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Close Encounters of the Urban Kind by Jennifer Brozek, editor

Cover art "Lights in the Sky" by Alina Pete

Cover design by Justin Stewart

Published by Apex Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the notion of an urban legend. Those stories that are told by someone who swears they're true, that they really did happen to a friend of a friend. Stories that get forwarded endlessly on the Internet with a warning to pass them on to all your friends before the horrible thing described within happens to them. Maybe you've even gone to Snopes.com to verify a story you've heard.

But what if some of the strange events you hear about in those faxlore stories weren't just mundane coincidences, but were in fact the activities of aliens. Not the cuddly little E.T. phone home kind of aliens, but the sort that really think, like John W. Campbell requested, as well as any human, but not like a human. Beings whose thought processes and motivations are as incomprehensible as their technology. They don't necessarily mean us harm, but like the mysterious aliens who whose cosmic litterbugging devastated a Russian city in Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic, cause us harm simply because everything they do is incompatible with our biology, or our society. Maybe they're so alien they don't even notice that we're there, let alone intelligent beings.

That is the premise editor Jennifer Brozek started with in creating this anthology, as she explains in the foreword. A search for the whys behind the stories, an attempt to imagine the whys and wherefores of an alien encounter. And in keeping with that, she decided that rather than collect all the author biographies at the end, each one would be put after the author's story, and would focus upon the writer's working method in creating the story. As a result, the anthology has a process orientation that will be of particular interest to other writers and to people who are interested in how stories come to be (which isn't necessarily linear, and often takes some surprising turns).

The very first story, Martin Livings' "Lollo," unfolds its revelations slowly, with a science fictional twist on the Menacing Cursed Toy story. The nature documentary about scientists collecting specimens of animal species provides a wonderful foreshadowing of the probable motivations of the unseen aliens who planted the grotesque clown doll which begins to move, then to pursue the children and their babysitter through the house with Intent. And it is made even more frightening by the use of the False Resolution technique, in which the Menace appears to have been vanquished and the protagonist finally relaxes into apparent safety, only to discover that what she took as incontrovertable evidence that she had successfully destroyed the killer clown doll was premature, and what seems to be a happy ending suddenly turns instead into a Lady and the Tiger ending.

Jeff Soesbe's "Green Tears on Black Velvet" gives us an unusual protagonist, a Hispanic fire investigator, and both parts of that characterization are important to the plot. He tells us the story in the first person, of how he is investigating a fire at an elderly couple's home, apparently caused by overloaded wiring, and the mysterious painting of a crying alien that was found unburned amidst the devastation. Soon several others turn up mysteriously at destructive fires -- and the protagonist has just brought one of them home with him while he has his son over for a visit (he and his wife are divorced), and the picture begins to exert its strange compulsion over him. In a fantasy story such an artifact would most likely be cursed, but in science fiction we grope for explanations related to telepathy and hypnotic compulsions. One thing's for sure -- those things are a menace, and need to be removed from circulation before they drive more people to set their personal space on fire -- so we are left with a rather open-ended situation at the story's end.

In "Racing Lights" Eric Scott de Bie gives us a story of young men and their fast cars, and their informal (and illegal) drag races along a highway just outside a town somewhere in California's Central Valley. Part of the course includes a pair of lights, one of which has a fault so that it will blink on and off. The protagonist knows a trick of using them to tell him exactly when to turn when the course is dark -- except one night as he's storming away from a confrontation gone sour, they don't dim into the distance and disappear. Instead they follow him, and he waits too long to make the critical turn, resulting in a disastrous wreck. Or was it aliens, who somehow unbound time to allow him to wake up whole and unharmed the next morning just in time to see the tow truck deliver his shattered car?

Ivan Ewert's "Waterheads" deals with the sort of legend that centers around a particular locality, and thus is relatively unknown outside a small area. In this case, a river that is supposedly the home of creatures that might be deformed children, supernatural entities or aliens. The protagonist just has to keep pushing his luck by bringing up the taboo subject, and finally it catches up with him. The only puzzle we're left with at the end is how exactly his first-person account is being transmitted to us.

Most of us have probably heard earnest cautions about the danger of mirrors in public restrooms, dressing rooms and suchlike places which are in fact one-way glass by which one's private activities and intimate body parts can be observed for nefarious purposes. In Bev Vincent's "The Fingernail Test" we have two none-too-competent thieves in the tradition of the antiheroes of O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief," who've decided to hole up in a cheap motel after their latest heist. They're hoping that they can hide there until the search for them dies down, but the longer they stay, the more they become convinced that the huge mirror in the room is in fact a one-way glass window. Except they're assuming that they're being spied on by humans, for human reasons. An assumption that may not be grounded in fact.

In "Headlights" Jennifer Pelland plays upon the faxlore warning about the gang initiation ritual by which gang members drive around with their headlights turned off and murder unsuspecting drivers who flash their headlights in a "turn your headlights on" signal. But in this case there's a nasty twist, in which the three protagonists are put in the position of having to decide whether to betray one another. It's one of those stories that leave you feeling very uncomfortable about the human race.

Jonathan McKinney's "Shiny Eyes" plays upon the motif of the bogeyman, the fear object used to threaten children "If you don't behave, they'll get you." Except in this case, it's not parents giving the warnings, but unseen writers who leave the messages -- and perhaps are the mysterious Shiny Eyes themselves.

Lots of families have traditional ways of doing things that have been passed down the generations long after the reason for them was lost. For instance, several generations of women always cut the end off a roast, no longer remembering that great-grandma's pan was too short to hold a whole roast. In "The Invitation" Carole Johnstone's protagonist mocks his grandmother for insisting that all mirrors be covered during a thunderstorm. He can see no rational reason for it -- but he's also presuming that the world operates on a rational basis.

A familiar motif of science fiction is the alien culture who have no concept of the willing suspension of disbelief, and as a result cannot separate fiction from willful lying. Nathan Crowder's "Frames of Reference" combines that idea with the increasingly compelling realism of modern cinematographic special effects to show us how even an alien autopsy film known by humans to be a hoax might look to such an alien -- and what desperate measures such an alien might take based upon the resultant faulty theory of mind about the people behind what they are seeing.

Robert Farnsworth's "Late Night Snack" is in many ways reminiscent of the movie Duel, in which the driver of a small car is relentlessly pursued by an 18-wheeler whose driver is never seen, and whose motivations for the harassment are never known to protagonist or viewers. But what if the pursuing vehicle really were some kind of robotic entity sent by unknown aliens for their own mysterious purposes?

In Native American legend the Wendigo was a monster of cannibalism and madness, perhaps begun as a cautionary tale to reinforce the absolute prohibition against any form of cannibalism, no matter how dire the nutritional distress. In "Two Out, Wendigo" Rosemary Jones suggests that perhaps it might have had its roots in a parasitic alien lifeform. It's particularly interesting to see how she has woven the baseball motif through the story to set up a very interesting interpretation of the Curse of the Goat which has haunted the Chicago Cubs through the years, as well as capturing the feeling of the period in which the story is set.

Many urban legends center around the horrors that will befall people who use drugs or otherwise indulge in pleasures that are considered out of bounds by society. Shannon Page's "The Hippie Monster of Eel River" gives us a young druggie who will not listen to the warnings, and what happens afterward.

In "Roadkill" Rick Silva draws upon the oft-heard warning that the cardboard box one sees sitting in the middle of the subdivision street could hide a puppy -- or a child. Except here the child is not of this world, and the grieving mother has other things at her disposal than a legal system that might cut the driver far too much slack. Horrible things.

Richard Lee Byers gives us a particularly timely story in "End of Life," playing upon the death panels that featured so prominently in discussion by the opposition to President Barrack Obama's health care plan. The fact that many people in the US during World War II dismissed attempts to alert them to the horrors of the Holocaust as wildly implausible makes us feel uncomfortable about dismissing such concerns out of hand, lest we too be guilty of brushing aside a warning when it could still have saved lives.

In "Tea Cups and Saucers" Ramsey Lundock combines fairy lore with the notion that the US government possesses alien spacecraft parts and is covering it up. Cultures all around the world have their stories of light and dark fairies, of angels and devils. What if our modern scientific culture is simply reinterpreting a real phenomenon in terms of science, technology, and science fiction? Not to mention the question of what the real motives behind the cover-up might be.

Eddy Webb's "Gloomy Sunday" plays upon the notion of a song that speaks so directly to a listener's mind that it bypasses rational thought and leads him or her to take irrational actions, in this case suicide. But what if some people had been made unusually susceptible as a sort of fail-safe in a nefarious experiment?

In "Mastihooba" Joshua Palmatier gives us a story of an encounter with an alien stranded by accident upon Earth. At the beginning of the story, we're pretty convinced that we're dealing with malicious intent, but by the time I got to the end, I was seriously wondering if the alien even realized just how fragile Earth humans really were, or what harm its desperate efforts to communicate were doing.

Most of us remember stern warnings of the dangers of talking with strangers. Alma Alexander uses the Mothman legend in "I Am Sorry for So Rarely Talking to Strangers" to ask whether the resultant wariness and suspicion of the Other might in fact be causing tragedies that might otherwise have been prevented. I found that the story of alien trust and human suspicion made me think of a story I read many years ago in which the Army is confronting two aliens, one big and one small, in gigantic shells. After blowing up the big one because they are certain it is hostile, they finally decode its mysterious message: "Please take care of my little girl."

In "Dead Letter Drop" Peter Kempshall takes us to the wreckage of Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Social disorder seems to just bring out the predator in some people, and it isn't long before the warnings begin going out by lip radio as friend tells friend to watch out for people who appear harmless but are in fact up to no good. But what if aliens were to find such social chaos a splendid hunting grounds for their own incomprehensible purposes? Or maybe that's what someone else wants everybody to think, and the aliens are in fact the targets.

Eric R. Lowther's "It Came from the Backseat" plays on the frequent urban legend motif of the killer that lurks in or near a car, waiting to catch an unsuspecting motorist -- but with the nasty twist that we are kept uncertain throughout the story of whose claim to be the good guy is true and who is in fact trying to lure the human protagonist into trust that can then be betrayed. Here again I am reminded of a story read many years ago in a literature class, this time of a protagonist whose traveling companion tells her stories of werewolves and suchlike peril, suggesting that they might have some grounding in fact. And when the final confrontation comes, we are quite uncertain whether that seemingly gentlemanly traveling companion was in fact the noble protector, or if he was the predator and the one he claimed to be his enemy was in fact his pursuer.

It is quite an impressive collection, showing some very interesting twists on hoary old chestnuts. It's interesting to see how often false pretenses upon the part of authority figures appear in these stories, to the point that as soon as a character starts claiming that he or she is from the government or some other protective agency, we start wondering whether this character might in fact have an ulterior motive and be saying it solely to gain trust that is not deserved, that will in fact lead the protagonist into disaster. Perhaps it is a sign of just how tarnished the reputation of authority has become in our society, that this motif should be so prevalent.

Table of Contents

  • Foreword by Jennifer Brozek
  • "Lollo" by Martin Livings
  • "Green Tears on Black Velvet" by Jeff Soesbe
  • "Racing Lights" by Eric Scott de Bie
  • "Waterheads" by Ivan Ewert
  • "The Fingernail Test" by Bev Vincent
  • "Headlights" by Jennifer Pelland
  • "Shiny Eyes" by Jonathan McKinney
  • "The Invitation" by Carole Johnstone
  • "Frames of Reference" by Nathan Crowder
  • "Late Night Snack" by Robert Farnsworth
  • "Two Out, Wendigo" by Rosemary Jones
  • "The Hippie Monster of Eel River" by Shannon Page
  • "Roadkill" by Rick Silva
  • "End of Life" by Richard Lee Byers
  • "Tea Cups and Saucers" by Ramsey Lundock
  • "Gloomy Sunday" Eddy Webb
  • "Mastihooba" by Joshua Palmatier
  • "I Am Sorry for So Rarely Talking to Strangers" by Alma Alexander
  • "Dead Letter Drop" by Pete Kempshall
  • "It Came from the Backseat" by Eric R. Lowther
  • Author Biographies

Review posted September 10, 2010.

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