OK, I'll admit it: when I was first asked to do a double review of The Empire of Ice Cream and Black Pockets, I was immediately tempted to surrender to clichés and shallowness. A cliché in the respect of making this review a "light versus dark" piece, Ford's "light" to Zebrowski's "dark." And shallow because I should have known better — that any stories by those two solid authors could be so easily dealt with, categorized, explained away. If I could have done so then neither of them would have risen to the level of prominence they've achieved, and the stories in both anthologies certainly wouldn't have lingered in my mind the way they have, nagging me with questions and prodding me not to look away from the questions and conclusions many of them induced.
That said, however, I will also admit that both authors described their work to me with passages from their own stories.
. . .
George Zebrowski likewise provided me a good opening description of Black Pockets: the POV character in his story "The Wish in the Fear" says of his dark dreams:
"...But the more frightening possibility was that a series of ordinary, even logical steps might lead to (his end) surreptitiously, remaining concealed until it was too late. He suspected that there was some train of events that might make it happen, some arcane dovetailing of circumstances that would make it come out that way, or even worse, convince him that it was the necessary thing to do."
Such a way of telling stories, of course, runs the risk that the tale will be ham-handed, too reliant on coincidences, or disallow the possibility of the protagonist being an active participant in the events rather than meekly being swept along by them. Fortunately, Zebrowski is more than seasoned enough to recognize this trap and he avoids it deftly; the most horrific circumstances seem coldly logical, perhaps even unavoidable — in retrospect — yet never forced, unless the characters "force" them by acting.
When I was first asked to review this book I balked; horror is not my usual read, and much of what I have read held little appeal for me. But in many of Zebrowski's stories the horror is subtle, or not in a place you would expect, or it doesn't strike you until the story slams you with its ending. In any case, it isn't your traditional horror, but the effects may be no less chilling for all that.
One of the best examples of this fiddling around with the genre is his story "My First World." On the surface it appears to be an SF story in the best tradition of wonder: the protagonist is a 21-year-old who is only now beginning to learn the true nature of his world, a carved-out meteor fashioned into a jail for his and his friends' parents five decades before. Here, the horror has happened offstage, decades before his birth: violent revolutions, betrayals of the revolutionaries, and their myriad tortures before [being] sentenced to a wide orbit around the sun. And yet the horror becomes the catalyst for a new wonder-filled human society that promises the long-term survival of the species.
In other stories, a short-term horror becomes the means to save oneself from something more dreadful. The short-short "Earth Around His Bones" is almost more of a vignette than a full-fledged story, yet packs a great deal of nightmare into its small space. The protagonist of this tale endures, second-hand, another's ongoing nightmare yet ultimately (though he doesn't realize it at the time) this spares him from the same fate.
The "political horror" stories "I Walked with Fidel" and "General Jarulzelski at the Zoo" are effective demonstrations of the horrors despotic political regimes can slam down on their societies. In "Fidel," the Cuban dictator has become a zombie who is forced to entertain people by answering their challenges, to answer for his decades of repression. In "General," the ruler of Communist Poland is forced to endure occasional flashes of the starvation pangs the animals are suffering as if trading places with the animals themselves, until, locked away in the virtual cage of his own office, he endures a hungry epiphany.
The book is divided into three categories, its horrors growing increasingly deep and subtle with each advance: "Personal Terrors" brings us the immediate horror of the surface. "Political Horrors" spreads it out through society (though remaining on a personal level), diluting nothing in the spreading. And then comes "Metaphysical Fears," which asks greater questions such as the nature of Christ, the source of creativity, and the impact of humanity on the universe . . . and with greater questioning comes greater consequences in the answering. The concluding story, "Lords of Imagination," manages to combine the narrator's own personal horror (as the editor of an SF magazine who witnesses the probable death of science fiction) against the backdrop of the potential devastation that could follow humanity's — more specifically, his — unleashing on the universe just how dark our imaginations and creativity can be.
(And Zebrowski discusses his stories in the afterword, which of course pleased me.)
Not all of Zebrowski's stories are "complete" — that is, without traditional endings as such (or textured that way), and the reader is often left hanging. But as the author points out in his afterword, this was intentional, geared towards a specific effect which he usually achieved: ". . . Pascal's terror of endlessness, the infinities that he saw lurking at every window. . . . A story is a well-polished piece of infinity with the illusory fence around it, and you wouldn't want to get to the end of what exists outside that fence." Zebrowski's work often does leave you hanging, but with that unsettled certainty that you very likely don't want to go any farther.
Which, strangely, in Zebrowski's case, is morbidly satisfying.
— Danny Adams, Some Fantastic, Issue #9, Summer 2006