Contact is the latest installment in the Gothika series of anthologies, focusing on close encounters of the third-kind. Three of the four stories revolve around burgeoning intergalactic romance and the fourth centers on a pair of lovers dealing with the knowledge that humans are not alone.
In general, I really enjoyed the first three stories. The final one felt less compelling to me in comparison. One of the biggest differences is that the final story doesn’t align with the trope used in the other three (falling in love with an alien). Overall, though, if you’re interested in giving paranormal stories a shot, I think this is a great collection. I have read a couple other Gothika collections and my gut feeling is that this collection of four stories is a stronger showing that some of the works in earlier books. They are each roughly 80 pages in length, but each contains a well-rounded story and, surprisingly, not a single one of them comes across as shamelessly insta-lovey—no mean feat given the usual object of affection is someone the MC meets on-page.
Below are summaries of each of the stories and a few thoughts I have about each of them.
Abducted by Jamie Fessenden
After receiving panicked call from his old friend and sometimes-lover, Cody, Marc drives out into the boondocks to see how he can help. While the decrepitude is mildly shocking, it’s Cody’s crazy insistence that he’s being kidnapped that nearly scares Marc away. Seeing that Cody is a mere shadow of the smart, fastidious man he used to be convinces Marc to stay for one night—then, he plans to check Cody into a mental health facility and get his friend the help he clearly needs.
Except that chance never comes. During the night, a bright light floods Cody’s house and Marc sees his friend levitating out the window. Desperate to save his friend, and cursing himself for scoffing at Cody’s allegations of alien life forms, Marc tries to physically restrain his friend…only to be dragged out the second story window and a short drop.
Marc awakes not to aches and pains of face-planting out a second story window, but rather to a dimensionless room on an alien ship. A pair of beings come to his room looking not unlike the common grey-skinned, bug-eyed extraterrestrials popular in several media. But when the one called Dalsing speaks to Marc, he quickly learns that not everything is as it seems. If Marc hopes to help his friend, he will have to place his trust in the surprisingly human—and handsome—Dalsing.
This was a surprisingly entertaining read. Initially, I expected Marc and Cody to get together by the end of the story; however, it quickly becomes apparent that the idea is for Marc and Dalsing to get it on. Quite honestly, I was a little impressed at how Fessenden manages to bring the human and the alien together so satisfyingly. The sexual tension is present from the get-go, but the overall tone of Marc and Dalsing’s interaction doesn’t feel seedy. When they finally get together, there is enough on-page time to make me, at least, comfortable with their unconventional attraction.
I appreciated the effort that went into crafting a fairly original alien species. Dalsing’s people are still mostly human but just different enough to make Marc wary—their initial appearance is right in the depths of the uncanny valley, but the beings themselves are merely on the cusp. Descriptions of the alien technology are likewise detailed enough to provide a strong sense of ‘other’ without detracting from the on-page action.
The ending is mostly satisfying, if surprising. My biggest complaint there is that the story kind of low-key explodes from a story focused on Marcus and Dalsing and their interaction to include, well, all of mankind. For me, that felt pretty incongruous to throw in in the final pages, but then again…I suppose for an overall wrap up to a little one-shot story, it sounds more final than “and they lived happily ever after.”
Refugee by Kim Fielding
No longer able to connect to his family or his life after the horrors of being a medic during WWII, Walter Clark packs a duffle and strikes out from Chicago to Oregon in a beat-up old Ford. He finds a small, nearly forgotten yet beautifully vibrant small town called Kiteeshaa. Exhausted from traveling and wary of driving along the coastal highway where the crash of the ocean recalls to mind the din of war, he hopes to find a room in the Motor Court motel.
Despite only driving through, Walter finds inexplicable calm in the town. The small diner offers the kinds of home-cooking is dearly departed grandmother used to make. The woods surrounding the town soothe his unsettled thoughts and bring him a sense of contentment he didn’t think he’d find again. Even the cabin he’s rented allows him to sleep without the terror of nightmares. Best of all, the proprietor, Martin, seems genuinely interested in Walter. No mean feat in an age where two men can hardly walk about arm in arm.
Everything is moving so fast, but it feels so damn good. Walter soaks up as much as he can, enjoying the reprieve of being accepted before the good people of Kiteeshaa find out just how stained his soul is. Resolved to leave, Walter takes one last walk through the amazing town and happens to stumble upon its own secret. In a desperate moment rife with a mixture of war memories and inexplicable circumstances, Walter thinks he’s ruined everything…and everyone.
I’ll be the first one to admit that I didn’t have high hopes for this story. I’ve only read two Fielding books (Stasis and Flux) and I was a bit turned off. That said, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the various story elements pull together in this story.
This is another set-up where a human, unbeknownst to him, falls for an alien. What really worked for me is the strong sense of self I got from Walter—not all of it necessarily good, but here is a character who believes with all his being that he is who he is and that’s exactly what makes it hard for him to continue relating to others. Less clear is how closely Martin’s experiences mirror that, but it’s clear they are supposed to. That common connection doesn’t get explored on-page, but it’s the tread that tethers these two together. So if you enjoy reading about characters struggling to come to terms with who they are and learn to accept all that that entails (good, bad, and otherwise), you’d probably like the story.
The side characters are also peppered throughout the action. I liked the variety in cast and, because it’s pretty clear to the reader that the residents of Kiteeshaa are not exactly “native” despite having ten fingers and ten toes, I liked that they provided valuable insight into Martin’s people and how dissimilar they are to humans. The reader also finds out at the same time as Walter just how the Kiteeshaa-ians are physically different. Given Walter’s struggle with PTSD, the reveal is pretty spectacular and ramps up the angst to about 11. Yet we still get to end the story on a high note.
My Final Blog, by F.E. Feeley Jr.
For all intents and purposes, George is as average as they come. Average build, average height, average looks, average life—from growing up in the midwest, to serving in the military, to his current quite life on a small farm. His one outlet is a blog he’s maintained as a fanfare for the common man. Commenters come and go, offering up advice and tips and conversation before fading away…except for Universal47. That one commenter has followed George’s blog almost since its inception.
Like all average people, George sometimes entertains fantasies that Universal47 is riveted by his posts, that Universal47 is some highballing elite member of society, that Universal47 will somehow swoop in and add a spark to George’s life. Especially at times when George’s own on-again-off-again relationship with Joseph hits the skids, which it does often with an immature, self-centered lover like Joseph. Surprisingly, years of following George’s blog allows Universal47 to surreptitiously alter George to some underhanded and unsavory behavior of Joseph’s.
Little did George expect the nudge to break things off with Joseph would have quite the dire consequences that precipitate. Even knowing Universal47 is in his corner, there’s no guarantee it will be enough to get him through the fury of a lover scorned.
This one probably the story that had the biggest surprise and a pretty damn interesting way to deliver big on a big old HEA. I quite enjoyed the overall portrayal of George watching his feelings shift away from his crappy old boyfriend and grow towards his long-time moral supporter, Universal47. Given that George is our narrator and the insular nature of his narration (via blog posts, but it’s not really presented in an epistolary style), the reader gets a very strong sense of the character. The action often includes happenings with the other people in his life, which helps keep the reader from feeling “stuck” with one character.
Some of the prose comes across a bit…unpolished. As an unfortunate example, the introductory passages focus on highlighting just how “normal” and “average” George is, but then throws in the juxtaposition that he’s so ho-hum, he might as well be “alien.” Having gone through the whole story, I thought the opening was a bit weak. Maybe it was intended to be rhetorical? There are also some points where it’s hard to tell where in time the character.
Either way, the story packs a lot of intense emotion into a compact edition. Even though the sparks don’t fly between our main character and his romantic interest until quite late in the game (and are accompanied with the kind of angst that rings so true…that sense of finally, apparently, getting the one you want…but do you really want them?) the resolution does not disappoint. It is such a clever twist on a big reveal, I didn’t mind somewhat rushed commitment our hero makes.
Unusual Attention, by B.G. Thomas (Adam/Shane)
Shane is a cigarette smoking, baseball loving innocent; he’s the kind of person whose good looks usually aren’t enough to interest Adam into any type of pursuit. Yet when they meet at a Pride festival, he feels a definite spark. When Adam discovers Shane lives three hours away, he offers Shane a place to crash. One night was enough to fan that spark into a secret little flame and before Adam realizes it, he’s spending each weekend schlepping three hours away to spend time with Shane.
Until one night, he winds up making his usual “got home safe” call a full two hours after he was scheduled to clock in. Shane, however, does not accept that Adam somehow managed to lose two whole hours by simply being “mesmerized” by oncoming traffic and meandering to a stop on the road side. In fact, Shane has a whole different theory—alien abduction.
That bomb throws a wrench into the ever deepening feelings Adam has been developing for Shane. Just when Adam is convinced their relationship is doomed, however, Adam finds someone with some compelling stories to tell. Suddenly, everything Shane has tried to explain and everything Adam suspects might have happened one night during his childhood congeals. He finds himself in a race against the clock to meet up with Shane, to plead his case, to just make sure the man he can now admit he loves is safe—and, more importantly, if he’s willing to give Adam another chance.
Here was, for me, the one that really missed the mark. After a steady course of three stories that feature a human falling for an alien, I was primed for one more in the same vein. Unusual Attention, however, focuses on an unlikely relationship that develops between two humans—though there were teases that maybe Shawn was an alien, it’s becomes pretty clear that’s not the case.
I liked the pace of the action. No one section felt like it was detracting from the “main” story, but it does take a while for all the details to get teased out and bring the actual extraterrestrial element on-page. Since this comes at the end, it the reader is already prepped for a close encounter and if that doesn’t actually happen until late in the game, you know it’s coming—but if this were the first story, I think I’d feel like the alien bits were thrown in at the end just to cross of a challenge criteria. That said, there is plenty of the trope present.
In truth, the relationship between Adam and Shawn, at least insofar as it does not relate to their romantic compatibility, is most strongly shown in their similar experiences with unexplainable events. Thomas does a good job developing and building a solid base to support the alien theorist elements. What I mean by that is that there are constantly little “tells” that the reader gradually comes to understand are significant connections to alien life (even if not in the way described in the first three stories), then goes on to build a solid base to support the introduction of the whole alien life forms subculture (the books on abductions and the tricks to avoid them).
That said, the actual alien elements are introduced until very late in the game and, well, to what I thought was disappointing effect. For the characters, it was the best possible resolution to their problems. While I can’t argue with the big, syrupy love is love message that gets hyper reinforced at the end of the story, the method of delivery seemed entirely at odds with the tone of the rest of the story.
On the whole, it was an interesting story and I would have really liked to have seen more of the relationship dynamic between Adam and Shawn outside Adam’s realization he’s attracted to the kind of man he would say, if asked, he would never be interested in. As is, it’s a pretty good paranormal story but marred with a wonky ending.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.