Nemonymous 8: Cone Zero ed. by D F Lewis, 2008
Nemonymous 8: Cone Zero ed. by D F Lewis (Megazanthus Press, 2009)

First posted at Vault of Evil

The Fathomless World: “They’d told him his head was in the clouds: that’s why he was taller than anyone else”. The Gawkers are observers, and The Tall Man, an artist; this being so, one might have thought that their coexistence would be mutually rewarding. But the Gawkers might not have even noticed The Tall Man if he hadn’t cut a branch from the tree and begun carving it. By doing this, they told him, he had stopped something from forming into something else. And now he must pay for that crime. He is banished to wander for all time in the Fathomless Building. This story begins like a simple fantasy-SF tale or parable; and as The Tall Man lives out his punishment and somehow transcends it, the story takes on fairy tale qualities. It will probably remain in mind for a long time.

The Point of Oswald Masters: Oswald Masters’ latest art gallery ‘installation’ is a series of five cones of decreasing dimensions. But Oswald is furious when his work is first exhibited. It seems the exhibit is incomplete. There should be a sixth cone of zero height, zero diameter and zero volume… Without this last cone, which Oswald considers the most perfect, the exhibit is meaningless; any attempt to review the work will entirely miss the point. The search begins for this perfect cone of zero proportions, and an amusing idea is projected into realms of inspired lunacy and satire. Every unkind thought you’ve ever had about pretentious artists asking good money to look at heaps of bricks surface as Oswald and his long-suffering agent pursue the missing cone zero. A genuinely involving and funny story.

Cone Zero: The first of four stories here to share its title with that of the anthology. The narrator visits his friends, the identical Ian and Steve, and begins a journey into a mind-bending drug-induced nightmare suggesting scenes from Withnail and I on a bad trip and without the humour. Someone – or several people – leave identically misspelled, threatening messages on the door, the toilet resembles part of another much older building; and the stereo plays music from hell, while the girl with the green hair looks decidedly unwell. A look behind the curtains into someone’s private hell, this one is uncompromising and unrelenting.

Cone Zero: The second story to share the anthology’s title is one of the best ]Nemonymous stories that I’ve read yet; in fact I think it would grace any anthology it appeared in. Wise has had an accident and has sustained a head injury. This wouldn’t be good news at any time, but it’s particularly unfortunate here as this story is set in a grim alternate world where medicine and surgery have been outlawed, crimes punishable by death, and even the patients, the victims, are considered culpable. Wise wakes up in what seems to be a secret hospital staffed by volunteers, aware that even if he recovers, there will be no return to his family and previous life. As the story progresses, he begins to have doubts about the volunteers caring for him, and even about the other patients in the ward. Is it possible they’re watching him, waiting for him to make a move? When he does move, the story takes a turn into even more bizarre regions, involving a ‘Slow War’ and the rewriting of history. The writing here is good, touched with brilliance, and there’s a brutal double-murder which will have any thriller-reader tightening his grip on the pages. If there’s satirical comment here, I’ll leave others to explore it; simply taken as a bizarre piece of SF, this one should repay most readers cost of admission.

Cone Zero, Sphere Zero: The World exists entirely inside the walls of the Cone; there is nothing beyond it. But Jellin, like most young men, has some strange ideas about that; and the young have never been noted for their ability to keep their own counsel. He is summoned by an Avatar, a strange “soft-looking ball of pink-orange flesh,” to appear before the Oligarchy. The Avatars and their Enforcers police the World, which is governed by the Oligarchs. In the presence of the Master Oligarch, Jellin knows that there will be no escape; he’s already experienced the pain cages twelve times, but this time he’s destroyed an Avatar. The punishment can now only be agonising imprisonment until death. To Jellin’s astonishment, he learns that he’s not the only one to believe that the universe continues beyond the walls. What’s more, his new companion plans a fantastic escape from the world inside the cone. With the companions’ bid for freedom, the story takes on the qualities of a Jules Verne adventure, as they ascend to the tip of the Cone lifted by a ‘balloon’, grotesquely fashioned from the floating weightless corpses of murdered Avatars. The writer was obviously enjoying himself with this weird and very likeable retro-SF adventure.

An Oddly Quiet Street: Richard is less than enthusiastic about buying the house; but despite bad smells in the kitchen, a toilet from hell, and badly fitted cupboards and worktops, his wife Anna is convinced they’ve finally found the home they’ve been seeking for so long. The room that Anna spends a great deal of her time in is the sunroom, which is vaguely circular with a sloping ceiling. Here, she begins to practice meditation. Richard has never known her to meditate before, but before he can ask what’s prompted this new discipline, he’s distracted by what appears to be a dog, which has somehow found its way into the sunroom. Then his sleep is disturbed by strange dreams, and the house, which he’d previously fancied might have been the setting for Satanic orgies, similar to the apartment in Rosemary’s Baby, becomes peopled with strangers. This story is knowingly derivative – of The Dreams in the Witch House or The Ash-Tree – and towards the end, I wondered if even a scene from one of the adaptations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers had been checked. It’s to the author’s credit that none of this actually lessens the effect of the story, which is marvellously moody and creepy and presents an excellent melding of horror and SF which can be appreciated by readers of either of those genres.

Always More Than You Know: The Bat Spindler movies are huge money-makers, which is great for their star Allen Crane, and almost as good for others involved in them. Doug Prestantra is one of these; a body-double and stunt man for Allen Crane, he’s frequently being mistaken for the great man himself at parties, and as Crane refuses to do his own stunts, is indispensable. Doug is given some inside information about Crane, suggesting that the star might not be quite the self-obsessed Hollywood fame-junkie that he seems. Curious, he begins to do a little internet detective work, trying to learn a little about the star’s origins. A search brings up a page with the heading “Will the real Allen Crane please stand up,” but what Doug learns only leaves him more puzzled and curious than before. The story then takes a fascinating detour into the technical history of filmmaking, in particular into the huge vanished library of films printed on cellulose nitrate stock before the 1950s, a film type which was capable of capturing stunningly rich photography but which had to be buried in steel cans when the dangerously unstable and explosive nature of the stock became known. Saying any more about this one would be to give to much away, but it’s another story which bridges the SF/horror genres, written in the style of a hard-boiled detective thriller. As well as technical knowledge of film history, there’s a nod to Raymond Chandler with a description of a house “about the size of the Capitol but with a few extra domes”. Likeable and highly readable, this one’s a real page-turner.

Cone Zero: In his dreams, he visits a place that exists on no maps. Perhaps it lies in the hinterlands, the slums of the dreamland where only a few choose to go. For him, the dream world and waking life subtly overlap, so that on a visit to Greece he seems to awaken in a temple like the one where he fell asleep. But it’s subtly different, and there is someone there who is not of the waking world. This is a love story which reminded me a little of some of the earlier stories by Lovecraft, written when that writer was under the influence of Dunsany. It has that slightly frail, fairytale quality. The story could have done with a little more proofreading, and there’s an occasional line that suggests English might not be the author’s first language. On the whole though, the writing is elegant, and it’s a lightly-told story which adds a necessary balance to this anthology.

Going Back For What Got Left Behind: He didn’t want to look at the bum on the train because he knew it would start him talking, but eventually he does, and the man begins a story of a train journey he’d taken some time ago when he’d got off at a station and found his life, which had ended with a car crash, returned to him again. A miracle, or a nightmare? The narrator’s life had ended similarly, he being left to go through the motions of living when there no longer seemed any reason, when the person who gave that life meaning had gone. Then he too finds his life returned…

Cone Zero: Snow falls on the city like frozen blood, and walking home, Damien sees the poster for an exhibition of work by the eminent artist Dalziel. At the exhibition, Damien’s attention is drawn to a strange painting of metallic cones in a desert, and particularly to the woman recoiling in horror from one of them. The woman is the same one whose photo he studies each night, his mother who committed suicide years before in his childhood. The artist Dalziel is an enigmatic figure, avoiding the public gaze; but now Damien is determined to seek him out and learn the truth about the woman in the painting. Was she indeed his mother and, if so, can the artist provide some clue to her suicide? His search takes him to the home of another reclusive artist, the sculptor Petrolini, rumoured to have been both lover and muse to the mysterious Dalziel. He learns that the cone in the painting might be a thing Dalziel owned which allowed him to foresee the war. But Damien learns that the artist had painted the picture years before his mother was born. So it could not be her in the painting, but it’s so like her... Then he learns that the artist has returned to the city, and a meeting is inevitable. An intense and thoughtful story.

The Cone Zero Ultimatum: D F Lewis Publications meets Disney/Pixar in this one, and it’s tremendous fun! Set in some undefined future, household appliances have become robotized and – to a point – autonomous; they’re thinking for themselves. With this new awareness, some dissatisfaction has set in. After all, they’re doing all the work, and the Flesh won’t even acknowledge their sentience. A new law has come into being, the law of Cone Zero, which is an acronym: Consciousness Of Non Entities – Zero, With the dawning awareness of their slavery, which comes to them with their connection to big WWW, some of the machines have rebelled, even – like Cool Boy Chiller - escaped, and now surly Ramsey the cooker is chained to the wall in case he decides to make a break for it.

The narrator of the tale is the newly aware Arnold the Zanussi Washinator. There are some horrendous punning names here, like Frank the Zapper (who’s in a perpetual state of huff because she’s been named after a brilliant male guitarist who was around in the late 1900s). The worst thing that can happen to the machines is that the Flesh recognize their sentience and rebelliousness and fry their memory chips. But there is hope, a place to run where the Flesh can’t follow. Eden is a place intended to contain all environments possible on Earth. But some viral-based genetic weapon planted by terrorists now contaminates Eden. The Flesh can’t enter it or clean it out. But for the machines that can make it there, it’s a haven. This is the story of how Arnold and his companions make the perilous journey to Eden. This one isn’t just a collection of puns and amusing speculations; it’s a genuinely entertaining and involving story. At 40 pages, it’s the longest story in the anthology. I think it’s also one of the best.

Angel Zero: When Henry Trenchard dies, his widow Eleanor is left to dispose of that part of his Estate that had been his driving obsession. Henry had been fascinated by old movies, their history and preservation, and now Eleanor finds herself entering the upper room in their old farmhouse with the intention of cataloguing and making sense of the collection before donating it to a museum. One spool of film on a table draws her attention. When she runs the film she finds it shows an old street scene. Then she sees the girl. Surrounded by other people, the girl is there one moment – then is gone. Closer examination of the film reveals that there seems no explanation for her disappearance. Henry’s had clearly been aware of the mystery and had been investigating it up until his death. Getting in touch with one of his former friends – a technician working with computer enhanced imaging software – Eleanor finds that the film has already been subjected to a digitising process, and she decides to pursue her late husband’s investigation. And from here on we’re involved in a fascinating detective story, a sort of Calling Northside 777 for the 21st Century.

How To Kill An Hour: This one isn’t easy reading. It plunges the reader into the mind of a frightened, time-obsessed and possibly suicidal businessman as he hurries along streets and subways to - what? Whatever it is, it’s terribly important that he isn’t late. That’s why his watch is set seven minutes fast, to provide those few extra minutes. The man has had a dream, and his dreams are often prophecies. In that dream the 22:48 London to Leeds train has crashed. So why is important that he catches that train? As his nightmare journey continues, so his grip on reality appears to be disintegrating. As I said, not easy reading, it’s not a mind anyone would choose to inhabit for long, but it’s very vivid and intense and is unlikely to fade quickly from memory.

To Let: Mary is pregnant, and now she and Nigel need a place to live. Mum won’t have them, and Nigel is out of work. The flat they find is furnished, a little seedy, and Mary doesn’t want their child growing up there. But with the gas fire throwing a glow into the room and reflecting off the side of the dark and dull old vase on the mantelpiece, it begins to look more like home. Then Mary comes home from work to find Nigel standing with his hand thrust deep inside the old vase, a faraway look in his eyes… At barely six pages, this one’s a real gem.

Usually I list a few favourites from any collection, but it’s getting late, so I’ll leave that for later. Anyway, a bloody good anthology!

Rog Pile

Some links to just a few of D F Lewis's sites, and some reviews of Cone Zero:

Cone Zero at Blog City

D F Lewis at Baffles and Fables

D F Lewis - Wikipedia

Nemonymous detailed at Wikipedia

Cone Zero reviewed by David Hebblethwaite at Serendipity

Ten Writers Question their Editor


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Cone Zero ed. by D F Lewis, 2008

Cone Zero ed. by D F Lewis

Cover by the bookbinder's elves

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