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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Shadow Regions edited by César Puch

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“You Must Remember This” by Gary A. Braunbeck
“2731” by Stephen Roy
Image“The Painfully Slow Seduction of Aldus Lamb” by Christopher Hawkins
“Under the Bed” by A. C. Wise
“Marcum’s Teeth” by David Bell
“Three Days” by William D. Carl
“Teapot in the Well” by Bonnie Mercure
“The Curse” by Barton Paul Levenson
“A Road Like This, At Night” by Lon Prater      
“The Devil You Know” by Terri Fleming
“Lost and Found” by Trent Roman
“Casting Stones” by Erik Tomblin
“Careless Acts of Devastation” by John Mantooth
“damnation.com” by Justin Gustainis
“Called on Account” by Mark Rigney
“Pulse” by Lynn Carney
“Passage” by Brian Rappatta
“Only the Young” by Josh Rountree
“Invisible” by Nicholas Tyler
“The Bus Ride” by John Shea

While we’re not supposed to comment on anything but the short fiction, the cover of this delightfully chilling collection—with a train in the night headed for certain disaster—really set the mood for me.  Part of that may have come from the fact that when I received the book, I was temporarily living in a third-floor apartment in downtown Chehalis, Washington, where freight trains clatter and moan their way past the nearby crossings at all hours of the day and night.  So it’s not too much of a coincidence that I opened the review file at night, just as a mournful hooting from a couple of blocks away overrode the sound of the omnipresent wind.  Spooky.

"You Must Remember This" by Gary A. Braunbeck is not so much a train ride as a rollercoaster, or some sort of carnival ride that starts out calmly enough, but then begins to plunge downward, ever steeper and faster, until it abruptly turns you upside down, leaving you shaken and disoriented, musing on the nature of reality and the strange twists memory can take.
 
Memory is a complicated and somewhat uncertain business at best.  We know that no two people remember an event exactly the same way, and the disparity grows with time.  Those of us who have attained a few years also know that our brains helpfully fill in the blanks, distorting or editing our memories so that we’re shocked to discover, on returning somewhere after a long absence, that the streets, the buildings, the very landscape are not quite the way we’ve pictured them over the years.  Then there’s the false memory syndrome that appears in the news from time to time—memories apparently induced by over-eager therapists.
 
We all are the product of our past experiences, which we retain as memories.  Some of us have memories we would be happy to give up.  If we could change those memories, would we then change our present lives?  Could we adopt someone else’s memories, or memories of what we wished would have happened, flesh them out with daydreams, and in effect reinvent ourselves?  Or would the existing memories that shaped us intrude on the new, adopted memories, tainting and distorting them so that we mentally bounced back to where we started?
 
Braunbeck’s story begins with a couple watching old home movies, newly transferred to DVD.  A minor glitch appears right away—the rug’s the wrong color.  Unimportant, perhaps.  A perfectly normal memory lapse or perhaps simply a phenomenon caused by the transfer process.  But then it develops that the event being viewed couldn’t have been filmed.  It happened before there was a movie or video camera available to record it… in fact, it never happened at all.  Hang on tight.  The ride’s headed downhill and picking up speed.  Brace yourself for the big bump.

"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day," laments Macbeth.  Life may be a drag, it may ultimately lack meaning, but at least we expect time to be linear.  Events happen, and we move on to other events.  Somehow you deal with it, whatever happens, because there’s no going back.  But if you could relive one day of your life, if you could change one factor or another desperately trying to change the outcome, would it make any difference?  The answer in the movie Groundhog Day was yes, if you make enough effort to change yourself, and if you get enough chances to do it over, you can finally change your life.  "2731" by Stephen Roy is not so optimistic.

Anthony Pelosi, a bond underwriter and a very busy man, finds himself caught in a time loop, a Möbius strip from hell, endlessly repeating the day his wife and son died, powerless to change it.  The only thing that changes is the little notebook in which he tallies the days.  Is he being punished for his former indifference?  Did he focus too much on his career, ignoring his family, until circumstances forced him to see, too late, how much he valued them?  Is there a possibility that eventually he’ll have suffered enough, and be allowed to move on?  Anthony wonders, but really can’t tell.  The only certainty is that tomorrow morning will come again, and again, and again.

"The Painfully Slow Seduction of Aldus Lamb" by Christopher Hawkins is a tale of patience and devotion, of enduring all in the name of True Love.  What would you give, what would you endure, to gain your heart’s desire?  Whether you view Gina Wolfe’s feelings for the unattainable Aldus Lamb as love or obsession, her unswerving devotion to the cause is clear.
 
Gina is an attractive woman, skilled in the arts of seduction, but all her best efforts, which reduce the other men in the office to drooling idiots, have no apparent effect on Aldus.  Her campaign to appeal to his intellectual side meets with the same lack of results.  After five years of trying everything she can think of to attract Aldus’s attention, she finally consults a mysterious woman—gypsy fortuneteller? witch?  voodoo priestess?—who offers her a potion that will do the trick.  As with all such manifestations of the black arts, there is a high price to pay, and though it works as promised, the results are not quite what Gina had in mind.
 
"Under the Bed" by A. C. Wise begins with sad but unfortunately too-common circumstances: a tired, battered wife hides her frightened child from his abusive, drunken father.  "Don’t come out for anyone but me. I’m going to come back for you, you understand? I love you very much and I need you to hide and be very quiet. Don’t make a sound and no matter what, don’t come out."
 
Most children would eventually disobey, would be forced out of hiding by hunger and other bodily needs despite their fear.  Most children would eventually cry or scream or do something that would make their presence known.  Not this one. Trapped in a waking nightmare, he suffers in silence. 
 
As if one terrified child weren’t enough, Wise ups the tension by introducing a second frightened child.  Will the second child overcome his fears to help the first?  Will the second child’s mother intervene?  Wise keeps us reading, alternately tantalizing us with hope of rescue and ratcheting up the horror.  We seesaw back and forth, feeling each child’s fear, riding that runaway train on the book’s cover toward inevitable disaster.

We all know that psychological problems can produce physical effects.  "Marcum’s Teeth" by David Bell takes us into an alternate reality where fear of mortality manifests as dreams of losing one’s teeth, and sometimes the dreams become waking fact. 
 
Professor Stephen Marcum experiences the sudden loss of a perfectly healthy tooth.  Naturally, he consults his dentist, who can only tell him, "Sometimes these things just happen. It’s rare, but I’ve read about similar cases." 
 
The process repeats, until Stephen, in desperation, seeks a second opinion.  One of his students has noticed his plight and recommends her dentist father, who offers the psychological explanation.  So the solution to the tooth loss is to stop obsessing over death.  Easier said than done, as circumstances unfold. 

"Three Days" by William D. Carl is narrated by a writer whom we hope bears no resemblance to the author himself.  The writer befriends the mean drunk who lives in the apartment above him, not out of kindness or some feeling of moral obligation, but because he’s good story material.  "A good character is hard to come by, but here was a classic eccentric living a floor above me. Basically, I want to be a good, altruistic person, but I’m really more of an opportunist."
 
Mark, the drunk, comes to the conclusion that he’s really a good person inside, or at least he wants to be, but there’s something evil inside him that won’t let him do what’s right.  He draws on his part-Navaho heritage, plus some research, to turn his apartment into a sweat lodge in an effort to purify himself.  An upstairs apartment in Chicago in July, with the air conditioning off and all the openings sealed, should get hot enough to drive off any evil spirit—assuming one survives the three-day ritual.
 
Mark makes the writer promise that he’ll leave him alone for three full days, but there’s a major heat wave on and the television news warns that overheating could be fatal.  The writer has a delayed attack of conscience and rescues Mark before the time is up, with dire consequences.

"Teapot in the Well" by Bonnie Mercure explores the nature of love and the danger of caring.  Dave is an orderly in a mental institution; Angela is a beautiful young woman who, they claim, murdered her baby.  In spite of his abhorrence of her crime, Dave finds himself drawn to the disturbed girl.  Angela tries to keep him at a distance, as she does anyone who begins to care about her.  Is she afraid of human contact, or is she a victim of circumstances, sacrificing her need for closeness to protect others?  "Love came to me bearing a rose," she said. "I accepted it and everything that came with it. How was I to know it was wrong?"
 
Bad things happen to anyone who gets close to Angela.  Is she a homicidal maniac, or is something else going on?  And where are all those twigs coming from?
 
As he deals with the variously delusional inmates, Dave wonders, "Where do imaginary figures go when the people who imagine them can’t find them? Do they fade into nothing, or somehow travel into other unstable minds to say howdy?"  The lines between sanity and insanity waver here; in some cases the "insane" may simply be observing a reality that the "sane" refuse to see.

"The Curse" by Barton Paul Levenson takes us to Haiti, where we meet a simple but happy man, Armand du Plessis.  He owns a horse and wagon, and makes an adequate living driving his neighbors to the market at Port-au-Prince.  He drives only once a week, because that’s all the money he needs.  The rest of his time he spends fishing.  Once a week he visits a prostitute named Marie, and at Christmas, he celebrates by splitting a bottle of brandy with her.  His idyllic existence takes an unexpected turn for the worse when a pedestrian stumbles and falls under a wheel of his cart.  Yes, it was an unavoidable accident, but try telling that to the victim’s widow, who happens to be a powerful witch with a thirst for revenge.
 
One of the more optimistic stories in this collection, this one carries us beyond disaster and suffering to a level of peace, showing the redemptive qualities of acceptance and forgiveness.

"A Road Like This, At Night" by Lon Prater is a ghost story, of sorts.  Secrets have a way of coming out.  In this bittersweet tale, a bereaved father, driving his dead daughter’s car home after her funeral, is haunted by a series of episodes in her life, memories that seem to be attached to the car, waiting to be triggered.  How well do any of us know our children or any of our loved ones?  We might be surprised or even shocked at the experiences they’ve had, the things they chose not to tell us.  Would we, like this father, have the sense to realize that we still love them, no matter what?

"The Devil You Know" by Terri Fleming starts prosaically enough.  Oh sure, there’s a teaser promising a spectacular, gory death scene, but it still seems to be rooted in the real world.  There’s a teenager who covets her older sister’s favorite skirt, a bunch of kids hanging out in the park on an October night, a boyfriend-girlfriend argument—nothing out of the ordinary.  A simple, formulaic horror story.  The monster or serial killer or whatever should turn up any moment, and we can pretend to be shocked or frightened, but we can pretty well predict the events to come.  Then the story takes a sharp turn and things get stranger and stranger.  Fleming leads us so smoothly from the merely terrible to the totally bizarre that the most outrageous situations take on a certain credibility. 
 
Think you know all about the "adult conspiracy?"  Fleming’s version is a little different, but the disenchantment is just as great.  "Mothers make everything better; that is, until you really know them. What happened later forever changed my opinion. Part of me will never trust her, and I will always think she’s a *ing lunatic."

What would you risk, to achieve your heart’s desire?  Would you even think about the negative possibilities if you thought there was a chance?  In "Lost and Found" by Trent Roman, two boys discover a magical lost-and-found box in the local library.  Put in a note describing what’s lost, and the box will have it for you the next day.  The temptation grows to go beyond long-lost toys and other minor possessions.  Would the box know the difference if you asked for something you always wanted but never owned?  Will it give Bobby the mountain bike he covets?  What if it’s a person you lost?  Can it bring back Rick’s dead mother?  Like "The Monkey’s Paw" and other cautionary tales of magic boxes, cornucopias, or wishes, this one warns us to be careful of what we ask for.

"Casting Stones" by Erik Tomblin features an old man, Lucas, who lives in a crumbling old house, doesn’t talk much although he listens politely, and follows a daily ritual of throwing a rock across the road at exactly 3:37 PM every day.  If you ask him why, his response is the same as it is to almost any question, "Don’t know."  Just a feebleminded, maybe slightly crazy, old man?  But Lucas occasionally "knows things."  When he deigns to speak, it’s often to make a prediction or pronouncement that’s worth listening to. 
 
Andrew, Lucas’s closest neighbor, drops in to talk to Lucas from time to time, even though he knows he’ll be doing most of the talking.  They become friends, after a fashion.  The results of that friendship may leave you wondering just how mindless that stone-casting ritual is, and whether Lucas knows more than he’s saying.  If I had a neighbor like Lucas, I would be very cautious of how I treated him.

In "Careless Acts of Devastation," John Mantooth provides us with a compelling excuse to not mow the lawn.  Wade considers himself responsible for the death of his son in a traffic accident.  His ex-wife concurs, calling him a murderer.  Perhaps it’s his strong feeling of guilt that draws him to purchase that particular house in the suburbs. 
 
They say there are no new stories, only new ways of presenting them.  You’ll probably recognize the theme, or at least figure it out pretty rapidly, but this version is still worth reading.  With its hopeful message that sometimes we learn to avoid the disasters, it offers a nice balance for the more fatalistic stories in this collection.

"damnation.com" by Justin Gustainis brings the old "bargain with the devil" story into the computer age, complete with a contract that would gladden the heart of a corporate lawyer and plenty of special effects.  Will Martin, a bored and lonely history professor, fall for the big sell?  Would you?

"Called on Account" by Mark Rigney is a different ghost story.  It takes place in a small, Midwestern town: a quiet, peaceful place where everyone knows everyone—a place where baseball is raised almost to a holy rite and star players are revered as near-saints.  The heartland: a kinder, gentler place to live where the old ways are kept.  According to popular mythology, in such a town everyone has high moral standards and loves his neighbor.  Or not. 
 
As the town’s only barber, Frank McCann hears all the gossip, knows all the secrets, and keeps it to himself until the tragic death of his younger son, Jesse, the ace pitcher for the high school baseball team. Whether or not Jesse’s drowning was an accident, Frank’s grief and anger culminate in a psychological meltdown that goes far beyond the normal bounds of the physical world. 

In another small-town story, a mother calms her fears about her son enlisting in the military by wishing for an end to all the tools of war.  "Pulse" by Lynn Carney might be a science fiction story about super-powerful aliens, or it might be one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for stories.  Or both.  Either way, it provides food for thought.
 
Surely most of us have, at one time or another, dreamed of a world without wars, without weapons, with no way for us to hurt each other as we have done since before the beginning of recorded history.  But perhaps, if we could make that happen, it wouldn’t play out they way we expected—certainly not unless we could somehow change human nature as well.  Would Caine have used his bare hands on Abel if there were no rocks?
 
"Star light, star bright . . . If there were no weapons, we wouldn’t need soldiers and I could keep my son. Some other mother could keep her son, too. I wish for no more soldiers. No more weapons. Make them all go away." Was someone listening, or was it just coincidence?  Desirable though world peace may be, you’d better consider all the possible ramifications before you wish on a star.

I’m sorry to say I didn’t like "Passage" by Brian Rappatta.  That's no reflection on the quality of the writing, which is excellent, or even the subject matter per se.  What I object to, what I found so wrong as to be very disturbing, were the conclusions drawn by the alcoholic father, the rationalization of his behavior, and the ready acceptance of the situation by the son.  I can understand a person fighting a losing battle against addiction and giving in to despair; I can even understand, to a limited extent, that he might hold the delusion that he was doing the right thing; but the suggestion of "happily ever after" based on the delusional behavior is too much.  Perhaps my reaction is colored by the fact that I lost a brother to alcoholism and suicide last year.  Read it yourself and draw your own conclusions; I can’t be objective about this.

If you’re a fan of the gory, slasher type of horror, you’ll love "Only the Young" by Josh Rountree.  If not, you might feel otherwise.  The basic premise is that repeated exposure to certain rock music turns kids into sociopathic monsters, and attempts by parents to protect their children from the dangers of popular culture are doomed to failure.  Imagine every negative stereotype you’ve ever heard about teenagers carried to the extreme, and you’ll come pretty close.  The most disturbing feature is, considering some of the stories you read in the paper, there’s a certain degree of credibility here.

"Invisible" by Nicholas Tyler would make a good Twilight Zone episode.  Teri Lancaster, beautiful but spoiled supermodel, wakes up to find she can’t see her reflection in the mirror.  Defying all logic, she assumes her brother, Aaron, has somehow done something to her mirrors, even though everything else shows up normally, and her maid claims she can see Teri in the mirror as well.  When she angrily accuses Aaron, his response is confusion, disbelief, and finally, as she persists, "One day, Teri, you’re gonna realize how ugly you really are."
 
Prophetic words, perhaps, as her condition worsens.  She can’t see herself in any reflective surface, nor can she see her image in photographs or on billboards.  Although everyone assures her she looks as beautiful as ever, she finds herself feeling increasingly ugly—her fingers tell her that her skin texture is damaged and blemished, and she feels all sorts of uncomfortable sensations as her body seems, in her perception, to be morphing into some sort of hideous creature.  Her doctor suggests it’s psychosomatic and recommends a rest.  Will she recover?  Will her beauty become more than skin deep?  You be the judge.

Last, but certainly not least, "The Bus Ride" by John Shea takes us step by step into a nightmare as Conley, a white-collar employee in a city office, finds his commute from suburbia taking on frightening overtones.  A man in the street in one of the seedier areas of town seems to have taken notice of Conley, who normally manages to disengage himself from the lesser beings he sees on the way to work.  What does the man want?  Despite his best efforts to avoid the connection, it looks like Conley’s going to find out.  A lovely, creepy tale that will lurk in your mind a long time, especially if you travel by bus.

All in all, a delightful collection of stories better read with all the lights on and out of hearing of train whistles or other haunting, mournful sounds.  Enjoy.

Publisher: Cavern Press
Trade Paperback: $15.95