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SIMON BROWN HOMESITE
PART 1 PART 2 PART 3 PART 4 PART 5 PART 6 ESSENTIALS

Cherry Wilder's "The Bernstein Room" (Interzone 134, 08/98) is about art and love, both gifts of a kind, and both vulnerable to deception.

The legendary Amber Room - the Bernsteinzimmer - was a work of art originally made for Prussia's Friedrich Wilhelm I and given to Russia's Czar Peter in 1716. It was subsequently lost during WW II, but is being recreated in the Fabius Gallery through the efforts of artist and designer Charley Keller. The gallery's manager - Kim - falls under the spell of both Keller and his installation.

Once the Bernstein Room is open to the public, it quickly gathers a devoted following. It is more than a simple recreation of the original, involving photo montages, videos and music - hints and connections that play on the name "Bernstein" (using music from the composer, for example) and on the almost magical effect amber has on light: "When the sun shone it was like being boiled in marmalade ... " The room has an effect on people, inducing visions, fantasies, revelations.

Kim and Keller start an affair. Kim is in love. The Amber Room is a great success.

But the recreated room does not use real amber, rather a new kind of plastic created in a quasi-government laboratory by one of Keller's connections, and when the media get hold of this snippet of information things begin to fall apart for Kim and the gallery, although in the end she may gain more than she loses; this strangely echoes what happened with the original Amber Room, which - once lost - gained a different and perhaps even greater stature.

There is a scene in the original Cat People (made in 1942) where Alice Moore (played by Jane Randolph) is being stalked by something. We watch her walking down a lonely street, her pace steadily picking up as she realises she is not alone in the night, and the camera tracks her as she moves from one cone of yellow street light to another, almost disappearing from sight in the dark lacunae between. This sequence has almost a strobe like effect, not only visually but also emotionally, as we urge her on to successive havens of light.

In "Downloading" (Event Horizon, 14/09/98) Terry Dowling achieves in the story's climax much the same effect with much the same props, homage, perhaps, to those slices of cinema that interweave in all our memories, and which play an important part in the telling of this tale, either as templates or knowing asides spoken by the characters themselves. Indeed, the chase sequence follows a set piece familiar from another film by the same director of the Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie.

Jay Wendt, recovering from a leg broken in two places, is a private investigator hired by cop Harry Badman to keep an eye on Bennett Street, which runs below his second floor office. Badman tells Wendt that, in the last eight years, thirteen people "have gone dangerously schizoid on that street down there", but there isn't enough of a case - there aren't enough connections - to warrant a full police investigation. Wendt has nothing better to do, and agrees to take on the job.

In fact, despite the Raymond Chandler overtones, this is not a detective story. A world viewed through a small office window (an acknowledged allusion to Hitchcock's Rear Window) is already detached from any street reality, and Dowling makes good use of Wendt's inner musings as he watches, analyses and draws conclusions about the people he sees going about their business, day in, day out. Wendt is watching for a break in the "pattern", something that sticks out as not right on Bennett Street. What he finds is something that wouldn't be right on any street, but it's an elusive, chilling and dangerous discovery.

"Downloading" is one of the stories from Dowling's next book, the projected Blackwater Days, and if not quite as successful as another story from that novel - the frightening "Jenny Come to Play" (Eidolon 25/26) - it may be because Dowling is playing a more complicated game here, mixing tropes from detective, thriller and horror films, while at the same time trying to make us aware of the extraordinary in the everyday and commonplace. Dowling's greatest strength as a writer is the way he can describe the familiar in a way which makes it seem bizarre and often scary, but that frisson is often submerged here beneath references to the films and other sources which are its inspiration, and the names of the characters which suggest a collusion with the reader that isn't really there.

Nevertheless, "Downloading" is a very good story, and anyone reading it will not long forget the cleverly paced - almost gentle - lead up to that last desperate, breathless attempt to escape insanity made incarnate.

I don't know if Jack Dann's "Spirit Dog" (The Crow: Shattered Lives and Broken Dreams, HarperPrism, 1998) is an extract from his new novel about the US Civil War (The Silent), or just the fortuitous result of research he had to carry out for the book, but his depiction of what it might be like to be caught in the middle of one of that war's many bloody battles scared the dickens out of me. Dann is a superb writer, and it is frighteningly easy to be drawn into the worlds and histories he creates for us.

Edmund "Mundy" McDowell is a boy left home one Sunday while his parents go to Church. Although the sounds of Federals and Confederates skirmishing can be heard in the distance, civilians living in the area are grimly determined to continue on with their lives. Instead of studying the Bible as he should, Mundy goes out into the woods as soon as his parents are gone on the chance he might see some of the fighting.

What happens to him on that bloody Sunday, and to the people he cares about, makes for a surreal story, and the fact that incidents like this really happened during the Civil War (indeed, happen in every war), only adds to the strangeness.

But don't get me wrong; there's nothing supernatural about the bullets and bodies, the carnage and fear, but we see and experience all of this through Mundy's eyes and emotions, and his slant on the world is as loose and adaptable as any other child's, and not yet anchored in some adult version of reality.

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©1998 Simon Brown.
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