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

Phantom, #0

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Image“Petition to Repatriate Geronimo’s Skull” by F. Brett Cox
“Tremors” by Ann Sterzinger
“Mono” by Ben Peek
“Feeding the Machine” by Paul G. Tremblay           
“Night Watch” by Darren Speegle
“The Changeling” by Sarah Langan
“Everything is Better With Zombies” by Hannah Wolf Bowen
“The Royal Zoo is Closed” by Laird Barron

Phantom #0, edited by Nick Mamatas, is slated to premiere at World Fantasy 2006, free to con-goers.  This collection of seemingly disassociated short stories begins with “Petition to Repatriate Geronimo’s Skull” by F. Brett Cox, which, even on the simplest levels, was a bit troublesome to comprehend. It opens with an initiate’s most innermost secrets being revealed to a shadowy set of Order members—embarrassing flashbacks of sex, unrequited love, things not meant to be spoken. What follows is a fictional yet historical account of the life of Goyathlay, an Apache warrior who dreams of ruling the world whose entire family ends up murdered.

Cox's use of setting and his attention to detail are commendable, but "Petition to Repatriate Geronimo's Skull" is flawed by its disjointed narrative. The lack of focus made the story seem more like a vignette, a small patch of Goyathlay and the life he led, condensed down. Despite being explicitly stated, his purpose in life remains unclear. Captivating words, but without a place to follow them, not worth the journey.
 
Susan Mercier, who just turned the big two-five and is still working at the same ol' steak house, has a shopping list of problems in "Tremors" by Ann Sterzinger. Co-worker Truman is trying to convince her to split a bag of coke he can't afford, but all she wants to do is quit. She can't remember ever being sober, being clean, and she'd like to stop shaking and seeing unimaginable things, to be free of the temptations. It's a nice dream, but before long, she's back to snorting lines off toilet seats.  She hooks up with a young man in Goth attire, Mark, who may or may not actually have fangs. While their interest is mutual, their reasons for it might not necessarily be the same, and Susan is about to learn that detox can be quite a killer.
 
Sterzinger has a marvelous way with dialogue; the angst-filled love/hate conversations between Susan and Mark are wholly engaging. They both have distinct voices, and even though they only know each other for a short time, Sterzinger presents them like a true couple. Drug stories labeled speculative fiction are generally more about the drugs and their effects on the human mind than anything speculative, but that's not the case here. The lives of these two characters are magical, haunting, and weird, filled with hallucinations and blind truths. Highly recommended.
 
There's an epidemic happening in "Mono" by Ben Peek; white people are going insane. They've become infected during an event that survivors call The Five Days, when the world burned with white light. They haven't become zombies, per se, but rather inhuman creatures mad with rage who tear through walls and each other. Chilam Singer is a survivor holed up at the Wallens Ridge Prison. From atop its wall, she and others keep watch, knowing it's only a matter of time until the epidemic victims storm the building.
 
"Mono" mirrors the horror of the Holocaust and the eerie solitude at the beginning of 28 Days Later.  Told through a sectional collage: diary entries, conversations from the top of the prison wall, inventory statements, etc., Chilam is a character that readers can cling to, a woman who has lost much to be where she is now, knowing that there's no hope of long-term survival. A snippet of dialogue between her and a friend hints at Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Peek's vision of a ghastly future is as powerful, and possibly more grim.
 
“Feeding the Machine” by Paul G. Tremblay is about an eating disorder, Pica, which diverts appetite away from healthy food to unwholesome matter such as dirt and chalk. Our protagonist is pregnant, ever so hungry, and involved in a shaky relationship with Cassie. For the most part, she is able to ignore the eating episodes by distracting herself, but the stress of her job, being a pregnant woman in a gay relationship, and the discovery of Cassie's diary might be too much for her to handle.
 
Scenes jump from present tense—"you-the-machine eats clay, you-the-machine likes eating clay"—to a more traditional first person. At times it can be unclear when events are happening, but otherwise it works well for the story's pacing, forcing the reader to actually believe they are eating harmful items. Tremblay drops hints here and there, but leaves a lot up to the reader. What our protagonist discovers in Cassie's diary is never revealed. But the ending, which made me a bit uncomfortable, is certainly final. A strong story told with a unique voice.
 
Richard and Kara are live-in partners in “Night Watch” by Darren Speegle, sharing a house on the island Aegea. Theirs is a repressed society, and they're locked indoors for most of the time, fearful of punishment. But Richard has had enough. He plans to make a pilgrimage, with or without Kara, to the Museum. After a haunting from departed relatives, Kara agrees to accompany him. It's either that or wait to die, however slow that might be. But there are worse horrors out at dusk, waiting and watching, ready to be discovered.
 
This dark piece of otherworldly events revolves more around a revelation between Kara and Richard, but that's in the realm of spoiler material. Speegle's writing is intense, and this reader only wished that the true action of the story (i.e. the escape for freedom to Roma) had started earlier instead of midway through the tale. The beginning is far too slow, and while the setting is certainly unique and Richard's fear genuine, my interest waned. Still, it's worth it for those that keep reading.
 
“The Changeling” by Sarah Langan is a gloomy look at the life of an unwanted and, ultimately, unloved child. Born to a young, wealthy couple, she is not the prize baby that such upscale families expect. She is cold, gray-skinned, and won't stop screaming. The wailing is horrible, and eventually, she is forgotten by the living, and the dead come to claim her, slicing her hands and feet to make them webbed appendages. They train her to be their servant, a creature of the night, horrible and appalling.
 
Langan’s prose is lyrical, and the narrative snaps from the present to the past and then back to the present. It makes for quick reading, the cliffhangers tugging the reader along like a good little changeling. The changeling, Annalise, in Ian R. MacLeod's The Light Ages is a sympathetic creature, filled with resentment from a society casting her aside and hunting her like a witch. A parallel can be found in Langan's story, and although this changeling does worse things, she's still sympathetic. While this reader was put off by the unremorseful ending, it did seem natural. Creepy as anything, but natural. Well recommended.
 
“Everything is Better With Zombies” by Hannah Wolf Bowen follows two friends, Emily and Lion, as they search an old cemetery for signs of zombie activity. Emily truly believes that everything would be better with zombies, and her obsession with the living dead nibbles at her mind. She starts to believe she's a zombie herself, which doesn't particularly bother her as everything is better with zombies, but she's not sure.  How can you tell when someone's a zombie? In the local cemetery, Emily and Lion find footprints. But whose are they?

Bowen's tale of two friends and their macabre quest is surprisingly fun, even lighthearted in its horrific parts. What makes a zombie is a question readers may have encountered before, but how Emily handles the question is key. The ending felt a little rushed, but I enjoyed how it brought everything full circle. George Romero fans will probably enjoy this as long as they're not expecting a world brimming with the shambling undead.

“The Royal Zoo is Closed” by Laird Barron opens with a man, Sweeney, staring at his bloody thumbprint on the refrigerator door. His mind wanders, thinking of a thousand things, posing question after question, many without answers. On his way to work, he loses himself in graffiti on city walls, remembering artists he once knew. Even the newspaper has him daydreaming, the headlines calling to him like people on the street. A visit to his doctor may provide some answers. Then again…

One cannot dispute Barron's skill with the written word; he brings Sweeney to life with ease, his flaws and insecurities, how he yearns for younger women and fears anything foreign—the way his mind works, the things he sees, his strange internal wanderings. It's obvious Sweeney has issues, and it's just as obvious that the world he's living in is problematic, but this reader was unsure of the story's point. If Sweeney is simply a schizophrenic man in modern day 2006, the story's premise is an examination of a secondary world of the mind. Not the strongest work to end on, but there are plenty of other ones here to enjoy.

[Editor's note: For those not attending World Fantasy, Phantom #0 can also be ordered through Clarkesworld Books.]