Column: On the Marches of Dreamland: Review: Ghosts of Punktown

By Randy Stafford

Thomas, Jeffrey Ghosts of Punktown. Dark Regions Press, 2014. Paperback: USD $12.74; Kindle: $2.99. ISBN: 978-1-62641-012-1.

On my first big trip to Punktown, I learned three things.

Punktown is not a place for families.

Punktown is not the place to find love.

Punktown is not the place to find your life’s purpose.

Thomas says these are mostly “flat-out horror stories,” whatever their science fiction trappings. But the horror isn’t the strange aliens or the violent gangs. It’s what isn’t here.

That’s a normal human face for Jeremy Stake, also a character in Thomas’ Deadstock and Blue War. He’s a veteran of that war, a mutant ability to copy alien visages crucial in his deep penetration issues behind enemy lines. But, after he returns to Punktown, his face is locked into the semblance of an alien soldier he killed, and that draws the attention of another, unstable vet. “In His Sights” is a nicely told story full of lyrical details that also seems somewhat haunted by the Vietnam War.

Another ex-soldier, one of the clones developed for the Blue War, is a man with no family, no way of procreating or even feeling sexual desire. With “no heritage or history” of his own, he guards others’ treasures in the Hall of Antiquities. An alien exhibit thrusts him into another war in “A Semblance of Life.”

The painful void at the center of the hero’s life in “The Room” is a vanished lover. Actually, a vanished lover might be preferable to the flickering lover he actually sees. Looking into the dimensional bubble she is trapped in, a place where time creeps forward at a different rate, he impotently watches as forces close in on her.

The title of “Life Work” refers to the Japanese distinction between “rice work,” what we do to pay the bills, and the “life work” we actually love. But in this noirish tale, which goes in an unexpected direction, a cashiered hit man and a runaway sex bot, one a human who loves no one, the other a machine said to be incapable of love, struggle to find their “life work,” something they care about. As the book’s sole novella, it comes with a long bit of cinematic ultra-violence and a nice bit of concluding irony.

Coincidentally, while reading this book, I was also reading Daniel Hoffman’s Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe which primed me to see the ghost of that literary master in two works. “Imp,” another story about a man with no emotional attachment, is creepy and psychologically plausible. It’s a look at Punktown’s version of child porn. In an escalating search for titillation, we go from amputee fetishism to coprophilia to incest as our protagonist goes from website to website. The journey ends at the Incestykes site. Punktown also has something worse than spam – imps, unwanted holograms that infest your room. While Poe said that contemplating the death of a beautiful woman was “the most “poetical topic in the world,” Thomas has us contemplating the death of a little girl (or is she just one of those imps?). He even uses Poe’s phrase “imp of the perverse.” A powerful story, even if, I think, a bit too oblique of an ending.

And I think Poe also is a shade in “Into My Arms.” Hoffman argues that Poe believed in an afterlife of pure intellect, its pleasure inversely rewarded to us according to the degree of pain we suffered on Earth. Before she commits suicide, the adulterous Talane seems to believe in something similar, that we are “corrupt vehicles that must be punished” until we die and “our liberated essence … move on to the realm of souls.” Like some obsessive Poe hero, her lover needs to possess a part of her after she dies, to know “she didn’t hate me more than she loved me,” and injects her nanotech-recorded memories into his body. Throw in a strange alien hanging about and Thomas’ skillful inversion of the themes of Poe and Lovecraft, and you have, I think, the most memorable and successful story of the book.

A couple of oddities show up. “Bitter Brains” is about the right length as the fulfillment of a literary dare to write a story using the phrase “last drink bird head.” “Disfigured,” admits Thomas, isn’t even set in Punktown, but I agree that this tale of a beautiful young woman seeking fashionable mutilation at the hands of a renowned plastic surgery seems close enough in theme to be included.

Of course, part of the pleasure in a shared setting like Punktown is the casual linkage of names and places and events that exist between stories. It’s part of the thrill of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. But Thomas’ stories in no way feel like Lovecraft. Riffing on H.P.’s monsters and places isn’t a part of any of these stories, though Thomas does it in the only other Punktown story I’ve read, “Open Minded” (mentioned in my review of Eldritch Chrome).

Even when he does a kind of Ray Bradbury ghost story in “Relics” – about a sort of mechanical spirit that haunts a building, a young girl who lived there, the woman she became, and an old alien religious cult – Thomas’ voice is clear. The story is not about nostalgia but “the inception and dissolution of things.”

Since he’s thought about Punktown enough to have a review of its restaurants in the bigger part of a long introduction, it’s no surprise it’s a popular setting and detailed-enough a stage for several kinds of stories.

I can’t say how longtime visitors of Punktown will like this book. But I’m telling the rest of you – it’s worth a visit.

I plan on going back.