23 thoughts on “Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air – Eric Schaller



    Depending on Dr Jacob’s handling of them, his plants would later bloom accretively or abruptly, an astonishing paragraph of description that it would be a spoiler to quote. In hindsight, it is a token of how this story itself was written. I haven’t read it for a number of years, but it’s even more powerful and disturbing than I remember it. A story of the long term aligning of today’s crystallised memory with the truth of what is remembered piecemeal as a series of Proustian moments captured intermittently throughout life, with a later moment (you are old now and a child then) when you are shown an abrupt photographic mnemonic creating agonising quandaries as to what others saw then and what you see now. Do the moments of temporarily withdrawn narrative omniscience seem a haunting evidence of a lie to oneself, a lifetime of being in denial? Or are they the aftermath of being in denial all his life because he trusted an adult as a child in an overweening self-deception and it takes a cataclysm to shift that memory into its rightful course? It is a truly remarkable story.


    I happen already to be concurrently reading and reviewing (here) ‘The Lie Tree’, a novel (winner of the Costa Book of the Year 2015) by Frances Hardinge and, although I am only about a third of the way through it and having just this minute reacquainted myself with this short story, the two works seem rewardingly complementary, despite being otherwise quite different in many ways. But, as an aside, in the old days, did they really pose newly dead children in photographs, sitting among the rest of the family, as a memory of their lives?

    Regular readers of my reviews since 2008 will know that I often trace such synchronicities within the work being reviewed and with other works as part of my critique. So, I was delighted to note the incredible synchronicity at the end of Eric Schaller’s Author Note preceding the stories.


    “…and dragged itself, defying gravity, up the five floors required to reach their window.”

    Defying gravity, as the flow of blood in a memory of Dr Jacob was not always dictated by it, too.
    An engagingly absurdist, Pearlmanesque treatment of a modern relationship, where the man’s alcohol-brewed snoring attracts a maritally benign parasite into his body, well, arguably benign, casting obliquely enlightening slants on our moments of being in denial, gender stereotyping, progeny spawning, autonomous concupiscence and speaking with forked tongue.
    With Muppet characters as the ‘objective correlatives’…


    “; and an unspoken desire to be accepted for secrets that he refuses to divulge to even his closest friends.”

    More lies as well as secrets?
    Alan, a gravy, if not a gravity, stain on his tie, visits the mid20thc Ashmolean Museum, — on an away day from Bletchley Park where he cracks codes and uncavorts with his fiancée Joan. (Earlier this morning I coincidentally visited a similar museum in Tainaron here). I suspect this story is another Schaller Classic, one, this time, that I have not read before. (I am very proud to have been the first publisher of the earlier Dr Jacob story in 2002). TURING TEST has a light oblique, but deceptively and evocatively textured style, of this visit by Turing to the museum, and his surveyance and interaction with the human-like automata (only on view to special visitors like him). I will not spoil it by telling you of the nature of those automata or what they do, but the gestalt is a combination of leitmotifs poignantly touching, ASByattian, acidly in tune with the ‘marital’ sideswipes in ‘The Parasite’, bearing much artful irony – and eventually emanating provocative wisdom upon the orienteering strictures then and now of romantic love.


    “As his friend Bob liked to say, we’re all alcoholics, and anyone who tells you different is just an alcoholic in denial.”

    Just because someone says something, doesn’t make it true. But when an author narrates a brand new Monty Python sketch that a man and his bedside lamp can have a conversation, as they do in this story, any reader might remain in denial that tomorrow this could happen to him or her. This work lends a slant to Existentialism that transcends both truth and lie, hence reality and fiction, death and reincarnation, the possibility of intelligent aliens from outer space, indeed all manner of philosophical extrapolations cleverly filtered via the literature of absurdity. It is also poignant concerning the protagonist’s relationship with his son, the precarious nature of nurture, of means and ends.
    Meet me in the middle between projected self and felt self. But who ‘the parasite’ of whom?
    Anyone who enjoys this type of work would also enjoy the work of Neil James Hudson (reviewed here).


    A short short that is a triangulated theme-and-variations on the Sisyphus Myth, a thoughtful fable that will recurrently make you sub-vocalise the incantatory sentence:
    “Three men are rolling stones in the forest.”
    even beyond the end.


    “Gustave Flaubert is quoted as saying, ‘I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.'”

    On the craft that the alien lamp-parasite used to reach you?
    A crown that is a sensitised or felt hat, unless it appears to be made of wood as is shown above? Or a fungal crown?
    At first, I thought this would be self-conscious extrapolations from writing fiction towards a personal gestalt. But, rather, it is a clever way to provide a thread to build a character called Mary and her inferred plot from the various triangulations that other famous writers have coordinated upon this general artform. Well, not exactly coordinated by them, but by Schaller’s being the revelator in this work. I particularly loved the loneliness of the author and reader, together, and many other aspects that add to the paranoia of this section of fused fictions (now ended) called ‘They’re coming after me.”
    When I next pick up this book, I shall expect to see, as lonely reader, what indeed comes after.

    “In spite of what your English teacher may have told you, there are no hidden meanings in stories.”


    8) – 5.8

    “The tiniest of men might be a giant, if judged by his shadow in the dying of the day.”

    I hesitate to call this another classic story, for fear of praise attrition, but this is indeed a classic. It embraces a Swiftian modest proposal for ‘petits’ (petits or ‘clones’ (?) of famous dead people with their young adult owners or creators.)
    This phenomenon of petits is beautifully couched and made believable and is subject to the previous story’s ‘pathetic fallacy’ (cf Poe’s House of Usher), placing them in the conjured environments from their namesakes’ real lives, Jason’s petit being Edgar and his friend Cynthia’s petit being Marilyn. Schaller’s Swiftian POEtic combined with a feel of a Truman Capote sensibility. (Here is my earlier review of Capote’s petitification of Marilyn Monroe in ‘Music for Chameleons and here my earlier relevant review of a Poe work.)
    Fantasy as a Cloud Kingdom, where ‘cloud’ pertains more to electronic futurism than to skies.
    Even an appearance of Manet by inferred reference.
    The sometimes concupiscent relationship of Jason (15 years old) and Cynthia (17years old) is seen meaningfully in parallel with the hilariously unlikely one of the Edgar and Marilyn petits, part of which latter relationship involves a trip in a balloon (Meet Me In the Middle of the Air?)
    It is all perfectly done, and the poignant but implied petit-feisty ending of 8) – 5.8 is a stroke of genius.


    “Crystal made me believe that I could be a superhero. Not that I was a superhero. Just that the possibility existed.”

    Fiction can do that, too.
    This is a gradually involving tale of a moving (moving in its dual meaning) commune of a few hippyish (?) people from the point of view of one of them – portraying another’s manufacture of crystal as a sort of a “meeting me in the middle of the air” substance, if you see what I mean, even though that is not an expression used by the text itself. The ambiance and characterisations share a similar soul or spirit as some of the fiction of Ursula Pflug, and I mean that as a compliment to both writers, complementing each other as they do. (As an aside, the previous story’s text possibly used the word ‘complement’ in the wrong sense?)
    The ending of the Schaller is another of his masterstrokes, not only in the last powerfully ‘reflective’ scene itself spread over the last couple of pages but also in the specifics of the potentially dual repercussions (one positive, the other negative) of the very last sentence itself. (Cf also the magic realism of ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ by Peter Carey.)


    In a Harold Pinter play, voices do not carry; they fall between the gaps and pauses. This short short is a sort of Pinter play, but the voices carry by means of flying insects from mouth to mouth. Featuring four of the types of character from the Crystal Vision ambiance, it is an excruciating sign of our times. It will fly into your mind – and stick there.


    “She smiled, but the smile of a woman can mean anything.”

    In this substantive story, I could imagine I had entered the world of nursery rhymes – for real!
    The events unfold around me in a sort of rough environment of some inchoate Chaucerian pub, where ‘meeting in the middle of the air’ is now more by sottish pots of beer than hippy or high class cocaine, though cocaine is mentioned at the end. A world where mercenary tricks are made and sparrows are mumbled. The concept of John Ashbury inveigled, by pugilist John Bull, from pub boozing into being a fairground peon, with the apparent ability to fail (by succeeding) or succeed (by failing) in his contraptive interface with the showman machinations of a sparrow on a tether – well, there you have half of it, the other half being John’s chequered career with women, some of which we are destined to witness.
    A seminal conjuring in and out of a personhood. Even an ‘Achilles heal’.
    Sap in the pot, Sap in the pot,
    Makes John less than not.


    An intriguing two-page threesome as ‘the world, the universe, everything’ where a dance of these three human automata airbrush the ape that made them. A lesson for us all. Who is represented by the ape? Probably an alter ego of the brown-capped Dreamcatcher above. Which makes me wonder if this Cabinet 42 was one of the 87 here?
    I quickly close the door and get my coat…


    “But he wondered what would have happened if he had continued digging, if he had held on to the shovel just a little longer.”

    As a complement to CRYSTAL VISION and to the equivalent absurdist version of spirited horse-whispering as tethered sparrow-mumbling, this story is a fable of Todd’s schooldays memories, when he started symbolically digging life’s constant search for purpose, potentially digging that proverbial hole deeper and deeper, here encouraged by a hardwork Thatcherite vision of a girl as a sort of magic realist companion seen and unseen as a poeticisable muse throughout his life, until, with existence besieged by social media, surveillance, wifely attrition and night owl yearnings, he falls into the trap he set himself, finding those ‘crystal vision’ shards disguised as snow and ice. Death as numb white-out. Death’s never black.
    The fable’s moral: the tether always works in both directions of pull.
    Whispering or mumbling, voices that never carry.


    Hemogoblin more like! A highly poetic, visceral prose-symphony in movements based on a woodblock print, we’re told, a sacrifice not on a block of wood, but hung from the ceiling, hanging young pregnant women by a naked old woman with her own dugs hung… Meeting halfway in the air as a median rather than the middle as an average.
    All this with a theme-and-variations upon rare blood types and their colours, and stemming from vampiric yearnings, I infer, or misguided hopes of rejuvenation.
    The work is highly human through its use of human words as description yet deftly not human at all, with the words turning inward to something far more primeval than humanity. Not anti-natalism so much as a fetal-fatal rite. On pink floorboards.



    A disarmingly brainstorming monologue about the nature of death and associated beliefs in mind over matter etc. More a sort of wife-whispering than sparrow-mumbling.


    And the male monologuist in the previous short short turns up here, I guess…talking about similar considerations of death, wifely bereavement and mind over matter…

    “More like mumbling a mile a minute because the words tumbled out of him like an avalanche of mushy boulders. I hoped it was a monologue. Then I could treat him like ambient noise.”

    Mushy boulders, ambient noise, ‘cone zero’ or ‘conezero’, an accident with an icicle, an accident in a car with shattered glass, coffee crystals, cervical cancer, a desiccation of inner mouth or back of head into jointed creatures – all forming, for me, a sort of ‘crystal vision’ again – here, not through pub talk or small talk, but what I shall now call ‘commuting talk’ between one place and another… A talk as a disturbing story of staccato stoicism through tapering absurdism. Deeply poignant, too.
    As with the Dr Jacob story, I am proud to have been this story’s first publisher in Nemonymous (this one in the Cone Zero edition). Attenuation to a sharp point. You still feel it even if there is nothing there.


    “His books were the children he had never had, the victims of untimely deaths at the hands of publishers and a diminished audience,…”

    …diminished like another attenuated cone zero?
    This is an absolutely hilarious and satirically telling account of Paul Slate, a now relatively well known SF writer who started in the fanzines…
    His reading aloud – of his ‘The Beast of Arcturus’ (a story with a pay-off a bit like HPL’s ‘The Outsider’) – is at a SF convention but there only turns up one fan in a basement room to listen: Paul’s number one fan as this individual claims who later starts snoring loudly during the reading in a sort of Lovecraftian snoring language…
    Well, that is not the final outcome, because we are eventually led to a scenario, even more hilarious, and now poignant, which reminds me of my surprise 50th birthday party in 1998 at the Princess Louise pub in London, where I gradually started vaguely recognising individuals from my writerly past in different parts of the pub…
    Even a ‘filkish’ fan was there at that surprise gathering in my honour – filking not being a typo but a form of godawful SF folk-singing. But as to typos, Paul Slate as a small boy muddled the letters j and g. Jesus and God, I wondered? And which is right – ‘plebian’ as this story and another story in this book have it, or ‘plebeian’?
    I loved this story, mainly for personal reasons, so could not be objective about its intrinsic quality. It has lots of funny things in it I haven’t covered here, all engagingly described.

    Going back for what got left behind.
    Ain’t no grave gonna keep my body down.


    I confirm that I have not yet read this book’s STORY NOTES, BY ENOCH SOAMES and, as is my general wont, I won’t do so until after I have finished this real-time review of the fiction itself. I will also mention that I have noticed that there is a sub-title to this book on the title page: DARK MIRACLES AND BLACK COMEDIES, and this story seems to be the Samuel Reinhold Dark Miracle equivalent of the previous Paul Slate Black Comedy, with a general thrust of an emotional audit trail as a rite of passage in two completely different fields of life.

    “You may fight us, you may shoot us, you may kill us, but we will still come back and destroy you.”

    This story is a hard-hitting collage of a believable near future involving an experimental genetically engineered fighter of wars in eastern deserts, a deeply affecting collage that interfaces his relationship with his daughter and wife, between the daughter and her mother and their pet cat, and insights of the authorities behind the incident that relate to friendly fire etc. And when I say ‘hard-hitting’, that is only half of it. Has to be read. For the striking style to be fully absorbed – and processed, if you can.


    “For this reason, the witch’s parents, although compelled by tradition to bless their child with a Christian name, always called her Our Little Miracle.”

    An engaging mind-throwaway to keep – one that is about a witch and various strange births that embody the Legs, Hands and Eyes creatures who evolve into her familiars like a party Consequences games.
    A blend of bright miracle and white comedy.
    “She called such sunbeams The Devil’s Tongue.”
    I know I harp on about synchronicities and, even though this is true, I don’t believe you will believe me when I say there are too many brain-itching interconnections to itemise between this particular story and two publications that I happen to be concurrently reviewing here and here. Three familiars together indeed!
    “By month’s end, Legs was thick around as the witch’s little finger, her abdomen smooth and pale as a mushroom cap.”
    I am a pareidoliac.

    “Winter came and the two familiars buried Eyes in a snowdrift, impaled her on an icicle, and lashed her to the top of the Christmas Tree.”


    If the previous story was an engaging throwaway to keep – this mock ‘Are You…?’ Multiple Choice Quiz is not engaging nor something I should keep. (And it uses a dubious complement instead of compliment again?)
    Thus, its title turns out to be an ironic question for me!
    It may work for you, though.
    Never mind, this is a more a bonus track on a Napalm Death LP…

    This book as a whole, meanwhile, is a genuinely great collection, with many stories that will stay with me, three or four of which are classic masterpieces of the genre.
    I hope I have done the book justice.


  20. I have now read the fulsome STORY NOTES, by the pre-beer born Enoch Soames, and I am glad I have done so. It is a more worthy climax that re-sensitises me. It is also a real-time review of this collection in itself and probably a more worthy one than mine, from his knowing Schaller in a writer’s group setting. But being reminded of Nemonymous in this essay, I wonder if that is the case. My ‘take them as they come texts’ approach has much to recommend it. Crystallising the vision of story by story without recourse to authorial intention tends to make the Dr Jacobean memory a current experience – in a preternatural way. I claim I have captured the soul of this book, while Soames’ captive is merely the author he knows. I’ve been word-whispering, Soames mumbling I know not what. His essay, meanwhile, is a significant contribution to the triangulation of this book, because, with each take upon its coordinates, we garner more of its sheer power as art and entertainment.
    (I was pleased to see the word ‘peon’ in Soames’ essay, because I happened to use it earlier in my own review above. Quite a synchronicity, one that excited me … Until I realised he probably meant ‘paean’.)

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