Doomsdays by Jeffrey Thomas
Well, I suppose it had to happen. Being on a good run with an author can sometimes pay dividends as each new book in turn proves as good as (if not better than) the last. This is not to say, of course, that a favoured author cannot fail. I have happy memories of some of John Brunner’s books which, in the best tradition of the B-movie, were so dire as to become genuinely entertaining. But my latest read from the Jeffrey Thomas stable is a little less than the previous works — for those of you keeping count, I bought four from the Dark Regions Press backlist to catch up on this author of the admirable Punktown series and have one more to go after this.
So here we are with another collection, this time called Doomsdays. In theory, according to the blurb, each one is a little apocalypse. Wow, does that ever give someone a high bar to jump over! And not a little monotonous with Earth repeatedly smashed into smithereens or perhaps that should be Higgs bosons (better known as God particles) — assuming He is doing some of the atomic smashing.
To convince us the editor knew what he was doing when applying the blurb theme to the selection of the stories, we start with the appropriately named “Out of the Blue” with the Earth covered in a blue gunk that converts everyone exposed into the usual zombie/vampire creatures. This would have benefited from a little editing to lose the third person voiceover for the opening credits, and keep the whole story small. Told from the POV of a small group inside a manufacturing facility this could have been claustrophobic and tense as they decide whether to venture outside. Since we already know what’s outside, all tension is lost.
I will then pass rapidly over three short, short stories and get to “Oroborus” which, as titles go, somewhat telegraphs the ending. I suppose it manages to create a reasonably weird subterranean world where a survivor is constantly on the run from an unseen predator called a Foeti. But without any logic for, or explanation of, the starting point, I found the whole unsatisfying. “Post #153” traps a small number of vets in a bar as ghosts from past wars visit on Halloween.
Then we get to the stand-out section of the book, starting with “Apples and Oranges” by the Thomas brothers. This is a wonderfully dark tale of a man discovering his mother’s secret affair and dealing with the consequences. The whole idea of first whittling, then animating, is a delight. More importantly, it shows the benefit of small-scale narratives. While a world overrun by forests or the dead from past wars might have some interest, you cannot improve on the growing realisation that you may have fallen into a genetic trap. Equally impressive is “Praying That You Feel Better Soon”. Told with admirable economy, there’s a real feeling of menace and a pleasing confirmation of its source. Then we are back to an apocalypse and, this time, Thomas nails the structure of the narrative and builds to the best ending paragraph in the book. It’s Lovecraftian in approach and blends the desperation of the individuals against the unravelling big picture around them. “Twenty-Five Cents” continues this bull run with a young woman trapped in a tedious job at a bank and in the role of a carer for her mother. The awfulness of her life threatens a mental disintegration and a growing interest in how her father came to die may push her over the edge. “Gasp” also cleverly exploits the uncertainty of the girl. Is her life in danger? Is her boyfriend trying to kill her? Or is he the one in danger? The fear is nicely balanced until the evidence clarifies things (a little). “Working Stiffs” is just on the right side with zombies put to work alongside ordinary working stiffs. The slowness of the living to recognise the true nature of the others on their shift is amusingly likely. Who would want to think the unthinkable.
“A Naming of Puppets” had me scratching my head. Whereas some authors have been credited with inventing a genre called New Weird, this is just weird. It’s a story about animate rubbish that, in an all too human way, must fight wars to establish a pecking order. Authors struggle to create empathy for their characters. I didn’t care a fig about either the Left or the Right Baggers. I was also scratching my head when I read “The Call of the Worms” which, I suppose, is weird horror. It fails for me because I cannot understand how this commensualism could fit into any reasonable kind of evolutionary system. There seems no benefit to the human side. “The Tripod” is also an exercise in the weird where humans seem to be working alongside or for beetles (or perhaps some kind of crustacea). The way the story is told ticks all the right boxes but I was again baffled as to how and why this relationship should have come into being. Starting off “as is” a cop out. Even if it’s ultimately a foolish explanation, some explanation is better than none. “The Fork” continues this trend with what may be one person’s experience of Hell, assuming Hell is a landscape of forks rather than other people (with my apologies to Jean-Paul Satre). And just as the central image may be of a fork-making factory, so “The Green Spider” may be seeing an entirely different factory slowly coming back to life. This is more successful as individuals lose a sense of their own individuality and grow contented with a more orderly life.
“The Friend of the Children” is a short insight into the mind of a man who may be kidnapping babies and so need a woman to look after them. While “300,000 Moments of Pain” has us in a quite pleasingly uncertain factory environment. After all, when you are surrounded by the ordinariness of a manufacturing facility, what can go wrong? “Flesh Wound” is a perfect demonstration of how to write an Oroborus story — it’s also an example of really clever kung fu shit. “Elephants Weep” is a nicely judge atmosphere piece with a walk through a supposedly deserted zoo turning into a metaphor for a man uncertain of his place in human society. And we finish, appropriately enough, with a top-notch Apocalypse story with a variation on the Mirror World idea from Trek as two dimensions of opposites collide and then try to exterminate each other. When Thomas is on form, he manages to create highly believable characters who, even in the most unlikely of situations, always try to do the right thing. In this case, we might just see an real amor vincit omnia result.
Looking back through this collection, it’s good in parts. But, then your taste may be less discriminating than mine, or I may just have read some stories when my mood was a little off. Who can say. Taste is one of the great subjective unknowns. All I can say is that, when Thomas is good, he’s very good and some of the stories here are very good. Whether there are enough to justify buying the book is more difficult to say. On balance, I think it probably is.
Like any collection, there can be good stories and not so good. In this case, the good just about outweighs the not so good.