t quite have the same power, the structure of the story is perfect in coming down to a very pleasing final line which, if nothing else, shows the ability of a criminal mind under pressure to conjure up a possibility that would seem particularly horrific.
“When He Was Fab” is a vague reference to the song written by George Harrison and Jeff Lynn about the time four ordinary boys from Liverpool became more important than Jesus to some people. This has a kind of inherent tragedy about it because, having allowed the hero a taste of what’s it’s like to be fab, he’s forced to watch his life go down the drain. “Foet” takes a difficult emotional topic and forces us to confront prejudices. The human leather trade has very respectable antecedents with many bibles and holy tracts written on or bound in tanned human skin. It was most common in France and rose to particular prominence during the Revolution where jackets, breeches and boots were made. Of course, the Nazi resurrected the practice although focusing on different household objects like lamp shades and furniture. This story takes the proposition to a new level. “Please Don’t Hurt Me” is technically interesting because it’s constructed entirely out of dialogue and demonstrates just how quickly the words we use can change the mood of the listener. “Aryans and Absinthe” answers a question I’d always had lurking somewhere in the back of my brain. What was Ernst Drexler doing in the early part of the last century before Rasalom escapes The Keep? This shows him in Weimar Germany as a young Hitler is just getting started. “Offshore” is a more-or-less straight thriller in the near future where the US health service has decided to ration access to treatments. This brings hospital ships to anchor just outside the twelve-mile limit and creates a need for smugglers.
“Itsy Bitsy Spider” was jointly written with his daughter Meggan and is a fairly traditional plot playing on nuclear monster/arachnophobia themes with the usual double-take ending. “The Answer” is quite simply a wonderful artifice. It manages a genuinely clever trick. When I was growing up with American pulps, all the best stories finished with an unexpected twist. The kind of thing O Henry did but with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes. Looking back, almost all those stories are clunky and only marginally readable. But this is a modern take on a story in that style. It has real wit and invention and a last line to die for. “Lysing Toward Bethlehem” is a kind of biter-bit story from a point of view that goes into an ironic reverse towards the end. I’d never thought of the process in this way before. It’s another delightful amuse-bouche. “Aftershock” is a story of guilt and a search for forgiveness and reconciliation that may just become possible through exposure to lightning. The problem is how you would find out whether it works. “Anna” is what we would call a traditional horror story except the actual plot is particularly ingenious, showing us first one view of the past and then exposing its lies. The way in which it all fits together would delight one of the old-style woodworkers who could turn a leg or make a piece of furniture more beautiful than you could ever imagine. “Sole Custody” is another of these stories with a last line that suddenly puts a different slant on things. This is deliciously malicious. “Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong” is an amusingly knowing recreation of the Sax Rohmer pulp style with Detective Brannigan out to rescue the damsels in distress and winning through despite his major character flaws. “Part of the Game” is a mordant story of a man completely consumed by greed — led on to his doom by his lust for a woman, of course. Except there may be a way out of the problem if he literally joins the game. Finally, no collection would be complete without a touch of Repairman Jack. “Interlude at Duane’s” reminds our hero of the value of teamwork when friends get together for a drink.
Put all this together and you have a wonderfully enjoyable collection. Whether you’re a fan of F Paul Wilson, Aftershock & Others is a classy piece of writing and should be read by everyone who values consummate storytelling in a limpid prose style.
For all my reviews of books by F Paul Wilson, see: