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Spotlight on: Black Pockets and Other Dark Thoughts by George Zebrowski

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Black Pockets and Other Dark Thoughts by George Zebrowski George Zebrowski, Black Pockets and Other Dark Thoughts

Douglas Winter wrote that "Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the Western .... Horror is an emotion," in his introduction to the seminal horror anthology Prime Evil. I think that is what George Zebrowski (Macrolife) is trying to get across in Black Pockets and Other Dark Thoughts. These nineteen stories (primarily science fiction or fantasy tales with horrific elements -- not full-blown terror tales) are divided into three sections: "Personal Terrors," "Political Horrors," and "Metaphysical Fears" -- intended to showcase frights on different levels, always with startling effectiveness. Take this passage from "The Wish in the Fear":

"[O]ne of the many trivial fears he would develop ... involved sharp objects and the hidden nature of accidents.... [H]e idly imagined putting out his right eye with a pencil. Whether he could muster the courage to do so deliberately interested him, but the more frightening possibility was that a series of ordinary, even logical steps might lead to it surreptitiously ... or even worse, convince him that it was the necessary thing to do."
I was not expecting such a seemingly innocuous passage to affect me the way it did. Suffice it to say, I don't handle a sharpened pencil as blithely as I used to. Three stories in Black Pockets and Other Dark Thoughts -- "The Wish in the Fear," "Passing Nights," and "Interpose" -- address the inevitability of destiny. Sometimes that's a comfort, but in Zebrowski's hands it more often leads to a marked feeling of unease.

Another portion of this unease is illustrated by the concept of doppelgangers. "Hell Over the Hill," "The Alternate," and "Takes You Back" (my favorite) all deal in some way with these other selves, and not under pleasant circumstances. Zebrowski's favorite method is to take a seemingly normal situation and stick in a double, just to see how the characters will respond, surrounding this unreal event with solid reality, much like classic Ray Bradbury. I quickly discovered that, although Zebrowski is quite a good "idea" writer, his forte truly lies in characterization.

"Nappy," another story of doubles, examines the horror of being confined in your immortality by the impression of history -- what people have written, said, and thought about you. What kind of life is that, being defined by others' expectations? A very confusing one, as Napoleon Bonaparte discovers when the fact is revealed to him, as a part of an experiment, that he is not the real Napoleon but only his legend personified. Zebrowski offers up a completely engrossing history lesson with a modern scientific twist, including a conclusion that ties everything together yet is completely not what I expected.

Another historical figure featured in Black Pockets and Other Dark Thoughts is a zombie Castro. No, there's no punchline, "I Walked with Fidel" is almost completely serious; the concept is pretty funny, but the telling is straight. Zebrowski even manages to make this big "enemy of democracy" into a sympathetic character -- surely an even greater accomplishment once you've added "undead" to "Communist dictator." But what's scary about a non-threatening zombie who is an articulate speechmaker with no cannibalistic cravings? Nothing until you realize it's a metaphor for a ruler who is actually a puppet controlled by a political machine, with little or no thought of his own. That's truly scary!

Black Pockets and Other Dark Thoughts also contains two Christ-centered stories written 30 years apart: the abovementioned "Interpose" and "The Coming of Christ the Joker," wherein Jesus invokes the healing power of laughter, argues with agnostic Gore Vidal on *Larry King Live*, and generally loses patience with the human race. Zebrowski argues both sides with intelligence and a surprising amount of fairly broad humor, another astonishing side of this multifaceted author.

"A Piano Full of Dead Spiders" is about the loss of creative ideas, in whatever form they come, as two characters named Bruno and Felix argue whether Felix's talent for music (which has been Bruno's bane and, at the same time, his primary reason for friendship with Felix) truly lies in the fact that there are spiders playing his piano from the inside. "Black Pockets," the title novella written expressly for this collection, also stars Bruno and Felix. They're very different characters this time, but no less fascinating. These two stories illustrate a deeply complex, emotionally layered relationship between these two men, one not usually seen in modern genre fiction.

Zebrowski has written numerous stories about their antagonistic friendship, yet even he doesn't even know exactly what intrigues him about them so much: "These two shadowy protagonists ... perhaps fill some unfound need in the writer ... and perhaps I only like the names," he writes in this book's Afterword, a combination of story notes and ideas on the genre. I'm equally drawn to them and look forward to reading more of their adventures (I see there's at least one story featuring them in Zebrowski's other Golden Gryphon collection, Swift Thoughts).

This first collection of Zebrowski's darker stories is a different kind of horror collection. Some of the stories offer a level of fright, but more often they sneak up and disturb. These are not the "fun" horrors of haunted houses, inbred cannibals, and sentient automobiles. These are the real horrors that come from within ourselves: from our thoughts and actions and worldviews. I'm not sure that the average horror fan will be instantly grabbed by Black Pockets and Other Dark Thoughts. It took me some time to get attuned to the author's mindset because it's nothing like the easy, mindless reads usually offered by the genre. But fans of Zebrowski (likely the target audience at any rate), and those willing to experiment with the more thoughtful side of fear, are sure to be highly rewarded by this tightly edited look at a different side of his peculiar vision.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

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