For the next few reviews here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer, I’ve decided to temporarily take a step back from reviewing long-form works like novels and anthologies, and instead try and concentrate on individual short stories and novelettes released by authors independently of their own collections, or a multi-author anthology. One of my favourite things to do on this blog is track down individual stories released by authors, especially in the Horror genre, as I’ve often found that these solo stories are often even more imaginative, engaging and affecting than those found in wider collections. Over the past few weeks I’ve managed to come across a variety of different short stories that seem to sit comfortably in the ‘Weird Horror’ subgenre, perhaps my most favourite part of the entire genre, and I’ll be reviewing each of these stories in turn. I’ve absolutely loved all of them, and it’s my hope that you will as well – especially as they’re all by new or emerging authors in the genre who deserve a turn in the spotlight.
The next short story to be reviewed in this series is Silver Sky from J.D. Allen, an author I’ve only recently become acquainted with after reading his fantastic novella, They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara! which deftly and intelligently told a parallel story based on Romero’s classic film, Night of the Living Dead. Impressed by his work, I decided to see what else Allen had published, and came across Silver Sky – described in the back-cover blurb as a ‘metaphorical horror story’. That certainly wasn’t a term I’d come across before, but based on the strength 9f his novella, I decided to download the story and take a look. From the very start, it becomes evident that Allen knows how to weave a compelling and quietly horrifying story; the initial focus on an elderly couple and the tragic, deeply emotional , and daily consequences of dementia leads into something even more terrifying, when retiree Wanda Whadell suddenly finds herself floating into the sky, unable to stop herself from a fatal (though not one-way) trip into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, this isn’t a one-off occurrence, but in fact the start of a bizarre global pandemic. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that around the world, senior citizens suffering from degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s are becoming affected by what the media dubs ‘Silver Sky syndrome’, suddenly floating up into the sky unless restrained or blocked by something solid. There seems to be no solution to it, or effective way of combatting the condition, especially as it starts to affect those who are only in the earliest stages of the disease. Allen deftly switches between the struggles of those with Alzheimer’s and their relatives and loved ones, and a global perspective, effortlessly drawing us into this strange, confusing and inexplicable situation.
Now, if this had just been a slice of weird horror about elderly people floating into the atmosphere due to some inexplicable force suddenly appearing in the world, then I would still have given Silver Sky a highly favourable review, because it’s skilfully written and cleverly plotted. But what escalates it into the territory of ‘genuinely memorable horror’ is the way that Allen deftly and knowledgably blends supernatural horror with the very real and human horrors of dementia and Alzheimer’s experienced by the elderly (and indeed not so elderly as it progresses) in our society. Because you see, while this story is theoretically, superficially, about this global pandemic and the struggle with Silver Sky syndrome, not far under its surface lurks a far more complex and painful story, an emotionally raw and deeply uncomfortable one that Allen expresses through haunting and often utterly heartbreaking prose.
As Allen explores the pain and horrors of advancing age and the horrific effects of diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s on older members of society, he highlights just how emotionally and physically painful it can be to experience the symptoms of these diseases, and also the stress and heartache experienced by those caring for partners and loved ones afflicted by these diseases. But Allen also refuses to pull any punches when he openly confronts the poor and often abusive treatment of the elderly once they become of little use to family and society. The way in which those afflicted with these horrific, personality-destroying diseases are often abandoned like so much human detritus in care homes that are, at best, able to keep them warm and comfortable; and very often far, far less than that. Allen sensitively and unflinchingly explores the notion of having to let go of someone when these diseases progress sufficiently far that they are – horrifyingly – no longer the person that we knew, loved, and grieved for; in the story, the pandemic is as much metaphorical as it is literal, and while many authors of lesser skill and ability might have stumbled here, Allen delivers the story flawlessly
When I started Silver Sky I will readily admit that I was expecting a dose of weird, maybe metaphorical horror, based on the skill that Allen had demonstrated with his undead novella. I was completely unprepared for the raw, emotional and often deeply uncomfortable gut-punch of a story that Allen provided instead. It would not be an exaggeration at all to say that it absolutely floored me; with the sole exception Bracken MacLeod’s Back Seat (in Crystal Lake Publishing’s Lost Highways anthology) this may well be the piece of horror short fiction that’s affected me the most, and even now I cannot help but think back to certain passages of it that continue to subtly haunt me with their predictions of what might be in store for myself or my loved ones. I realised that J.D. Allen was a talented author thanks to reading They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara! but finishing Silver Sky has proven that he is on another level altogether – there are horror authors I have been reading for years that have not managed to pack into entire novels the disquieting, haunting horror that Allen has poured into this one story. Silver Sky is a hidden gem of the horror genre, one that needs to be read as widely and as frequently as possible, and I for one intend to make it as widely known as I possibly can. Read this story now, and then go and talk to your parents and your grandparents and your loved ones – especially in times like this.