The Endless Fall, by Jeffrey Thomas

Though I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk the past few months due to life, work and stress, I managed to find one thing that helped me break out of it: long airline flights. Between recent trips to Seattle and Los Angeles (which I should probably blog about), I ended up reading a lot of lovely books, including research for my upcoming cat physics book as well as some excellent fiction.  I tend to stock up my kindle with a lot of books by authors I’m unfamiliar with, and one of those I tackled was Jeffrey Thomas’ The Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions (2017), which came out in January.

The cover actually gives an accurate sense of what to expect from the stories within, as it is based on the titular story “The Endless Fall.”  The book collects fourteen of Thomas’ recent short fiction, a lovely collection of weird, sometimes sentimental, and horrific tales.

I feel somewhat embarrassed that I haven’t come across Jeffrey Thomas’ work before. He has been quite prolific, notably writing a series of novels and short stories set in the fictional science fiction megalopolis called “Punktown,” starting in 2000. In 2003, he began another series about intrigue amongst the damned of Hell, the first of which is Letters from Hades.  He has written many other novels and chapbooks, and a dozen collections of short fiction authored or co-authored by him have also been released, including one with the talented W.H. PugmireThe Endless Fall isn’t even the most recent collection, as Haunted Worlds was released in August of this year — I have more catching up to do!

The stories of The Endless Fall almost all possess a surreal, nightmarish quality to them, often stretching the bounds of credibility in concept if one thinks about them too much.  I admittedly struggled with the first couple of tales in the collection, but once I learned to stop worrying and embrace the weird, I found them increasingly powerful and haunting.

A short summary of the stories in the collection:

  • Jar of Mist. When Oskar comes to identify the body of his estranged daughter Aliza, lost to suicide, he also begins to investigate the circumstances that lead to her death. From a local curio shop, he learns of Aliza’s boyfriend, a resident of the sinister Sesqua Valley, and buys a jar of mist from the valley that may lead him to answers not meant to be found.  (This story is inspired by the work of his collaborator, W.H. Pugmire, and his setting of the creepy Sesqua Valley.)
  • The Dogs. A man named March finds a way to peer into the distant future, where he seeks to learn the ultimate fate of humanity — and that of human’s faithful canine companions.
  • Ghosts in Amber.  A man in a stagnant relationship finds himself drawn to the abandoned factory that lies across the street from his home — and to the incomprehensible secrets that lie within.
  • The Prosthesis. Thomas works at Gale Therapeutic Appliances, a company that not only makes prostheses for victims of accidents but also dolls for those who are coping with the loss of children.  Thomas’ own peculiar needs lead him to do things that will risk his job at the company, but his actions will lead to even more shocking consequences.
  • The Dark Cell.  Set in the West at the end of the 19th century, this story explores the interactions and conflicts between two women incarcerated in a territorial prison.  The women hate each other, and they are locked together in a lightless cell after a fight…
  • Snake Wine. An Australian ex-pat runs a bar in a Vietnamese seaside city where he caters to homesick tourists.  When he allows himself to be seduced by a beautiful local woman, he finds that inhuman needs must be satisfied, too.
  • The Spectators.  A story of one family, set in a world where every single human being is inevitably and individually followed by an observer from a supernatural race.  Always watching.
  • Bad Reception. A combination of an old war wound and a 1954 RCA television lets one man get a glimpse of an apocalyptic future.  Unfortunately, he soon learns that this future also gets a glimpse of him.
  • Sunset in Megalopolis. A superhero has been frozen in a stasis field for an unfathomable amount of time, thanks to the machinations of his arch-enemy.  When the field finally breaks down, he must adapt to a future that is inexplicable. How does one be a hero when one cannot understand the difference between good and evil in a new world?
  • Portents of Past Futures.  Detective Dill is called to the scene of a baffling homicide. A Jane Doe has been found drowned in a graffiti-covered vacant lot, with no sign of how or where she was killed. Investigation only reveals that the case is even stranger than first imagined, and it may not end well for the detective.
  • Those Above. Thanks to some clever ingenious work, the apocalypse has been delayed. The inhuman monsters only encircle the earth like a massive cloud of flesh, rather than engulfing humanity whole. Hind works at a company that uses the tools of the invaders against themselves, but advancement in the company may come at a cost greater than he is willing to pay.
  • The Individual in Question. A short and shocking tale, in which the victim of an unfathomable event at a concert is interviewed about what exactly happened to him.
  • The Red Machine.  What would you do with a machine that gives you supernatural powers over life and death?  Leslie, a talented artist working at a printing company, finds out when she channels all of her rage and frustration into one of her pieces.
  • The Endless Fall. An astronaut wakes up in a crashed space capsule on a strange planet in autumn, with no memory of who he is or how he got there.  He must fight to survive in a location that becomes stranger the more he explores.  And he is not alone.  Other people are present, as are other… things.  How far is he willing to go to survive?

These summaries are intended to give a flavor of the types of stories that Thomas has written, but they don’t convey how beautiful and haunting the writing is, almost poetic.  The characters are also well-thought out, and have depth to them — these are no Lovecraftian generic shells!  Almost half of the stories have an apocalyptic bent to them, and some of them haunted me for some time after reading them, “The Endless Fall” in particular.

On reflection, it seems to me that most of the stories could be said to be centered around longing, with characters who have desires that cannot be fulfilled, whether it be a need to know the future (The Dogs), a need to be a hero (Sunset in Megalopolis), a need for control (The Red Machine), or simple a need to survive (The Endless Fall).  I suspect that most readers will be able to connect with such a theme, regardless of how peculiar the settings and events of the tales.

The Endless Fall is a wonderful collection of strange and nightmarish stories, and well-worth reading. I am looking forward to working my way through more of Thomas’ work.

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