George Zebrowski,
Black Pockets &
Other Dark Thoughts

(Golden Gryphon, 2006)

George Zebrowski, with some 40 novels, collections and anthologies to his credit, is one of those writers whose name I know quite well but whose work I haven't delved into to any great extent. His celebrated science fiction novel Macrolife (1979) sits on a bookshelf at home, awaiting a free moment. I've read a few of his stories in Best of the Year collections over the years, and one of his collaborative works was included in a volume I reviewed for Rambles.NET recently (The Fiction Factory by Jack Dann, et al). But these have been disassociated pieces, absorbed over many years. No coherent picture of the author's work has managed to form in my head.

Black Pockets & Other Dark Thoughts is an odd place to begin an exploration of Zebrowski's writing as it's a collection of horror stories rather than the sort of science fiction tales for which he's better known. There are space habitats ("My First World") and alien creatures ("First Love, First Fear" and "Lords of Imagination") featured in a number of the tales, so science fiction fans will feel somewhat at home, but even these stories aim to disturb rather than to stir the reader's sense of wonder.

After finishing the 19 stories featured in this anthology I would conclude that Zebrowski is an adventurous writer whose style too frequently gets in the way of his storytelling. There are some very strange and compelling ideas explored in Black Pockets. What would you do if you came face to face with a zombie and it turned out to be an undead Fidel Castro? How would you react if your best friend was a composer who believed spiders were stealing his music straight out of his skull? What if Jesus showed up on Larry King Live to debate Gore Vidal regarding the existence of God? Unfortunately, there's a clunkiness to much of the writing that makes these stories a tougher slog than they ought to be.

Of course, style is a very subjective aspect of writing, so where I find fault others may not. But to my mind the stories presented here are neither poetical nor do they contain the sort of transparent prose that goes practically unnoticed as a plot progresses. Zebrowski's words too often call undue attention to themselves, drawing the reader out of the action, focusing it instead on an awkward turn of phrase.

And while some of the stories manage to overcome their stylistic shortcomings via strong core concepts delivered in tight packages, the one new story included in this collection, the title piece, "Black Pockets," is considerably longer than the premise warrants. The novella involves a bitter, unhappy man who is given the ability to remove his enemies, his inconveniences, his trash from this world, trapping them in "black pockets" that he conjures out of thin air and his own malevolence. With such a dislikeable character anchoring the plot, his demise at the close of the story is far less horrific than it is a relief.

There are some good stories here. "A Piano Full of Dead Spiders," "Takes You Back" and "General Jaruzelski at the Zoo" are all well worth reading. But the ratio of powerful fiction to forgettable stuff in Black Pockets & Other Dark Thoughts is simply not high enough to justify a hardcover price.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
23 September 2006

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