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Worship the Night by Jeffrey Thomas

June 15, 2014 10 comments

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Worship the Night by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Renaissance Books, 2013) sees yet another example of the prose that makes this author so readable. All the stories in this collection have the trademark crisp clarity and directness, with efficient plots that deliver the goods with the least effort. As an aside since this is a personal rather than a general observation, I lashed out and bought the limited edition. It proves to be a handsome production. Although I find the internal illustrations by Erin Wells not quite to my taste, I applaud the principle of publishing illustrations to illuminate and enhance the written word. I wish more publishers would follow this example.

The first two stories see us back in Hades and Punktown respectively. When an author has great high concepts on the run, it’s as well to plunge back periodically to renew interest. “The Lost Family” sees us with the “fallen” angel making her way out of what’s left of Hell. We met her and her bone gun in The Fall of Hades, and this free-standing story fits into the story of her climb through the Construct in the hope of reaching Freetown. While trying to work her way around rather larger demons, she finds the titular family and there’s a bonding moment as smaller demons try to crash the party. “Counterclockwise” has a simple and elegant story about a man who finds the Church, if that’s what it is, operating opposite his apartment block deeply annoying. When the local police show a complete lack of interest in dealing with prickly interspecies disputes, it’s left to our “hero” to decide what to do. “The Holy Bowl” takes us into the realm of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that most revered symbol of rationalism as it floats through the air, meatballs as eyes, balls, and anything else designed to be round. “Do you believe?” I exhort. Well, if not, this could be the fate awaiting you. “In Limbo” asks a different question. When everything’s going to shit around you, what’re you gonna do? Naturally, you hunker down for a few moments. Then you might cautiously explore the hallway only to run back into your apartment when the darkness seems to be closing in. The important thing is not to panic, or at least not to panic too much.

Jeffrey Thomas

Jeffrey Thomas

“About the Author” is nicely metafictional as we read the product description of the first book in a new zombie series followed by a few well-chosen words giving the author’s biography. Naturally, the scathing review by Jeffrey Thomas is only to be expected. Such books are usually a crapfest and, as in this case, their authors should be housed in the nearest loony bins, if only for their own safety — the rest can all go to Hell. “The Strange Case of Crazy Joe Gallo” sees us firmly in Lovecraftian territory with a story of a gangster who thinks the Necronomicon can be a useful weapon in the right hands. With ambitions to become a senior figure in the ranks of the Mafia, he sets about killing a few of the smaller fish (human variety). But, like all good things, there must come an ending. “Children of the Dragon” sees us in Vietnam for a little research into cryptozoology except, at least in the early stages, this is more like the usual sex tourism trip. Then there comes that rather awkward moment when the precise nature of the word becomes important. “Is that Dragon or Dagon?” You never know. That r could be significant.

“The Sea of Flesh” is novella length and a rather beautiful, tender story in which a couple seeking escape from loveless marriages find each other and negotiate whether they might be able to find happiness together. One is an archetypical white guy who puts in the hours at a new bio company which grows human tissue. His wife has already found a new partner although she continues to live in the same house as him (sometimes openly visited by her lover). The other is Vietnamese with a violent husband who has long stopped loving her. In a sense, both have ties. His mother is in a private nursing home waiting to die. She has a daughter who left home to escape her father but has yet to find herself a place in the world outside. They meet because she’s a nurse in the home where his mother is dying. Overlaid this touching human story is a supernatural dream world. As the story progresses, we come to recognise four people interact in this world. At first, it seems to be just the man and his mother. But his potential partner’s daughter is also involved. The point of the story is to observe the way in which the dream world overlaps the human world, perhaps partly contaminating it or driven by it. If you think of the cycles of the moon and the way its unseen influence moves the tides that crash waves upon the shore, remember human bodies are largely made up of water. So there’s always the possibility the moon or other planets may move the tides of men and women. The result is an outstanding story to finish the collection. Put all this together and Worship the Night is a terrific collection of stories and well worth the money whether you buy the trade or the limited edition.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Beautiful Hell
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown

Red Cells by Jeffrey Thomas

April 7, 2014 9 comments

Red Cells by Jeffrey Thomas

One of the features of life we find painful and, depending on where it’s located, embarrassing, is the cyst. As teens, we dread the appearance of acne. Later in life, the body’s cells may cluster together to form sacs, sometimes filled with air or fluids, and appear on the skin or internally. Fortunately, the majority of these cellular events are benign. If they are inconvenient, they can be treated and removed. Life goes on. But occasionally, the cyst is a symptom of a deeper underlying problem, and more aggressive responses are required.

Red Cells by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Fuse, 2014) is a novella exploring the cyst, canker or boil which is to be found on the backside of the reality that is Punktown. Yes, once again, we’re back in this wonderful megalopolis with Jeremy Stake. For those of you who have yet to explore this city and the people who live there, Stake is a walking metaphor for the square peg who can almost always find a hole to fit into. All primary indicators of identity are binary. There are the purely physical characteristics of facial appearance, body shape, the learned style of autonomic movements in different situations, and so on. And then there are the intellectual and emotional characteristics that make up the person. Except, Stake is a mutant with chameleon abilities. He can literally change his physical appearance to match that of any other human (alien races are more of a challenge). During the so-called Blue War, this made him one of the most effective spies. He could go anywhere behind enemy lines, be anyone to gain entry to supposedly secure environments. But always he came up against the limits of his power. Perhaps it would have been better if, instead of being able to rebuild his own bones and flesh from the inside, he could absorb other body parts to create a kind of colony effect where different physical elements could be displayed as required.

Jeffrey Thomas

Jeffrey Thomas

In peace time, he’s a PI down on his luck. Of course, there are the bottom-feeding jobs of following unfaithful spouses, but little that give any real satisfaction. The fact his body is mutable doesn’t mean his mind changes. He’s the same person inside and so, when finances are stretched, he’s prone to take on different work. This time, he’s agreed to impersonate a drug dealer and go to jail in his place for six months. The money is good. All he has to do is keep a low profile and no-one will be any the wiser. There are only two things wrong with this plan. The first is the location of the prison. For generations, Punktown has had a major crime problem and struggled to find enough space to lock all wrongdoers away. Then a physicist developed a mechanism for creating a bubble in reality. This is an extension to the wormhole technology enabling ships to move from one region of space to another. For transport purposes, the hole is temporary. This sac sits mainly in a different dimension, more or less co-existent with Punktown. Access is through a single portal, but once inside, everyone is completely cut off in this spherical extrusion or intrusion depending on your dimensional point of view. It’s the perfect jail with escape impossible. Normally this would not bother Stake, but shortly after he arrives, he discovers there have been five unexplained deaths. The second problem is the arrest of the man Stake is supposed to be impersonating. Instead of keeping a low profile during the six months, the idiot went out and was caught committing another offence. Now there are two versions of him in the jail and Stake’s impersonation is revealed.

By any standards, this is a great set-up and, as always, Thomas writes with pleasing economy. There’s just one problem. Having invested great creative effort in setting the ball rolling, the plot is then rolled up and sent by DHL to the conclusion at maximum speed. To put it mildly, the second part is perfunctory and so loses both atmosphere and a proper pacing in the plotting. I hope Thomas can be persuaded to write a longer version of this plot so we can all get to savour the intricacies explored. As it stands, Red Cells should be viewed as a work in progress.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Beautiful Hell
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Lost in Darkness by Jeffrey Thomas

January 17, 2013 Leave a comment

Lost in Darkness

Lost in Darkness by Jeffrey Thomas (Bad Moon Books, 2011) presents me with something of a challenge. Not that this is inherently a bad thing. It does us good to be taken out of our comfort zones every now and then, forcing a reappraisal of the prejudices we hold on what to read and/or watch. But this is a first. In all the years I’ve been reading Jeffrey Thomas, it never occurred to me he would write a YA book. This is not YA in the sense of Yellow Assassin or Yammering Aardvark. I really do mean Young Adult. Yes, no matter how you cut it, this is a book which I think is fairly aimed at readers aged around 12. When book marketing became less of an art and more of a science, publishers began to carve their market up into niches so that relevant content could be targeted more directly at individual buyers. I suppose the commercialisation of adolescence began in the 1970s (missing me out, of course) with books looking at the “rite of passage” or “coming of age” tropes. The idea is that, in all cultures, there’s an initiation process for the young to go through at key milestones. So they have to become teens. Later, when they’ve matured and are all growed up, they get to become adults. I suppose all these books are about identity as each protagonist has to discover what kind of person he or she is and whether that’s acceptable. Some of the more interesting books are when our teen recognises the identity is firming up on the dark side and either this is embraced or the youngster must strive valiantly to move towards the light (hopefully not dying on the way).

Jeffrey Thomas with his walls breaking out in teen acne

Jeffrey Thomas with his walls breaking out in teen acne

So here we have a story written with the point of view of a fourteen-year-old girl. Needless to say, she’s not very sensible. So, when she has a near-death experience, she could listen to the nice “angel” telling her to stay on the path and, if she feels inclined, continuing to walk towards the light. But no. She’s one of these naturally perverse teenagers and therefore takes off down a gloomy side corridor and then decides to run down the steps into the darkness. A more brainless thing to do is hard to imagine. This being a YA book, her parents are not on hand to keep telling her to carry on running into the pit — all parents of teens get good results with negative psychology — so our heroine takes full credit for completely screwing up her chances of survival. For those of you taking notes, YA books specialise in showing kids who mess up and then have to figure out how to recover — in this case, carrying on towards the light is no longer an option. So now predatory creatures come out of the darkness and get their claws into her. Things are looking bad for our poor baby. But instead of these creatures eating her on the spot which would be the more realistic outcome, she’s able to run back up the stairs. These dark beings with their claws digging into her are not heavy, you understand. They’re more like clip-on fashion accessories for the Goth-oriented teen girl who wants a little more angst in her life.

Hey, here’s this angel guy offering good advice again. That means she’s edging back to safety. Well we can’t have that. So our young twit runs away from the light and jumps towards where she hopes Earth is. Now she’s exporting dark shadow beings back to our reality with her. Hey, now they can focus on sucking the life out of her friends. That’s her BFF and the boy who’s not quite old enough to confess his feelings and so just moons around the place like a love-sick calf. Well no-one will miss that pair apart from our heroine. So now she’s got to decide what kind of a person she is, how she feels about her friends and resolve those entirely chaste flutterings of the heart when she thinks about young boys.

I kept waiting for this book to turn into an adult novel by the Jeffrey Thomas I know and enjoy reading. It didn’t happen. If you have a twelve year old looking for something to read, Lost in Darkness is it. As YA stories go, it’s a very professional job, nicely put together, with the entirely predictable plot and outcome.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Beautiful Hell
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

Beautiful Hell by Jeffrey Thomas

January 15, 2013 1 comment

Beautiful Hell

Beautiful Hell by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Regions Press, published as a standalone in 2011 with the novella first appearing in 2007). It follows on from the admirable collection Voices From Hades, but it represents quite a radical shift in the narrative approach. We’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, let’s confirm the theme in this book remains consistent, so this is not something Christians might feel comfortable reading. As an atheist, I have no problem in accepting the notion that God might feel he hadn’t exactly covered himself in glory when creating the whole Heaven/Hell binary situation. As secularism spreads, it’s hardly fair to blame folk like me for not realising God is real and condemning us to Hell because we “denied” him. So there were churches. Well, try telling that to the Buddhists and all the other folk who honestly worshipped some other deities or held other apparently legitimate belief systems. Just because it turns out there’s only the one true God is no reason to stick us all in Hell for eternity. Once we have the epiphany of arrival at the Pearly Gates only to be turned away, we should be able to redeem ourselves by good works. Yes, I appreciate that may be a little tricky in Hell, but it’s the thought that counts and, as God has been only too keen to tell us, He’s omniscient and therefore knows when we’ve turned over a new leaf and understood the error in our previous ways. I’m sure the same goes for the Buddhists, Scientologists and anyone else prepared to do the whole humility schtick and grovel in apology.

Anyway, having got the question of the theme out of the way, we can come to the story itself and its metafictional form. Here we’re presented with an atheist author who, to his surprise, finds himself in Hell and decides to write a book about his experiences. We therefore get an autobiographical account of how the book we read comes to be written. This meets all the primary criteria to be considered a work of metafiction since the author is drawing our attention to the creative work of capturing “reality” in words. The idea of Hell being treated as real for the purposes of writing a work of fiction is rather elegant with our first-person narrator as the author commentating on the events as they occur and indicating how they will appear in the finished book. For the record, our author names himself Frank Lyre (a homophone of liar making the point that we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator). As is required since he’s writing either a sequel or a work in the same universe as the original author, he’s familiar with Voices From Hades. Indeed a copy of the book appears in this story with at least one character reading it with great attention.

Jeffrey Thomas with studded indifferent walls

Jeffrey Thomas with studded indifferent walls

Our author has found himself a not wholly uncomfortable role as a sex slave. Well, perhaps that’s how it started but he’s actually grown quite fond of this demon and they have regular sex sessions together. While he’s on his own, this life passes with few problems but then God, a few Popes and reliable support staff come down to Hell. Included in this team is his ex-wife who was a staunch believer. Our author now finds himself caught between two females: an increasingly jealous demon and an angel who might just be persuaded to spend serious time with her ex in Hell. Putting his personal feelings to one side, there’s also the question of why God should be making this visit and it soon becomes apparent he’s come to make some changes. As all of you will know, no-one likes change. Everyone gets comfortable with the way things are so, not surprisingly, the demons are soon up in arms to make their feelings absolutely clear. Except there’s this omnipotence thing. The fact the demons are not consulted, that this is the Old Testament unilateral God who just decides and then does, makes the demons even more outraged. The least He could have done is to ask what the demons thought, consulted on what changes might actually improve the situation. So this visit is equivalent to a declaration of war.

Well there you have it. Beautiful Hell is an irreverent return to Hell with the threat of change being the order of the day. On balance, it’s a book I admire rather than find exciting. It makes a good sequel and leaves things nicely poised for another visit should the author (whoever it turns out to be) choose to write it. Those who, like me, are Jeffrey Thomas fans, should acquire a copy.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

Blood Society by Jeffrey Thomas

January 31, 2012 3 comments

According to the Stanislavski system, an actor has to access the “reality” of a character by first considering the external person and then seeking out the characters’s inner thoughts and feelings. I’m reminded that Alec Guinness once famously said he could never get into character until he found the right pair of shoes to wear. Sir Laurence Olivier used to take his characters to see a therapist (only metaphorically, of course). In a sense, such anecdotes capture the essential problem for stage actors. The proscenium arch both separates the stage from the auditorium, and provides a doorway for the imagination through which the audience may empathise with the characters on stage. What attracts the audience through the arch? Why will they suspend disbelief? Although it remains unspoken, there’s a conspiracy between the actor and the audience. The viewers must be convinced of the authenticity of the movements so, if those movement fit the prevailing stereotypes, the performance will be deemed a success. It’s a difficult balance between naturalism and an entirely artificial technique. Think of it as a craft. Those who master it become famous.

One of the more interesting aspects of the writing process is to watch the author find the prose style that most comfortably fits the subject matter. The intellectual process of selecting the words, arranging them into sentences and committing them to a page (virtual or otherwise) creates the proscenium arch. Now the trick for the author is to persuade the readers to pass through the words into the performance by the characters on the page. Blood Society by Jeffrey Thomas (Necro Publications, 2011) is a slight departure from the prose style we see in some of his more overt horror and supernatural writing. This is more densely written, layered with more detail and interior monologue. It takes its time and challenges the reader to move more slowly. So why does this style fit the subject matter?

Jeffrey Thomas outside his comfort zone

There are two reasons. The first is Jeffrey Thomas has chosen to move us through time. He begins the story in 1909 and ends in 1996. On the way, we meet several people from history and some of the events match those in the real world. This takes more time to set up. Just as a stage or film production must achieve some degree of credibility in the set design, the choice of furniture and the placement of other more personal objects, an author must decorate his text with sufficient detail so we can believe ourselves in different times. Like the performance, it’s a difficult balancing act to insert just enough information without it becoming a boring history lesson. So, as to external reality, we must have the places described and get the right period shoes for the characters to wear. Then we must come to their inner thoughts and feelings. This marks the second reason. Although we meet a number of people, Blood Society is the journey of Attilio Augusta who, in unexpected circumstances, finds himself changed into something different.

This is not a conventional monster book (insofar as any book about what resembles a vampire may be considered a book about a physical monster). This is a young man who finds himself cast adrift on the seas of time. In due course, he decides the best fit for himself is as one of the mafiosi. Not as one of the leaders, of course. The inability to age would give him away if he was seen too often in public. So he finds a way of working behind the scenes. Although none of the mobsters take kindly to paying him a percentage, he creates enough fear to ensure he becomes rich without being the subject of interest to the police. After all, he does have interesting skills to offer his criminal associates. Years pass, but therein likes the rub. Without anyone else to share his life, he faces the loneliness of immortality. A solution would be to turn others to join him. Together they could watch the humans age and die. But this offends his notions of morality. He was not given a choice. . . Then circumstances conspire. The woman who turned him reappears. Her motives are less than clear. And his adopted son is seriously injured.

One of the central preoccupations evident in the short stories and books by Jeffrey Thomas is the nature of identity. No matter whether we are pitched into contemporary America, an alien world or Hell, we are challenged to understand the main protagonist(s). In this instance, we have a young Sicilian fisherman with an eye for pretty girls. He’s physically strong, a good lover and inexperienced in the world outside Sicily. When he has all the time in that world, what could he become? He could spend the years learning to paint or play an instrument, but he was born into a culture that placed no value on such frivolous activities. In part, this is a class issue. His cultural outlook limits his choices. So, predictably, he drifts into crime. The question is whether this will be his only future. Once formed, habits are difficult to break. He’s accumulating wealth but, at some point, he’s going to ask what value the money has. Perhaps loneliness will divert him. Will the fisherman who was turned into a physical monster and chose to become a criminal monster turn away and find a different life?

I confess to being fascinated. Attilio is the prisoner of his own limited education. He lacks the imagination to experiment, to explore the new body he has developed. He’s essentially passive, relying on reactive defensive skills to get by. Only when his world view is challenged does he make any effort to grow. Even then, he seems locked into the mobster mentality that you meet violence with more violence until the other side has lost too much to continue the battle. So, at each point in time, Jeffrey Thomas finds the right shoes for Attilo to wear and we can cross through the more detailed prose style and understand the tragedy of this monster’s existence. Blood Society is well worth seeking out as one of the more thoughtful and, therefore, best vampire-type books of 2011.

For reviews of other books by Jeffrey Thomas:
Beautiful Hell
Blue War

Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

Thought Forms by Jeffrey Thomas

December 10, 2010 4 comments

Since this is a site for thinking about books, let’s spend a moment thinking about a word. After all, Confucius, him say, “Many words make a book”. So today’s word is synergy. This is where two or more different things work together and produce an improved outcome. Like putting apple sauce on the meat for a cannibal’s greater enjoyment. The way you put the elements together is critical. If you combine people or things in a way that allows all their strengths to work together, the outcome is greater than the sum of the parts. If the weaknesses dominate, there will be no real improvement. The team will never achieve more than its individual parts can contribute. Just think of all the blood and gore in a genuine shotgun marriage when the groom hesitates on the “I do” bit.

As a novel, Thought Forms (Dark Regions Press, 2009) has a very unfortunate structure. It delivers some excellent writing, showing all the characteristics that make Jeffrey Thomas such a readable author. But it does so in a way that defeats the possibility of any satisfactory outcome. There’s no synergy.

What then are the problems? We start with every author’s nightmare. He or she has done all this research (or knows all this stuff). How much or how little to include in the novel? The unhelpful answer is only to include what you need to advance the narrative. Fiction is not writing a “how-to” guide or a loving historical or nonfiction description of these events, people or things. Fiction is all about the plot — cause and effect, stimulus and response, and so on. Exposition should never be for its own sake, but set-up what is to come. In Thought Forms, I learned quite a lot about guns and the raw materials used in some factory processes. Although it is relevant to understand how well key characters can handle weapons and we need to know something about the factories where they work, I think there is a little too much detail. Some of the conversations in the factories also go on a little too long. Maintaining the pace in horror fiction is critical to produce the dramatic tension and sense of imminent danger.

Then we come to the really big problem. Although the book is about two cousins who are both artistic, albeit interested in morbid imagery, we have two separate novellas somewhat arbitrarily interwoven. There’s no interaction between the two stories because the time scales are different. Ray lives alone in the isolated house where his parents were murdered when he was young. Taken on its own, this is about a traumatised man as he tries to make a life of normality for himself. Whether literally or metaphorically, he is haunted and insecure, finding it difficult to make friends or to take relationships to the next level. In every way, he is a disaster waiting to happen with this terrible mixture of fear and anger unreconciled in his mind. He might end in suicide if he feels he can no longer cope with life, or use his guns to become the next serial killer of the month. In such a mind, it is always difficult to know what is real and what is imagined as the days and weeks go by. Paul, on the other hand, is reasonably well-adjusted and we have a single day and night in the plastics factory where he bosses the small crew of maskers. You always feel he has a real talent and could make it as a commercial artist if only he could summon up enough enthusiasm.

Thematically, the two stories are linked by the titular idea of thought forms or tulpas. This is a very old idea arising in mysticism and more formalised religions like Tibetan Buddhism in which a being or object is created by the power of the mind or imagination. It is the forerunner of the machines developed by the Krell in Forbidden Planet and in the sfnal or magic mind-over-matter stories in which whatever is visualised will physically appear. The difference between the two novellas is that Ray is a classic unreliable narrator and we cannot trust anything he claims to see, whereas Paul is positively threatened by a tulpa.

This is a perfect case for an Ace Double approach to publishing. Individually, these are excellent stories. Whether the two novellas are set tête-bêche, is not important. With proper editorial control, the forced links between the stories could have been removed, and two very strong and genuinely terrifying stories would have stood proud and free for all to admire.

And, since we are on the subject of typesetting, this is a surprisingly bad example. There are paragraph throws in the wrong place and real proofreading errors. In some books about collecting — L W Currey’s encyclopaedic Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors: A Bibliography of First Printings of their Fiction and Selected Nonfiction (1979) is my favourite — the identity of the true first edition is often identified by a printing anomaly on page whatever. Well, this first trade paperback edition has anomalies falling out of every chapter. How can anyone miss such obvious mistakes as, “I don’t now if I’m ready for it.” on the memorably numbered page 123? While it does not spoil the enjoyment of reading the book, it did make me flinch in the wrong places — we are only supposed to flinch when the meaning and not the form of the words on the page grabs us.

So, my apologies to all involved in this venture, but this is not worth the money as it stands. We can see how good it could all have been. Let’s just call it a gallant failure and move on to the next book.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Beautiful Hell
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

Doomsdays by Jeffrey Thomas

October 16, 2010 2 comments

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.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Beautiful Hell
Blood Society
Blue War
Doomsdays
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

DoomsdaysDoomsdays by Jeffrey Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like any collection, there can be good stories and not so good. In this case, the good just about outweighs the not so good.

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