When I asked Jason V (no period) Brock to write the Introduction to “Hellfire & Damnation II,” it was because I had read a touching story within his and William F. Nolan’s anthology “The Devil’s Coat Tails” that he wrote about the death of a loved one, and it was wonderful—just as wonderful as the story in this collection entitled “Object Lesson.” After teaching writing to students for 33 years, I could tell instantly that Jason was “the real deal.”
That early judgment, based on one story, is proven again by this: his first short story collection, Simulacrum and Other Possible Realities. Jason shares my love for correctness in grammar, punctuation and spelling and an absolute craving for originality of content.
Jason opens this collection with a Latin phrase: “Ad mala patrata hale sunt atra theatra,” a line associated with the Marquis de Sade, which translates roughly to “For the evil achievers are these theaters prepared.” His first story is “What the Dead’s Eyes Behold,” introducing us to one of the most evil achievers, an online acquaintance who goes by the name Diabolicus13. [I smiled at the name of the girl who meets Diabolicus13 online, PlayMisty4U, thinking of the Clint Eastwood film “Play Misty for Me.”] Here is one well-turned phrase within the story that caught my eye: “She was a lot of things to a lot of people, but late was never one of them.” Or, “The more outré his sculptures became, the more in demand he was as an artist, the better attended his exhibitions were.” Diabolicus13 and Misty meet. Let’s just say that things do not end well. I absolutely hate it when a reviewer gives the entire plot of one of my stories away. So no spoiler here. Buy the book.
Next up, a poem: “Pathologist’s Roulette.” [As a poet of little distinction, the less criticism I do of anyone else’s poetry, the better.] Jason does both prose and poetry equally well.
I move quickly on to “The Central Coast” featuring Alex and such phrases as “Icy mercury of dread creeping up his back.” I made note of this line: “Mentally bracing himself, he slowly pushed on the door. His breath was shallow; he was afraid of what might still be on the other side.” Phrases like “a demented cacophony,” an “anguished howl, and “a gruesome spectacle” found their way onto my note pad to be praised. I have to be honest: “The Central Coast” became a little too gruesome for me, but that does not mean it isn’t good. As Jason’s good friend and mentor William F. Nolan says in his Introduction: “His (Brock’s) work is sometimes extreme, dark, and gruesome.” But, as Bill points out, there is a method to Jason’s madness; the violence is usually there to make a point regarding the character(s).
“One for the Road,” featuring Elizabeth and Derrick in the Pacific Northwest, traveling from Eugene to Seattle and stopping at a rest stop that is anything but restful thoroughly chilled me. I drive I80 alone and stop at similar roadside rest stops all the time: a woman alone. A threatening presence. Use your imagination. Fill in the blanks. Jason did so quite effectively and conjured up a story that will leave you wanting to drive straight through to your destination in the future.
“Palindrome Syndrome,” with phrases like “Able I was ere I saw Elba” (one I think I might have heard before) followed by “Lewd did I live, evil I did dwel” I had not heard before. Nor thought of before. (Who’s going to quibble about that missing last “l” when an entire sentence reads the same way backwards and forwards?)
“The Hex Factor” was a lighthearted look at the law. Ms. Stonecipher hires Rupert Blackwood because her spells have been stolen by another witch. References to vampires who file class action suits for dark areas in restaurants amused me. “Monsters have rights like everybody else.” The werewolf depilatory cream allergy settlement proves THAT truism! I enjoyed this story, which often employed dialect.
“Valor: A Fable” may have been more horror than the Hitchcock era allowed, but it was inventive and imaginative, although the image of someone “shoving his innards back into his abdominal cavity” is why I may have to concentrate on thrillers in the future. “A quagmire of flies, disease and bones” was likewise an unappetizing description that true horror aficionados will love. Wimps like me may recoil in—-well—-horror…but this one flies, too. (Pun intended).
“Object Lesson” with lines like: “Every beginning springs from an ending,” or “In a way, it was as if Dad were just visiting some other place” dealt with death and its inevitability. I enjoyed this line: “A line retreating to a vanishing point of non-remembrance on the horizon.” And this one: “What’s more haunting than the spectre of your parents hovering over your life anyway, dead or alive?” The line: “Stiletto shadows through his tunneled vision” demonstrates Brock’s descriptive prowess. The central theme: “Just because we can keep someone alive, should we?…We’ve reduced dying from an art into a science.” (This was a “Time” magazine article cover topic not too long ago—and a good one.) I also liked Jason’s thought that we all have “A fleeting hope that it all isn’t just a black hole on the other side.” I think I know which side of that argument Jason comes down on, and I agree with him. A powerful piece (and one of William F. Nolan’s favorites, as well.)
“Dream Poem” and “Where Everything That Is Lost Goes” and “The Observer Effect” (“I decided to stop aging,” says Chuck Berg in the story.) [I couldn’t help but think of “the Observers,” strange little bald men in the now-defunct television series “Fringe.”] As one of the main characters in this story about aging—or NOT aging— says, “Why be a slave to something that doesn’t really exist unless you let it?” This one is dedicated to Jason’s Mom and Dad, April and Marti.
We also are treated to “Godhead: How to Become a God/Goddess in Six (6) Steps” and learn that “Frac/tion”- Death is the great denominator.”
“Van Helsing: His True Story” was a bit short for my tastes. When Jason is on a roll, I want him to go further, but the author reconstructed this one from memory after losing much of the material in Hurricane Hugo in 1989. So: no harm/no foul.
Another poem: “Story of a Blade.” The line “The quiet never betrays the slowing heart’s dull ache” I liked a lot.
Then comes Jason’s salute to Akira Kurasowa with “POV”-3 Views of a murder. The autopsy language was so detailed that the reader comes to the conclusion that Jason has spent most of his young life conducting autopsies. Salute! I recently had to write an autopsy scene. It took 3 phone calls to a county coroner who is an old friend for me to “get it right.” This was truly an example of someone who has made a detailed study of autopsy language, (or, at least, the autopsy of 12/08/2003 with a toxic screen of 3/09/2004 in this piece of fiction.) This young man has spent entirely too much time hanging around the morgue, from the way this reads.
I realized that I had not bothered to find out what the term “Simulacrum” even meant, so I looked it up to find this definition: “a reasonable facsimile of reality or an insubstantial form or semblance of something.” That was not the last word I would look up: “xeric,” “paresthetic,” and “nephitic” would come at me. (And to think, MY editor made me remove the word “tumescent” and replace it with “he had a hard on” Ha!)
“People After Their Murder by the U.S. CIA” (poem): “Each pushed by Destiny’s terrible wings into the wrong places at the wrong times.” Too true. Quite poetic.
“By Any Other Name” contains a job interview scenario where the job is described as “tedious, but great benefits and prospects.” (“Bear in mind, there has never been a department or division like this before.”) No more than that; find out for yourself. Let’s just say it has something to do with Death. (Would you expect less from horror?)
“Red-Wat-Shat,” Jason notes, “is based on an actual incident.” It left me confused regarding the dream of a woman on a man’s chest and the man setting himself on fire. Very descriptive, but I was glad it wasn’t MY dream and I’m not sure I understood this one.
“Poem from the Future” (for Ray Bradbury) told us: “The planet became an arid, parched Hell. Now, the few that remain are down here, Trapped underground in perpetual night. In the end, it wasn’t terrorism, disease or political strife that left us undone, but pollution, denial, and rolling of the cosmic dice.” [With the recent discoveries about water on Mars in the news, I found this one to be truly timely.]
“The History of a Letter” was Poe-like and interesting, seeming “old fashioned” in an intentional way.
“Black Box” was a wonderful story, picking up the tale of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” by Richard Matheson and moving it forward. It was based on that famous “Twilight Zone” episode of a creature on the wing. This “Twilight Zone” episode ran on October 11, 1963, the year I was a senior in high school. A much younger William Shatner (pre Captain Kirk days) sees a creature dismantling the plane. Taking that famous episode and expanding it, Jason gives us dialogue like: “Mayday! Mayday! Flight 3017 heavy to Sydney! 296 souls on board…We’ve lost all 4 engines! No power! Losing 2100 feet a minute in altitude—down to 27,400 feet and falling. Air speed 312 knots and dropping.” (*Just flew to and from Sydney, so I shuddered for real.) The same man—now recovered and a crew member on this flight—has “30 years of repression burrowing out of his tautly strung psyche.” Arthur Jeffrey Wilson exclaims, “It’s right on the wing again! Same as all those years ago!” The description: “Then he saw it: something—a being—momentarily darkening the eerie azure glow, quickly moving from engine to engine, as if trying to interfere with their efforts.” I liked this expansion of Richard Matheson’s original story a lot. Jason acknowledges that it was written for inclusion in a collection that was to be homage to Matheson’s piece for Rod Serling; he is justifiably proud that Matheson praised it.
“Milton’s Children” was a great story. Brock, a vegetarian, gets to sound off a bit about eating meat, but the story is about exploring a planet. I enjoyed Jason’s taking a stand for what he believes, because I sounded off a bit about home schooling, abortion, and George W. Bush in my own recent novel “Red Is for Rage,” only to have my editor say perhaps I shouldn’t interject MY personal opinions into the plot. She was a bit skeptical about my repeated indictment of pedophiles in the priesthood and the Boy Scout troop master ranks, as well. I didn’t drop the passages, and I’m glad that Jason didn’t water down his opinions, either. “Why eat something—-someone—when there are other alternatives that don’t involve death, pain, and violence?” I was struck by the paradox or seemingly contradictory nature of a horror writer railing against “death, pain, and violence”— but in a good way. It made me smile. (For the record, when my class toured the Rath Packing Plant in the bad old days in Waterloo, Iowa, we ALL became vegetarians immediately after the tour, at least temporarily. I’ve never witnessed anything more graphic and brutal than the slaughter of a pig that had broken its back leg. Don’t ask. The old-fashioned way my farmer father chopped off a chicken’s head on a tree stump in our backyard has haunted me ever since witnessing it as a small child.) This story would make a great screenplay that would be sure to surpass Ridley Scott’s much-maligned “Prometheus 2.”
The next story and title story, “Simulacrum,” which focused on Misty Petit of Pacific Data Systems reminded me of the Kathryn Bigelow film ‘Strange Days.” Excerpt: “Binding thought-based action, tactile and auditory sensations into a non-physical software environs.” The whole question of simulated versus virtual life is explored with insights like, “All reality is fundamentally based on self-delusion, anyway, on some level.” Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) in that 1995 film would have been right at home in this story. I enjoyed lines like: “Dreams have their own twisted logic, don’t they?” Or, “Never forget that we are our memories. Never forget that the self is a delusion, a false construction.” So, the Multiple Immersive Simultaneous Total Reality system was quite the intricate tale, with Gabe Merced, project director as one of the cast, and even a nod to “Heisenberg” (which immediately made me think of “Breaking Bad.”)
I’ve tried not to give away the entire plot of any of Jason’s wonderful stories. I am upset when that happens to my own works in a review. In the case of the old “Twilight Zone” episode, I may have said a bit too much, but it is a return to such a well-known piece that the author should forgive me.
I genuinely admired and enjoyed the entire collection. I felt vindicated that I had noted Jason’s talent early in his career (this is his first short story collection) and asked him to provide the Introduction to my own “Hellfire & Damnation II” collection of short stories last fall.
Just like “The Devil’s Coattails,” which was the best short story anthology of that year, in my opinion, this collection is sure to rank among the best this year. Jason has many projects and many years to do all the things he does so well; he’s off to a great start.
Try to get your hands on a copy of this first-ever short story collection by Jason V Brock; you’ll be glad you did.
My own personal favorite stories in the collection? “One for the Road;” “Object Lesson;” “When Everything That Is Lost Goes;” “Black Box;” “Milton’s Children;” and “Simulacrum.”