Chet Williamson,
Second Chance
(CD, 1995;
Leisure, 2002)

College nostalgia. Old friends. Familiar places. A touch of illegal mind alteration. Apparent time travel. A second chance with a lost love.


Indeed. And of the finest caliber.

Someone who doesn't know much about horror can still make a decent living in the field by throwing in lots of blood, gore, supernatural monsters and, if there are movie rights to sell, screaming nude females. But Chet Williamson does know horror, so he doesn't need to use those hackneyed devices.

True horror lives in the human mind. True horror lies in the discovery that a good friend is a monster, or in the realization that a wonderful dream is about to be shattered. True horror waits in the pages of Second Chance.

It begins simply enough. It's 1969, and two college students are making a very big statement about their feelings on war. In their minds, it makes perfect sense to combat the U.S. war machine through violence on a school campus, but their good intentions and poor planning lead to their own stupid deaths.

Flash forward to the present, circa 1993. Woody Robinson is a jazz composer still haunted by the memories of his girlfriend's death. He is more than a little obsessed with his past, his friends from the '60s, the sights and smells and sensations of those heady days when he was in love and his lover was still alive. So he decides to hold a little reunion. No, a big reunion for a small crowd -- all his intimates from the good ol' days. But he does it up right, renting his old college apartment, decorating the place in the same style (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) and allowing only the original crowd -- no significant others who weren't part of the group back then -- to attend. He even pays everyone's way, to help lure them away from their homes, their jobs, their adult lives for a weekend of youthful indulgence.

As Woody makes his preparations, he takes the readers along on a stroll down memory lane. Through his recollections, we learn a lot about Keith, his single-minded roommate for whom the end always justifies the means, and Tracy, his spirited girlfriend. He replays the seemingly innocent conversations which set the stage for his friends' plan to blow up the ROTC building on campus, and we learn what went wrong when they tried.

But where some writers might have turned this into an overly maudlin account of past events, Williamson resists the temptation to ooze sentimentality on the page. At the same time, he paints a picture of the younger Woody and his misguided, idealistic friends which gives readers a chance to know them, and even to care about them.

And if Woody's quest to recreate a night in 1969 to the very last detail -- including the same posters he'd hung on the apartment walls way back then and reasonable facsimiles of the battered furniture -- strikes readers as a touch obsessive, even unhealthy ... well, if he was just a normal joe, he wouldn't be a very good book subject, would he?

And so they gather, a handful of old friends expecting only a weekend of good times and nostalgia. What they get is so much more ... and, except for Woody, they don't even realize it.

The party setting is perfect, down to the candles, sandalwood incense and scratchy vinyl records of the Mamas and the Papas, Jimi Hendrix, Donovan and the Doors. They chat, they argue, they drink. Maybe they should have skipped the bit o' weed which brought their mental states into perfect alignment with their past ... and so, perhaps they shouldn't have been surprised that the past is where they woke up.

Old music, old television shows, fuller hair and smooth skin ... and dead friends still alive. Who wouldn't jump at a second chance like that?

And when they return, as return they must ... who wouldn't try to bring old dead friends back with them to the future? For some, it redefines their existence in wonderful ways, and their memories gradually realign to accept the new reality. But one decides to stay dead and use that anonymity to wage a private war against the evils of humanity.

Good intentions, born from the noble ideals of the '60s, but nurtured in the brain of a man gone quite mad. It is a dangerous, and deadly combination.

And Woody, who knows the environmental terrorist Pan didn't exist before their little time slip, starts to put the pieces together.

Providing much more detail about the story which develops would spoil the intricate web of plot and subplot which Williamson has created. Suffice it to say, the author has created a group of very believable, very real characters, and it's very easy to get swept up in the events which soon surround them and the choices they eventually must make.

The end of this book caught me completely off-guard, so I won't breathe a word of it here. It is a climax which feels wrong, simply because it's not what the reader wants to happen ... but it's also a conclusion which feels right, because the characters involved -- and, perhaps, the writer himself -- simply had no other choice.

Seek out a copy of Second Chance and give it a read. I guarantee, the story will stay with you for a long time to come.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 8 July 1999

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