Are You There And Other Stories
Where has Jack Skillingstead been all our lives?
The answer is that he's been toiling away for years--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 the 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 resident in the human psyche, the eerie aspects of mood and tone.
Sometimes those strange spaces Skillingstead finds are metaphysical, as in "The Avenger of Love," the story on which he and Ellison were meant to collaborate. 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 expansive world occupying her own mind-space. Who's to say the century or so of life she lives in that daydream isn't as real as the life she lived in the objective "real" world?
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.
Publisher: Golden Gryphon Press. Publication Date: October 1, 2009. Pages: 310. Price: $24.95. Format: Hardcover Original. ISBN-13: 978-1-930-846-616