Thursday, July 2, 2015

Ghosts in Amber: Review/Analysis (Spoilers)

Or, had it been an ill-conceived shortcut in evolution...a noble but failed attempt to aspire to something greater than was within this primitive life form's capacity to attain?

It is an exciting time to be a fan of Weird Fiction. Without a doubt, we are in the midst of a Weird Renaissance. New and talented writers are emerging from the dark recesses of nature, changing the Weird landscape as we know it. There are some writers, though, who are already established voices in the Realm of the Weird; they are firmly rooted in the primal dirt of the Earth, and are forging dark, evocative, powerful stories from the aether. Jeffrey Thomas is one such writer. A high ranking member of the Weird Elite, Jeffrey Thomas has been synonymous with all things Weird and beyond. A prolific and profound author who writes short stories and novels that span galaxies, traverse post-apocalyptic America, explore monsters and myths, dissect the human psyche, and even illuminate the crushing weight of failed economies in small towns. He's a Renaissance Man in the Weird Renaissance; hell, he helped usher in the Weird Renaissance. Known for such notable works as his short story collections all revolving around Punktown, novels such as Boneland, and a panopoly of other collections and novels, Thomas isn't just rooted in the primal dirt of the Earth, he's entrenched in its core. 

Ghosts in Amber is the product of an unholy union between Jeffrey Thomas, artist Serhiy Krykun, and Sam Cowan, under Cowan's new publishing imprint, Dim Shores. You want to make a strong, impressive debut with your new publishing imprint? You bring in the big guns, and this triumvirate did not disappoint. Krykun's eerily beautiful cover takes hold of your mind and forces you to venture further into Thomas's tome of unsettling horrors. The success of this first chapbook has solidified the position of Dim Shores among the dark, vast cosmos of the Weird Fiction landscape. Now, let's delve into the story itself. 

Ghosts in Amber takes place in the failing town of Gosston, and centers around a man simply referred to as "he."  He is a lowly factory worker in Gosston. He and his wife live in one part of a house that was converted into an apartment. They get by, living day to day, and I use "living" very loosely. One early evening, arriving home from work and grabbing the mail, he looks across the street at an old, abandoned factory across the street, nestled against a pond. His curiosity, combined with his desire to find new places to go to before coming home from work, prompt him to explore the factory the very next day. He will do more than just explore an abandoned factory, though. He will be entering a repository of his past, gazing upon museum-like pieces frozen in time. Here, he will be confronted by loss and regret, and a life that passed him by. 

As stated in the above paragraph, the protagonist of the story is referred to as "he." This serves to drive home the point that he is just your average person, a garden variety citizen. He is you, me, your friend, your dad...any one of us. He gets up in the morning, goes to work, comes home, and repeats the cycle five days a week, and probably works some weekends for overtime, just to help keep up with the bills that he and his wife are mired in. He merely exists, rather than live. His life is a reflection of the town of Gosston itself. He represents a class of citizen affected by the crumbling economy of Gosston. Gosston is a town that probably once thrived, but is now in the grip of the cold, merciless, greedy hands of several banks. In fact, there are nineteen banks in Gosston, and he couldn't tell you which one he and his wife took their home loan through, and he certainly couldn't tell you which one now owns his home, hence the apartment they now live in. 

Akin to S.P. Miskowski's town of Skillute, Gosston is the kind of town that most people probably never leave, and if they do, they most likely find themselves back in its confining boundaries. It's a character all its own; alive, haunting, decadent, and cognizant. Gosston's atmosphere is redolent of oppression, and will beat you down to your knees and keep you there. He has lived in Gosston all his life, and has held various factory jobs since he was young. Not once has he ever been out of Gosston, and he may even be too afraid to leave. Despite the shackles it casts on you, Gosston probably provides some sense of security for people like him, because it's all they know. 

Gosston isn't the only thing weighing him down. His marriage with his wife has been stagnant for what appears to be some time now:

As it was they had never fought badly enough for either of them to have even uttered the word divorce. They didn't seem to possess the passion to become that angry or discontented. Sometimes she criticized him for remaining in the same relatively low-paying job for these many years, for lacking ambition to the point of apathy, but he supposed it was this quality of acceptance that had kept them united.

They are in what I would call a comfortable rut. They are so used to the way things are, that they do not bother with divorce, counseling, or anything that would drastically change their current life, which is in the doldrums. Their marriage may have reached its current state after they lost their house, but it's not certain. She worked nights, and he loved spending time alone on his front porch, reading a book. It was his "little piece of the universe." Just before they made the move after losing their house, his wife switched to a day shift like him. Now, he doesn't like coming home right after work. He looks for places to go hang out, such as the library, or the market to pick up a few things, or even the cemetery where his mother used to take him on picnics. There is a sense of regret in him. You get the feeling that he thinks he should have, perhaps, married someone else, or should not have married at all. If he wasn't married, would his life be better? He and his wife also live above a horrible woman who hears every bit of movement they make, to the point where she pounds and screams hysterically, and tells them, "I hear you moving around up there," as if they are rodents or insects, perhaps indicating their station on the human hierarchy. 

The factory is not just the epicenter of the story, but of his banal and completely unfulfilling existence. Up until the day he took notice of it, the factory never really caught his attention. Running out of places to hide out in before coming home from work, he figures the factory--never having explored it--is the next best place to spend an hour in before coming home. It makes one wonder, though: has the factory always been there? If it has always been there, why did he suddenly decide to explore it? I think it goes much deeper than him wanting to go to new places before coming home. Perhaps this is the work of Gosston itself. Maybe the town wants to show him something, manifesting the factory into existence. It's also quite possible that the factory became tangible through him. All the apathy and dissatisfaction that he had accumulated over the years, they created the factory, a sort of emergent property. It's also possible that this all happened in his head. At the very end of the story, he does not recall ever leaving the factory and coming back to his house. He doesn't see his car, and he realizes that his wife is not home, and the horrible neighbor below them has been gone for a while now. He may have had something do with her being gone. At one point, he told his wife that he is going to have to do something about her. Maybe he did something to his wife, too. There is an undetermined amount of time that cannot be accounted for. It's all open for interpretation, which makes the story all the more engaging. Let's look at the factory more closely.

The factory is delineated by the Gosston Canal and the pond, which serves in emphasizing its unreal nature:

He faced forward again and continued downward until the ground leveled out and he stood before the pond, with the factory on the other side of a stream that disgorged into the body of water. He realized this stream must be the Gosston Canal. It separated him from the factory like a castle's moat.

He is now entering an area that is not governed by the laws we have placed on our planet, and the universe overall. The clock tower is another indication of the sort of limbo he is entering.

A clock tower rose above the rest of the factory's flat roof and was twinned in the obsidian pond as if painted on glass, but where it's face should have been there was only an empty black skull socket now as though the clock itself had dropped out and been lost under the water. His imagination still stimulated, he pictured the clock lying on black muck at the bottom of the pond with its arms even now turning unseen as the years passed.

In this area where the factory sits, time does not exist, or the area and the factory are frozen in time. Yet, outside the designated boundary, time will continue to pass. I think it could also symbolize how time has passed him by, and will not wait up for him. The universe doesn't care what he has/hasn't done with his life. 

The inside of the factory is like a decayed museum of his past. Everything inside is a piece from his past, frozen in time. Even the smells are reminders of his earlier days. He recognized the varied and putrid smells from his early days of working as a leather cutter for a boot manufacturer, and, at a later date, working in a pocketbook factory. Both factories were located in Gosston, and the oppressive, pervasive smells are just one way of reminding him of his long, meager existence in Gosston. The majority of the rooms in the factory are empty, just as his life is. He finds a rather mysterious photo album that just so happens to be from his wedding, though he didn't realize it at the time. He decides to pull up an old chair and flip through it:

He was charmed by these photos and especially by the bride, a youthful beauty whose white dress and veil set off all the more her dark hair and dark eyes. Her fresh face and petite figure had struck him from the first image. The groom was similarly young and attractive and he was jealous of this man though he couldn't be bitterly resentful, because the groom's smiling face conveyed how happy he was and how lucky he knew himself to be. 

There was once a time when he and his wife were happy. They were young, attractive, and invulnerable. They had their whole lives ahead of them; they were going to grab life by the horns and make it theirs. Somewhere along the way, however, the opposite happened. Life grabbed them, especially him, and held them down. Time flew by, and, one day, he woke up and was much, much older. It makes one wonder what happened all this time; when did things turn around for them? Later on, at home, his wife brings the album to him; she found it in one of his drawers. This made her happy. "Wasn't that just the best day of your life?" she said. A long time ago, maybe. She chooses to view their life a bit differently than he does. There is still some spark left in her, where he is becoming more and more of an empty husk. 

Among the other pieces of history in the factory, he finds wooden lasts for shoes and boots to be formed around. He couldn't wrap his mind around lasts being left behind unless they were rendered obsolete, which is a reflection of him being obsolete. He sees leather cutter's clicker machines, just like the ones he used to operate back in the day. The most disturbing thing he finds in the factory, however, is a human form made entirely out of amber, completely still. In fact, there is hardened amber hanging from the ceiling of the factory, as if the entire factory was made out of it. The figure is on a raised platform that supports a clicker machine, as if it was once operating the machine a long time ago. 

The figure was that of a slender young man though of course the matter's uniformly honey-like color prevented one from telling the model's hair or eye color, the effigy's eyes just blank golden orbs in a glassy golden head that seemed to glow inside with the mellow light that angled in through the window behind.

While being an amazing, mysterious creation of something beyond us, the figure, and its lack of features, are a reflection of him. He is a nobody; he's nothing special. There is nothing exceptional about him, and he is the same as any other person like him, and is just like his fellow factory co-workers. He is the product of a failing town that is suffering from a depression. He even talks to it, asking if it is working overtime, and how, even though he worked overtime, he still lost his house; his little piece of the universe. Any aspirations or dreams of achieving something greater than himself were gone.

There is yet another figure he encounters that is also made out of amber. Earlier in the story, he peeked into a room that housed a web orb containing hundreds of spiders, something that he was greatly afraid of. Later on, after hearing a piercing shriek that brought him back to that very same room, he found an amber figure curled on the floor. It was a nude woman, and her appearance was that of being pregnant. He saw a figure moving in the belly: 

No sooner had he recognized the shadowy outline in her abdomen for what it was than he thought he saw it move, kicking out with both of its feet at once as if to pound them against the constraining wall of her womb. 

He suddenly realizes that the child is alive, and must be saved. He uses a hatchet to hack away at the amber belly of the female figure. He hacks and hacks until the belly breaks apart. He thinks he can bring the baby home with him, so he and his wife can raise it; however, the black mass breaks apart into thousands of tiny spiders, causing him to scuttle backwards. One may wonder how a baby fits into all of this. Well, earlier in the story, he wonders what life would have been like for he and is wife, if they had a child. Would they be happier, or would they collapse from mental and financial stress? It can be interpreted that his wife may have, at one point, been pregnant, and they lost the baby, and it has haunted them all this time, hence his eagerness to bring a baby home with him. The loss of a child is something that never fully goes away. 

The use of amber in this story is an interesting one. The human forms are made out of it, and there are hardened amber droplets hanging from the ceiling. Scientists often study insects that have been preserved in amber for millions of years. Amber is a time capsule, a window into the past. In his case, his past, youth, history, loss, regret, they are all preserved in amber, allowing him to explore, study, and ruminate. He is in a museum of his past.

Ghosts in Amber is a strong debut for Dim Shores, and a testament to Jeffrey Thomas's ability to write Weird Fiction of varying degrees. Thomas wrote a story that hits close to  home for a lot of people. He crafted a crushing, haunting, and oppressive atmosphere that seeps through your skin and permeates your entire being. He cleverly creeps ambiguity into the story, making it all the more mysterious and engaging, leaving much room for interpretation and discourse. Thomas brilliantly explores failed towns and the human psyche, giving us a look into a world that many live in, and one that others hope to never be in.