Arthur C. Clarke meets Edgar Allan Poe and Franz Kafka in these dark, dense stories.
Holt is a crafter of words as well as a believer in the magical potency of The Word, for many of his stories have as their theme the power of a single word. In “? ????s,” for example, a five-year-old girl is brought to an emergency room with bruises on her hands, cheeks, forehead and arms, bruises that form a mysterious word she utters just before she dies. The physical transference of this word (also in bruises) to others forms first an epidemic and then a plague. In “My Father’s Heart,” the nameless narrator literally keeps his father’s heart in a glass jar, but by allegorical extension this artifact becomes an image of his love, guilt and pain. The chilling “Charybdis” introduces us to a mission to Jupiter gone awry. Two of the three astronauts on board go insane and leave the ship, with predictably fatal results, while the third, the narrator, has harrowing conversations with mission control that make it clear he is also struggling with issues of psychological autonomy. The title piece is more of a novella than a short story. Here a scholar of Egyptian antiquities has participated in uncovering the tomb of Nur-Mar, but he has also contracted a fatal disease borne by an unknown pathogen. His quest is to discover the meaning of a cryptic papyrus he has stolen from the tomb, a papyrus that he hopes will lead him to a mysterious “‘word of hidden meaning.’” The “dangerous madness” he attributes to the silence of Nur-Mar’s dynasty mirrors his own obsession and paranoia.
Stories for those who wish to enter enigmatic and uncomfortable spaces.