Written by George Zebrowski
Published by Golden Gryphon Press
310 pages (hardcover)
Contemporary horror fiction is often focused on monsters of the physical kind — serial killers or zombies or vampires. Outside forces we must fight against, and most usually we triumph over them. But there is something to be said of hearkening back to a different time when horror was not what is outside us, but what is within us.
George Zebrowski’s collection of short stories, Black Pockets and Other Dark Thoughts, reminds one in many circumstances of some of the older Gothic horror tales. Divided into three sections dedicated to Personal Terrors, Political Horrors, and Metaphysical Fears, Zebrowski’s stories explore many dark corners of the human psyche with rather unsettling results.
The first story, “Jumper,” is about a strong young woman with a terrible past who seeks help from a psychiatrist to stop her unscheduled nightly spatial jaunts. It’s a strong opener, full of subtle but escalating darkness and drawn to a very disturbing finish. The Personal Terrors section continues with several more stories finely crafted with a deft hand. The best of the crop were, in my humble opinion, “Hell Just Over the Hill,” “Earth Around His Bones,” and “Passing Nights.” These three thrills embody best the essence of this segment, “Passing Nights” especially so. It’s the tale of a young boy and his recurring, vivid nightmare of a man dying and many years later learning the truth of those many nights of terror. It’s an incredibly haunting piece.
Section Two, Political Horrors, delves into the mire of leaders and government from the unique aspect of a horror perspective. The first story here, “I Walked With Fidel,” tells the tale of a soldier who makes an astounding discovery in the guise of an undead Fidel Castro. The young man’s family had been victims of Castro’s rule, and he takes the opportunity to get back at the dictator and benefit his family, but in the process he begins to see that nothing is as cut and dried as he believed. It’s an extremely gripping tale and possibly the best story in this short section, followed closely by “My First World.” The horrors in this portion of the book are much more subtle. Here Zebrowski weaves tales of what humans do to one another in the name of furthering a political agenda.
Metaphysical Fears is the heaviest piece of the book, not to be attempted by the faint of heart. Zebrowski is obviously a very intelligent man, and when addressing the tough questions, he struts out his big brain. This makes for a somewhat tough read in a couple instances, most notably in “Interpose” and “Nappy” and to a lesser degree in the closing tale, “Lords of Imagination.” These stories are so heavy with intellectualism that it’s hard to read the heart, where the fear lives. “The Coming of Christ the Joker” teeters on the edge of this as well but luckily manages to remain on the accessible side. In fact, it was just on the line to the point that once I finished it and realized I understood the thoughts behind it, I was very proud of myself and felt quite smart. It’s wryly amusing in many ways, sneaking the darkness in below the radar in a delightful way. “A Piano Full of Dead Spiders” is an eerie story of talent — those who have it, those who don’t, and those who need to be around it. Anyone who has ever struggled to create something will feel the cold fingers of this one on your spine.
“Black Pockets,” the title story and the longest piece in the book, is more of a novella really. Its main characters (whose names are the same as the ones in the preceding story but are not the same people) are two men linked by a shared past. Felix stole Bruno’s ideas and his wife, pretty much ruining his life. Now, many years later, Felix is dying and has decided to give Bruno something back . . . a knowledge of how to exact revenge on his enemies. But there are conditions attached, and as is often the case, the devil’s in the details. This story is dark, creepy, and insidiously unnerving.
Zebrowski is an adept author, thrilling and chilling the reader on a myriad of levels. In almost every instance his characters speak with a voice everyone can hear. His style has a flow and a cadence that is reminiscent of older works and made me think of Shirley Jackson most notably. He has that ability of highlighting the horror in everyday things, much as Jackson did.
While I wouldn’t recommend this for casual readers looking to kill a few minutes of time and fire off a few synapses, if you’re a fan of intelligent horror that looks at things with a different eye, there’s a lot here to feed your need. The stories are smart, interesting, and make you think, even if they do occasionally get bogged down. Zebrowski has delivered a tight collection of high-brow horror for the intellectual fan.
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