BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of short stories set in the fascinatingly dark and gritty city of Punktown.
PROS: Atmospheric stories; interesting characters and situations; many stories pack a punch.
CONS: Some story endings were confusing.
BOTTOM LINE: A very good group of stories and a great introduction to the bizarreness that is Punktown.
My first encounter with Jeffrey Thomas’ Punktown — you always remember your first encounter with Punktown – was the short story “In His Sights“. That story left me wanting more so I soon gobbled up Deadstock and Blue War. It hit me like a ton of bricks, Punktown did…this fascinating gallery of humans, aliens, and inter-dimensional beings that exists on the faraway world of Oasis. “Punktown” is what the locals call the sprawling city of Paxton and it’s an oddly appealing place. It’s been the setting of many stories written by Thomas that have appeared in various venues over the years.
Voices From Punktown is a collection of stories set in this bizarre locale. As expected, the city plays host to many well-imagined aliens and creatures and generally colorful characters. The Choom (shown here), a native race to Oasis who look essentially human except for their mouths which stretch from ear to ear, even make an appearance or two.
The dark, gritty city of Punktown is the perfect backdrop for Thomas’ blend of science fiction and horror. The stories seem to accentuate the “single conceit” aspect of short fiction, making each one come off like a well-executed manipulation of the short form. The author also tweaks the use of language for additional enjoyment. Toskins (for example), the reluctant business man of “Do You Know This Girl?”, doesn’t just walk over a busy street’s overpass, he crosses ” the roaring metal rapids of Folger Street”, a phrase that perfectly and succinctly conjures up the desired image in the mind’s eye. Such writing makes these stories come across as meticulously crafted. And while each story delivers it’s own vibe, the sum is truly more than it’s parts: Punktown feels like a living, breathing entity in it’s own right, a place I want to visit even more. And that disturbs me.
Standout stories in this collection include “Johnny Pharaoh”, “Do You Know This Girl?”, and the Cthulhu story “”The Bones of the Old Ones”
Individual story reviews follow…
A botched cloning/resurrection procedure leaves the mind of a tough gangster in someone else’s body in the story “Johnny Pharaoh”. Fast-paced and rife with thought-provoking situations, this plays out beautifully as clone-Johnny takes matters into his own merciless hands. This is a wonderfully executed short story.
“Do You Know This Girl?” concerns a visitor named Toskins who is on a business trip to Punktown and is dismayed at the city’s crime rate. He gets way more than he bargained for when he pursues a chance encounter. Despite a few unanswered questions, this sf-horror mashup was a guilty pleasure of tension.
A newly trained reconstructive surgeon works on a high profile patient in “Monsters”. Dr. Fleck is having a hard time adjusting to the high crime of Punktown and the waiting room at the hospital is consistently filled with all manner of creatures. But the one this story focuses on is weird indeed: mutilated by her own family for a transgression. It’s when Fleck applies his human morals to the alien situation that things get ugly, and things quickly go from bizarre to deadly. The ending here was somewhat lacking, focusing more on Fleck’s personal descent than resolving the nail-biting action that preceded it.
A winged prostitute longs to be free in the story “Mourning Cloak”. Helena has been genetically altered to have fairy wings to attract the more affluent clients at the Solon, a legalized brother on an Earth colony. Never having experienced real love, she longs to leave, but she has five years left of her twenty-year contract. The portrayal of Helena here is excellent, making her a sympathetic character in this touching tale of revenge.
“The Reflections of Ghosts” is a script for a graphic novel. Only in Punktown would cloning be legalized for the sale of macabre art, and only in the hands of this author does this brief (but ultimately poignant) story elicit sympathy for the bizarre main character — and even more so for his unsuspecting creation.
In “The Color Shrain” (the title is a reference to a color that cannot be seen by any other creature than a Tikkihoto alien), Fritz Specola has the ability to make things disappear by a mere thought into the “Chest” – a space inside himself (a parallel universe?). This makes him the perfect thief, until something goes wrong. This story has a great premise, though it’s perhaps marred slightly by lack of explanation of Specola’s ability. If it is another dimension, that doesn’t quite explain the ending.
“Trash” is a piece of flash fiction, and like most flash pieces I’ve read it’s way too short to provide the meat I prefer in my fiction. The idea — a brief encounter between street thugs and a cleaner bot – is decent enough, but would have worked better as a scene for a larger story. More meat, please.
The narrator of “Behind the Masque” is an employee of an eccentric recluse, Diego Kaji, now dead by his own hand. As the narrator cleans the mansion of his dead employer, the reader learns of Kaji’s predilection for cloning dead celebrities and engaging in lascivious acts. The narration, while accomplishing some nice world building, lends heavy emphasis to the day-in-the-life feel to the story, at partial expense to plot.
There are strange goings-on at an artists’ apartment complex in “Forge Park”. At least it seems that way to the maintenance man who takes a liking to one of the younger women there. He begins to notice patterns that border on cultish behavior which eventually lead to more serious consequences. I’m not entirely sure I understood the ending, but the tension throughout played out nicely.
“The Dance of Ugghiutu” is an atmospheric Punktown/Cthulhu mashup concerning a forbidden dance performance that would call upon the Outsiders to enter our dimension. It’s a brief return to Forge Park (the setting of another Thomas story) and a quartet of alien dancers whose culture worships the deity called Ugghiutu. Their performance is part defiance of their culture and part summoning. And while I understand the decision to preface the story with the inevitable, I do wish that it was reserved for the climax which would have beautifully capped the building tension this story evoked.
“The Bones of the Old Ones” is another of Thomas’ Punktown/Cthulhu mashups – this one a police procedural that sees homicide detective John Bell investigating the scene of a grisly, cult-related murder. The emphasis here is really on the Cthulhu mythos which not only creates a weird atmosphere, but also serves as an excellent introduction to that (other)world. But that doesn’t preclude this from being a fast-paced and gripping story in its own right.