Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nemonymous 8 (2008)

D.F. Lewis (ed.), Cone Zero (Nemonymous #8). Megazanthus Press, 2008. Pp. 269. ISSN 1474-2020. £10.00.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

From its tentative beginnings at the turn of the century to its latest manifestation as the Cone Zero anthology, Nemonymous has always been an intriguing, beguiling, infuriating and constantly evolving project. There were the comparatively normal (though sideways on) early editions, then the blank-covered and untitled issue, the school exercise book facsimile and so on. I suppose such creative eccentricity is inevitable seeing as Nemonymous is the carefully nurtured literary child of the inimitable D F Lewis who is himself a purveyor of some of the most intriguing, beguiling, infuriating stories I have ever read. Evolved from journal format to book, the Nemonymous conceit is basically the same. You don’t know who wrote the story you are reading. In the early days, there was no hint, no name, just stories. This time the authors names are listed on the back cover, but you are not told which author wrote which story.

Dean Harkness’s cover reminds me of those early-seventies Panther science fiction paperbacks which usually featured a close-up, odd-angled photo of some unidentifiable (but possibly mundane) object. One of Asimov’s Foundation novels had, if I remember rightly, a clock spring on the cover.

So, what about the stories? After all, you don’t buy a book for its cover and you certainly don’t buy Nemonymous because it is full of your favourite authors (although it might be of course). Well, this is certainly the most accessible issue of the series I have read so far, in which, from physical artefact to concept to malevolent, brooding enigma, Cone Zero is explored in all its forms and guises.

There are four stories actually titled 'Cone Zero'. The first taking us into a messy flat where a horrible and alien mould grows in the toilet and the inhabitants, both friend and stranger, lounge around in joint-stupefied lethargy. There is something Pinteresque about this place, full of an unspoken menace that doesn’t quite reveal itself. The second 'Cone Zero' is one of my favourites, a fantastic tale of a man who finds himself in an underground hospital that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Carry On film. Society it seems, has turned Darwinian, it is now illegal to treat illness. A marvellously imaginative yarn full of atmosphere and a strange authenticity.

'Cone Zero' number three teeters in that hinterland between dream and reality. A temple, a statue and a beautiful woman inhabit what is a mysterious and ultimately moving story. 'Cone Zero' four is another masterpiece. Set in some mythical world that seems like 19th Century Paris, it has mention of televisions and is back-dropped by an unnamed but savage war. It snows on Damian’s 30th birthday, and it is snowing blood. A search for a mysterious, visionary artist, terrible revelations and a tragic past all collide into one of the most satisfying endings I have ever read.

So what else have we got here? 'The Fathomless World' opens the show with the story of the errant and ultimately God-like Tall Man who is sentenced to wander the corridors of a mysterious building, until, one day, he finds a way out... 'Cone Zero, Sphere Zero' is set in a self-contained world where it is a crime to even conjecture that there might be anything at all outside the conical walls of the world. A persistent blasphemer finds an ally in the unlikely place. We travel down 'An Oddly Quiet Street' which has resonance and references to Rosemary’s Baby as a wife talks her husband into buying a run down property in, well, an oddly quiet street. Identity and the dream that is the Hollywood Dream are up for grabs in 'More Than You Know' when a stunt man tries to find out just who the star he doubles for actually is. This is a corker; I loved it.

Time for us to be 'Going Back For What We Left Behind', or perhaps not, because that which we’ve lost is sometimes best left that way. My advice, stay on the train if it stops at the mysterious 'Conezero' (pronounced the Italian way) station. Classic horror, this one, given a fresh lick of paint and a healthy dose of emotion. For lovers of Toy Story we have the marvellous 'Cone Zero Ultimatum' in which a herd/swarm/pack of abused household appliances escape and set off on a perilous quest for Eden. Great fun, and utterly compelling.

An ancient, flickering scrap of monochrome film reveals the haunting and poignant mystery of Angel Zero. A cleverly written and technically complex piece this is another of my favourites. A sweating, panic-drenched race for a train is not 'How To Kill An Hour', especially when it ends so bloodily. Another story that draws you in, increases the heart rate and has you shouting at the protagonist to hurry up, and all shadowed by the malevolent and never explained Cone Zero. Looking for a place to rent? Be careful when you see that 'To Let' sign, especially if the owners have left any of their own ornaments on the mantelpiece. A truly dark and sinister work to finish the collection.

Yes, I’ve missed one story out. I always do, because I like to save my absolute favourite till last. This time it is 'The Point of Oswald Masters'. Witty, very funny but making a sharp (sorry), excellently-observed point (sorry again) about art, both the physical and the imagined. Where does art begin and end? Who does it belong to? Are the emperor’s new clothes really a work of art because, untouched by human hands or craft, they are, of course, perfect?

As I said earlier, this is a particularly accessible member of the Nemonymous brood, however, that accessibility is actually something of a veneer. In each work we see the what, but not the why or the how. Who are the creators of Sphere Zero? Which world is Damien living in, this one? An alternative universe? Who is the mysterious patient in that underground hospital, is he a spy, resistance fighter? And is it really the late 1960s? Virtually every story is like a very satisfying and complete iceberg tip that reveals the result, but never gives away that which lies beneath. We should have known, because Mr Lewis has that Oswald Masters touch, just when you think he’s finally mellowed you realise that it’s smoke and mirrors, Uncle Des has held out a sweet (one of those cream-filled chocolate cones with a hazelnut on top) then deftly snatched it away just as your fingertips close about the wrapper.

Well done Des for choosing such a fantastic array of tales to create one of those rarities, a flawless anthology, and a huge congratulations to the authors for the quality, wit and inventiveness of their work. And for telling some Great Stories.

Buy Cone Zero direct from the publisher

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