OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
These Long Teeth of the Night: The Best Short Stories 1999-2019 – by Alexander Zelenyj
Published by Fourth Horseman Press, November 2022.
Cover art: Based on “Muscinae” (1904) by Ernst Haeckel, and designed by Elizabeth J.M. Walker & Brian A. Dixon.
Note: All stories are by Alexander Zelenyj.
Maria, Here Come the Death Angels!
Death angels are ubiquitous.
A horror story taking place in the Vietnam war, the war I grew up with, inasmuch as I’d come home from high school and eat my TV tray dinner on a TV tray table while watching Walter Cronkite introduce the latest news clips. It was “my” war in that I was intimately familiar with its day-to-day progress. Some film clips remain vivid in my memory despite not having seen them since because they’re not included in any documentary I’m aware of. Too graphic, perhaps. Being Canadian, I watched CTV news at 11:00, then reverted to Americana to enjoy Johnny Carson’s opening monologue, before finally starting my homework. I don’t recall ever discussing the war with my classmates. It was just something on the news. As the war forms part of the background of my teenage “nostalgia,” I’m always interested in how it is viewed by others as it slips further and further back in time.
In truth this story could be told with any war as its basis. That’s the whole point. War is, as the ancient Greeks put it, “the dancing floor of Ares,” with violence, rage, blood lust and death the elements common to them all. This tale of soldiers on leave discovering they haven’t been able to entirely separate themselves from the battlefield is ingeniously served up as either a psychological or a supernatural horror story depending on how the reader interprets events. Even if you opt for the supernatural version, you still have chosen a metaphor for the evil that men become in that environment, so it amounts to the same thing as a psychological interpretation. The reader doesn’t really have a choice. The message is that evil is always present in war and there’s no getting away from it.
In a few short pages this story conveys the visceral impact of war, any war, on men who don’t deserve to die and who don’t want to die. Yet they die anyway. Yes, it’s unfair. So what? War doesn’t care. That’s the terrible secret exposed like a raw nerve by this tale. We all know life often isn’t fair. Whereas death is always unfair. Ask any veteran.
To sum up: a powerful story.
The Potato Thief Beneath Indifferent Stars
You never know who, or what, is going to steal potatoes.
An elderly farmer living alone on a failing farm captures a sprite-like creature, rather ethereal and beautiful in appearance, which he caught eating his potatoes. A bond of sort develops, but no actual communication. Is the bond purely imaginary on his part, or has something new been added to his life? The creature’s presence alters the physical fabric of the farm in impossible ways. The farmer is puzzled, but not afraid. This faerie, or alien, or whatever it is, seems benign. Dare he begin to hope?
This is quite the pastoral, a vignette whose rich, lush imagery reminds me of the writings of both Ray Bradbury and J.G. Ballard. As in many of their tales, events take a back seat to extensive description, but that’s okay, there’s no action/adventure plot to whirl through the pages. Everything is mood and emotion leading to slowly evolving comprehension. Not something you want to race through, but rather stroll through savouring each moment. It has a quiet beauty to it, a fantasy that is almost within our grasp if we could but alter our perception of life around us. Again, a metaphor, but a positive one, though not without sorrow. One can learn from this.
Being born a mutant who makes the Elephant Man look like Adonis is quite the social handicap.
Pastor Garfield welcomes a wandering tramp to his church. A most interesting tramp, one born as a Siamese triplet. As you can imagine, it, or they, has/have not experienced an easy life. Every conceivable aspect of their existence is explored in a series of flashbacks. It/they are known as “the Priests” because they are joined in such a way as to resemble three men bowing their heads in prayer. What sustains them is their religious faith, though it is tested at every turn. I’ll just say that the biblical Job had an easy life compared to “the Priests.”
As an exercise in imagination, the story is remarkable. Every situation their unique appearance produces is explored in minute detail that would otherwise never have occurred to readers yet makes perfect sense and seems entirely plausible. At the same time, the meaning of faith is examined in a serious and respectful manner. I’d put this in the same sub-genre as Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A canticle for Leibowitz or James Blish’s A Case of Conscience. I happen to be a Positivist Atheist, but I recognise an intelligent and subtle summation of faith under stress when I read one. In fact I think it’s brilliant. Well worth pondering.
A Gift from the World
Did you know mutant fish falling from the sky is a thing?
A surreal, dystopic fantasy to be sure. Suburban life is quite normal, apart from the mutant plants, animals and occasionally people, but heck, that’s what the police drones are for. Still, coming across a mutant fish in your path is a trifle out of the ordinary. Especially when you can save its life if you can get it into a bucket of water fast enough. But then what?
When life warps away from the norm you are used to, you can choose to go mad (a poor coping mechanism), or you can pretend everything is still pretty much the same and just carry on (a better coping mechanism). Besides, the new norm is the new routine, and after a while you take it for granted and assume it was always thus (a really good coping mechanism). But when you get knocked sideways by the unexpected… of course, you figure out how to exploit the situation to your advantage (the best possible coping mechanism). But what if it doesn’t work?
I suppose the metaphor here is that life is always a problem. Yep. So, cope already.
A Roman Plague
What sort of evil spreads from the fall of a city?
The Roman border town of Dura-Europos, located on the Western bank of the Euphrates River, fell to the Sasanians in 256 A.D. The story begins when word of the disaster spreads to the Roman garrison of the nearby colonia of Italcus (which I believe is fictional). This immediately excited my interest, as the book The Discovery of Dura-Europos by the archaeologist Clark Hopkins, Yale University Press, 1979, is one of my treasured possessions.
Granted, the story could pertain to any garrison site in any war, in that the Roman garrison falls prey to an assault of supernatural entities unleashed from Dura-Europos as if the city had been some sort of Pandora’s box opened by the Sasanians. However, given that the ancient Romans were terrified of the demons who lived in the sewers, fearing they might reach up through the famous communal toilets to curse and sicken unsuspecting people with their ghastly touch, this sort of assault is particularly appropriate to the immensely superstition-minded pagan Romans.
Of course, being disciplined, experienced Roman Legionnaires, their instinct is to fight back in a thoroughly professional manner. After all, what the monsters attacking them threatened surely couldn’t be any worse than what the Sasanians had to offer… or could it?
Again, a metaphor for war itself. But the message is delivered vividly and dramatically, like a particularly thrilling sequence from a big budget movie from the era of Ben Hur and Quo Vadis. Short but grimly entertaining. One thing for sure, Roman soldiers certainly earned their pay.
Blacker Against the Deep Dark
Mr. Yashimoto discovers the true meaning of freedom.
A short but complex story perhaps inspired by a single image in Ray Bradbury’s There will Come Soft Rains. I can readily believe, as Zelenji states, on giving a reading of Blacker Against the Deep Dark at a Summer Arts Festival in 2016, that an elderly man came forward to thank him for making him cry, for revealing what people need to remain mindful of if they are to be truly human.
The image in question, as interpreted by Bradbury, is a sort of throwaway concept, visceral and powerful, which merely sets the initial scene for a nostalgic and poignant story dealing with loss. Zelenyj makes it the centrepiece of his story, the causation of the turmoil in Yashimoto’s thoughts, and ultimately, the trigger leading to a newfound understanding of life and purpose.
In essence, Bradbury utilized a well-known phenomenon as a sort of emotional gimmick, a sort of steppingstone to greater sorrow, whereas Zelenji goes further, exploring implications and effects Bradbury never touched on. Well done, I say, and an incredible achievement in so short a tale.
What sort of image am I talking about? Not going to describe it, as that would reduce the emotional jolt you’ll get on first reading of either story. I have seen a photograph of one of the images that moved both authors to write. A photograph I will never forget. Haunting.
Highway of Lost Women
Four young women, childhood friends, decide to go on a road trip together.
“Lost Women” about describes them. All four had all sorts of dreams of their future back when they were young girls, but now each feel betrayed by the hand life dealt them. Their aimless trip north is a “last hurrah” of youthful braggadocio, a deliberate display of ignorance as if that will return them to carefree innocence. In a sense, a last gasp seeking fresh air in an atmosphere reeking of disappointment and decay.
But don’t assume they are peas in a pod. These four are so radically different in temperament and desires as to make their childhood “sisterhood” something of a miracle. Here the author’s powers of description are lavished on characterization. We learn about each in turn through flashbacks, current longings, and increasingly difficult interactions. They are like whirling magnets alternatively attracting and repelling each other in a kind of explosive delirium. Who knew simply sitting in the same vehicle could be so fraught with tension?
The women go off road more ways than one. Again, an ending which can be interpreted as either supernatural or psychological but is surely a metaphor for the task of coping with the unexpected regardless of whether it is the stuff of dreams or nightmares. Above all it is a splendid exercise in sophisticated characterization. A beginning writer studying this for insights will have a lot to unpack. Amazing technique and a relentless story. I’m impressed.
On Tour with the Deathray Bradburys
Bands often break up, but they don’t usually disappear entirely along with a couple hundred of their fans.
There is an actual band called “Deathray,” but nothing to do with the “Deathray Bradburys,” a fictitious heavy-metal thrash-metal band of anonymous musicians devoted to a conspiracy cult prophesying the end of the world. Not only has Zelenyj written this story about them, but he has also published a book Ballads to the Burning Twins: The Complete Song Lyrics of the Deathray Bradburys, Eibonvale Press, 2014, which purports to be a documentary on the career of the band, written by one Alexander Zelenyj, a journalist who allegedly went missing the night the band disappeared and has never been seen again. This is a hoax of a high order, somewhat similar to Spinal Tap in conception, but a lot nastier.
Thing is, many bands develop cult-like followings, though rarely to excess, but the potential to cross over to classic cult territory is always there. There have been death cults before, usually tending to mass suicide as a means to salvation/ascension/apotheosis rather than murdering outsiders, so describing such in fiction is not fantasy but dystopic horror soundly based on sociological and psychological reality. This story makes me celebrate my giving up attending punk rock concerts once I reached forty years-of-age. Didn’t quite fit in anymore, I suspect.
Or to put it another way, my first impression on reading this story was that it was a clever extrapolation, a nifty satire on bands being taken too seriously by idiot fans, but on further thought its potential reality begin to burrow under my skin in a most disquieting manner, ultimately creeping me out with the realization that anybody, even I, once trapped in a mesmeric belief system, could fall prey to a nasty fate as a willing victim. That’s why it is so important to be stubbornly unwilling about darn near everything. Our ability to rationalize is a weakness capable of betraying us in a heartbeat. This story reveals that it is better, as they say in the military, to “never volunteer.” An important lesson.
Journey to the End of a Burning Girl
What if there’s a drug that reduces you in an instant to an outline of ash on the pavement. Would you take it?
Logically, your answer would be no, unless an instant death is your heart’s desire, a painless means of escaping a horrible world. But if word on the street is the ash is merely the residue of life in this world, and that taking the drug in fact transports you to a better world free of pain and suffering, what then? Would you take the drug?
Perhaps you want proof? There’s only ash. No one ever returns from the promised other world. The police can’t even find any addicts to interrogate. There are no addicts. One pill and you’re gone. They can’t find the pushers either. Maybe for the same reason. There are go-betweens, earning the right to a pill, but so fanatic in their desire they hide their activity fantastically well. Basically, there are no witnesses, as everybody transitions as soon as they can. Needless to say, police morale is low. They’ve become city workers sweeping up ash and nothing more.
The city is Windsor, across the river from Detroit. Both cities are plagued by what can only be described as a mutant form of pollution that makes wandering unprotected outside a form of suicide. The two cities are literally the most dangerous places on Earth to attempt to live, yet both are overcrowded with “tourists,” i.e. cultists, desperately seeking the drug they believe will grant them immortality, or a glimpse of heaven, or set them down on an alien planet, or wherever and whenever that is different from the hellish life of their current reality.
There are several point-of-view characters, including two frustrated detectives acutely aware of their seeming incompetence, several individuals down on their luck (but heck, everybody is down on their luck), and Philip, a man with a mission who occasionally acts oddly when the young girl inside him takes control of his body. Phil is kinda complex, kinda edgy, and kinda dangerous. You don’t want to meet Phil. Good thing he doesn’t want to meet you.
Overall, film noir ambience with a vengeance combined with the helplessness of hardcore dystopian extrapolation of current trends. A very successful cross-genre piece of fiction exhibiting Zelenyj’s trademark complex and sophisticated characterization. It’s so detailed a vision I find it morbidly entertaining. One reassuring note, it is assumed police detectives will attempt to solve crimes no matter how insane society becomes. There’s optimism for you!
What’s it all about? What’s going on? The focus of the story is the quest to discover what happens when you swallow the drug. I’m not going to give away the ending, but I’ll say this much: the story echoes the collection’s main theme of coping with whatever comes your way. In this case, a task infinitely more difficult than you can imagine.
Note: 9 stories reviewed, 19 more to go, but I’ve run out of time. So, I’ll end my review here, but I’ve so enjoyed the ones I’ve read thus far I’ve decided to read the remainder at the rate of one story per day. That way I get to prolong the treat well into next month.
I would describe Zelenyj as an excellent writer, very literary in style, whose main strengths are description and characterization. A veritable avatar of Ray Bradbury, in fact. Very much a creator of strange moods, imaginative settings, fascinating characters, and off-beat concepts. Somehow, he manages to be both subtly emotional and intellectually perceptive at one and the same time. To sum up, he gets everything right. I’m amazed at how mature and confident his writing is. Can’t recommend him highly enough. I’m delighted to say you owe it to yourself to read this book. It’s that good.
Check it out at: < These Long Teeth of the Night >
Source: Auto Draft