The Reflection of Ghosts
unktown, a near-future city in the vein of traditional post-apocalyptic or cyberpunk visions, is the heart of Jeffrey Thomas’s collection of short stories, all of which take place in the eponymous city, Punktown the affectionate name for the city Paxton on the alien world Oasis. The Choom, fairly human in appearance and culture, save for their shark-like mouths, are the natives of the planet and have opened their world for immigrants, which has made Paxton a melting pot of alien cultures, a new New York City. Dozens of races intermingle, but, invariably, the protagonists in each of the narratives is human, their antagonists either aliens “other immigrants to Oasis” or the city itself.
The majority of stories in the collection of nine concern male protagonists with poor, or no, relationships with women, or, as in the case of “The Flaying Season”, a woman with poor relationships with men: Punktown not only explores humanity’s inability to interact healthily with their fellow inhabitants in the city of Paxton, but also itself.
Most interesting is the first story in the collection, “The Reflection of Ghosts”, which approximates the viewing of a David Cronenberg film, but in prose. The plot concerns an artist whose art is created through the manipulation of his clones, in their incubation periods, to create horribly disfigured versions of himself. Like Cronenberg, Drew, the artist, is concerned with the possibilities of the flesh, finding infinite variations of life in the fusion of technology and genetic science. Drew is commissioned to construct a female clone of himself, for wealthy clients, most of whom rape, torture, and/or kill their commissioned clones as the clones are created to be rather mindless and as such the rich have no compunctions about doing such, but as one might expect, Drew finds himself transfixed by the slightly intelligent female version of himself. Sparing the details, the sexual relationship of Drew with his female clone is at once wholly engrossing and equally repellant impossible to put down as the best horror achieves and lingering in its effects.
Unfortunately, the rest of the collection exists in the shadow and excellency of “The Reflection of Ghosts”. While some of the stories are rather interesting, none of them approach the sheer visceral impact of the first story in the collection. Other stories of interest include “Heart for Heart’s Sake” and “Wakizashi”, the former a further examination of future art made possible by technology, the latter a study of direct minoritarian cultural interaction. “Heart for Heart’s Sake” details the purchase of a performance artist by a wealthy alien, who then proceeds to rape the artist. Only when she sabotages the structure in which she dances does he finally set her free, the work of art destroyed in her sabotage and the buyer’s possession of her. Nimbus, the performance artist, is influenced by her desire to return to her lover, thus making the narrative overwhelmingly sentimental. Similarly sentimental is “Wakizashi” wherein a Japanese prison guard is confronted with the sacrifice of an imprisoned man for his wife’s benefit: It is only through this alien culture that so mirrors his ancestral culture that he realizes the merits of his ancient heritage, emblematized in the wakizashi of the title. When the sacrificing husband is accidentally killed, it is only the sacrifice of the Japanese prison guard that saves his wife predictable, but effective through its characterization.
While sentimental, the final story in the collection is a rather interesting examination of cybernetics. “The Library of Sorrow” concerns a homicide detective with a cybernetic implant that gifts him with perfect, eidetic memory. MacDiaz, the protagonist, is haunted by the horrific images of crime scenes and the beauty encountered in his youth. As such, he is unable to cope with the mounting conflicts that occur between his memories and his life, his past and his present. Eventually, only through losing his memory can MacDiaz cope with the present. Thus, the stories are largely sentimental, which distracts from the horrific aspects of many of them: Without the sentimental aspects thrown into the various narratives, they would be explicitly horrific. As such, while most of the stories are interesting and the characters well developed, Thomas seems trapped in a romantic mode. “The Reflection of Ghosts”, while achingly sentimental, is so perverse that the sentimentality acts as a trap; otherwise the romantic aspect of the stories deadens the horror that would otherwise compel readers, both in their reading of Punktown and elsewhere.
Available online, Thomas has authored a parallel website to further explore the world of Punktown. The site features later and shorter material that wasn’t included in Punktown. The most interesting of the various material are the doctored images, although most of them are rather amateur in nature. If at all interested in the collection of short stories, a visit to the site might be in order: While simplistic, the site offers a wonderful introduction to the aesthetics at the heart of Punktown, an aesthetic that is at once horrific and sentimental and bound to establish Thomas as an important voice in contemporary horror.
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