by James Van Pelt (Fairwood Press)
Jim Van Pelt is both a storyteller and a teacher, so it’s fitting that each story in this entire collection has a short preface, and a short afterword teaching about the craft of writing. As is A&A’s custom, we will review each story in the volume, hopefully piquing reader interest without giving too much away.
The collection starts with an A&A story, “In Memoriam.” (Allow me a brief moment of pride…okay, got that out of my system. – Ed.) A ghost story. Not creepy, it affirms a lifelong romance. It has “heart.”
Everything Van Pelt writes has heart. I loved “The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet.” It’s almost a homage to children who are all but ignored by their parents, don’t fit in, and long for new worlds. Every adult who as a child ever wanted Star Trek or “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” to be real will understand this tale.
In “The Lawn Fairy War” Van Pelt makes a great story out of nothing more than assorted gargoyles, garden gnomes, and other yard decorations. He even manages to work in a reference to the Cottlingly fairies that is not twee.
Let’s just say that the title story, “Experience Arcade,” taught me that Van Pelt can write horror. Ouch. As my experiences with Van Pelt’s writing have always been gentle I was not expecting consensual nightmares.
A writing prompt brought Van Pelt the inspiration for his “Death of a Starship Poet.” This was his response to writing a story in a world where science had solved all problems. Fascinating, and a great piece of far future SF, a subgenre that’s tough to tackle.
When modern anything intrudes on the life of a“Ghost Ship” you know you’re in for an unusual tale. It’s a very satisfying sea yarn, with a twist.
Next is “Mars, Aphids and Your Cheating Heart,” which is written in a truly omniscient viewpoint and in second person; it’s an exercise in observing the butterfly effect and how it changes several lives. Wonderful.
Vincent (Van Gogh?) meets resurrection technology in “Three Paintings.” This story is simultaneously a mystery, and a study of the human condition.
“We Have Always Lived in the Hamlet” is classic Van Pelt. This is the story of two sisters, long separated by their different loves: waterlust or home and hearth? The resolution is a paean to love and family.
I’m not sure I’d trade what the protagonist traded for his drug in “proLong,” but I’ve known people who would, in a heartbeat. No, I’m certain I would not have. Would you? Read it and see.
“Orphaned” is the story of a five-year-old child who makes the decision to go outside of his spaceship and try to rescue his parents in their trapped rover, with the help of an AI. The ending has a nice twist but the difficult children’s POV is great on its own.
The next story is about “The Lies” we tell ourselves to at least provide a simulacrum of hope. It was so poignant it made me weep.
The inspiration for “Falling Out of Downey” was the concept of an ‘apocalyptic bike race.’ The paperboy of the other-dimensional town of Downey somehow wanders into our world and does whatever it takes to get back. Wry and amusing, and I especially loved the chase scene.
The central theme of the fantasy “Apprentice” is the same as the one for science fictional “proLong”: fear of death and the lengths some will go to, to quell its quenching fire. But here, the POV is that of an onlooker with a great deal to lose.
“Titan Descansos.” A descansos is one of those roadside remembrances where someone died, usually in a car accident, often with a cross, and flowers or photos. Imagine finding a descansos on one of Saturn’s moons.
In a branch of Library at Miskatonik University in Arkham, MA you will find “The Children’s Collection,” and its locked room full of local author’s children’s books. A new librarian tells of his job there, and it’s very entertaining.
James Van Pelt wrote “Writing Advice” in response to some pundit pontificating about what he insisted were the hard and fast rules of writing fiction. ‘Never start with the weather’ was the first bit of advice, so Van Pelt ignored it and everything else the man said. Oh, and in this case the weather was a Carrington Event, a mass coronal ejection that knocked out earth’s electronics.
“The Golden Daffodils” was first published in A&A, and tells the tale of a chance encounter at a Bradburyesque carnival that leads to a ripple effect in the lives of others.
Van Pelt plays with the magic shop trope with a visit to a special library that might, just might, hold the book that kept an elderly man spellbound when he was ten: “The Silk Silvered Skulls of Millen Mir”
“Weaponized Ghosts of the 96th Infantry” was the only story in the collection where I saw the end coming, and it was just. Chilling, through.
C.S. Lewis once called light speed theory ‘God’s quarantine on the universe. ‘ In “Maybe If One Person Less,” Van Pelt muses on the fact that we will take humanity’s darker side to the stars.
The Post-apocalyptic tale “Housekeeping” is about how a man cares for his son and interfaces with the community and the world at large during what might be a nuclear winter. It’s all about setting up their children for as good a life as possible in the new normal.
For a 49-year-old woman who’d been a corporate drone, life in a lighthouse on the Oregon coast was freeing. No internet, no political robocalls, no 9-to-5 emptiness existed here. Only the sea and it’s fierce storms, which made her feel alive. “No One is So Fierce” maybe, just maybe, has monsters and wonders, too.
“The Sword Imperial” is about a farmer who finds an ancient sword in his field, when plowing, and dreams of what its lineage might be. As plague has killed off his parents and siblings, the farm is lonely. He not only makes extra money working at a tavern but uses that coin to visit a more travelled inn and hear stories about swords from the soldiers that pass through. And then he becomes part of a story himself.
The entire collection is of excellent quality, showing a wide range of styles. I’d recommend you buy this to have the ghost stories to give young people the shivers at scout campfires, or the stories about love to those who want lasting smiles. But most of all, give this to someone in your life who wants to craft stories.
If you’re that person, give it to yourself.