ARE YOU THERE AND OTHER STORIES by Jack Skillingstead. Urbana, IL; Golden Gryphon Press; 2009. 1st edition hardcover.
Unconventional and deep, this dynamic collection of twenty-six stories offers a wealth of fantastical and horrifying settings. Several perspectives on life after death are explored—reincarnated swarms of nanobots with digital personalities and a spirit wandering a bleak and violent city in search of lost love—as well as dynamic themes of alien invasion and Lovecraftian horror. In "Life on the Preservation," the Earth has been devastated, but Seattle has been preserved in a time loop taking place one day before world destruction, and a young girl who has never known such opulence is sent to destroy the city. A man injured by a terrorist's bomb discovers that he can relive the event, but if he chooses to save the woman at the table next to him, there will be dire consequences to himself in "Rewind." In the title story, a parapolice detective in hot pursuit of a serial killer receives help from a responsive memory module of the killer’s mother, but soon discovers that he might be falling in love with the module. Edgy and surreal, each tale reflects on familiar, emotional issues and complex relationships from new and imaginative angles.
A Skillingstead story dismisses the easy and sentimental reasons to choose life, in order to find the real, complicated, sometimes hidden reasons. To do that, you sometimes need to blow things up: petty conventions, superficial answers, comfortable complacency. That’s how you find out what lies underneath.
Are You There And Other Stories
by Kilian Melloy
EDGE Staff Reporter
Thursday Sep 17, 2009
Where has Jack Skillingstead been all our lives?
The answer is that he’s been toiling away for year--decades!--without getting published. When he finally broke into publication, it was to the acclaim of his new peers: Stephen King selected a story to appear at King’s Web site; Harlan Ellison was ready to collaborate with Skillingstead on a tale (in the end, Skillingstead completed the story, or at least the version that is included here, on his own); Gardner Dozier published the story "Dead Worlds" in Asimov’s magazine, and Nancy Kress provides the foreword to this collection of 26 dazzling tales, Are You There and Other Stories.
"Are You There" is a fitting title for yarns like these. It’s the sort of question a fearful wanderer through a dark forest asks of a companion who has suddenly gone quiet; it’s the tentative query someone casts out to air gone electric with presence in a recesses of a haunted house. Getting an answer might be worse than no reply.
There’s strangeness and trepidation to spare in these two-dozen-and-change tales. Many concern men who are trapped in securely locked emotional vaults of their own devising--there’s no need to travel to strange new worlds for a storyteller of Skillingstead’s persuasions, because he’s a dab hand at finding the alien aspects of character, of mood and tone.
Sometimes those strange spaces Skillingstead finds are metaphysical, as in "The Avenger of Love," the story he and Ellison were meant to collaborate on. Sometimes they are arrived at through semi-scientific means, like the disjointed fold of space and time through which a starship pilot wanders, estranged from his co-pilot, and wife, as never before.
Often, the strange spaces in which these stories unfold are, or might be, in the imaginations of the characters themselves. Do people’s lives really change because that scruffy man over there imagines them into new shapes of cause and effect--or this a delusion brought on by anxiety and alienation? And speaking of aliens, are they orbiting the earth in cloaked ships, stealing us one at a time? Are they creating space-time rifts to vacuum us up and replace us with soulless replicas? Are they here from another planet with good intentions, or ill... or are the so-called aliens really projections from our own collective unconscious, harbingers and agents of human evolution? Or are they merely the delusions of deeply distraught men unable to trust enough to connect?
Once in a while, the strange space inhabits a woman character: in "Thank You, Mr. Whiskers," an elderly woman reclaims her mind only in an extended moment of dementia that creates an entire pocket universe, an expanse of space and time occupying her own mind-space. Who’s to say the life she lives in that daydream isn’t as real as the life she lived before?
These 26 stories could have been dictated by demons from The Twilight Zone, they’re so odd and so distinctively uncommon. They’re also that good, that funny, and that outrageous.
Skillingstead has arrived, and there’s no putting his genius back in the bottle now. That’s the happy ending we’re left with as we shut this collection with wide eyes and a big, stunned grin.
by Jack Skillingstead
Publisher: Golden Gryphon Press. Publication Date: October 1, 2009. Pages: 310. Format: Hardcover Original. ISBN-13: 978-1-930-846-616
Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.
Jack Skillingstead, on the other hand, is exactly not anything like that at all. The stories in Are You There and Other Stories are so muscled with what they want to say, and so fast at saying a lot very quickly, that the sound of their telling is like a Doppler wave: never quite catching up with the speed of the next word. Reading Skillingstead is like hearing an echo of where he just left.
The stories in Are You There are maybe a tad too similar. Male protagonists with ruptured childhoods fight solipsism on near-future mean streets tingling with avatars and ghosts and parallels and deaths. Each tale, by itself, is brilliant or close to that. But too often perhaps a wholesome outcome is skidded into by the skin of the teeth, as though the tale just told was a form of therapy; in "Bean There"—like most of the book originally published in Asimov's—a damaged protagonist cannot accept his girlfriend's belief that the aliens who have just landed can genuinely help humans levitate themselves out of the disasters humans are prone to on this sick planet, until the very last moment, when the two meet again cute, as foretold them, back in time to day one of Disneyland. But the title story dances the other way, superbly. A mass murderer is tracked down. The traumas that led him to kill street vagrants echo through the emptying aisles of the protagonist's similarly bruised soul. He shuts down his devices (it is an SF world), he shuts down his voices, he sits in his room. His ex-wife knocks on the door. The last words of the story: "He stared at the door, and in his mind he stood up and opened it." I think maybe for Skillingstead slingshot is the future.
Fine in fine dj. SIGNED BY THE AUTHOR.