Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterFlight or Fright
Edited by Stephen King and Bev Vincent
Hodder and Stoughton, 332pp
“Our lives always hang by a thread,” Stephen King writes in his introduction to “Flight or Fright,” an anthology of weird tales that unfold aboard airplanes, “but that is never more clear than when descending into LaGuardia [Airport in New York] through thick clouds and heavy rain.”
Clouds and rain are the least of the worries of the passengers and crew in the collection’s 16 stories and one poem. There are no snakes on these planes, but Bev Vincent, who edited the anthology together with King, contributes a story called “Zombies on a Plane.” Other tales feature murderers, ghosts, gremlins, revenge-seekers and several varieties of time travelers.
Only two of the pieces are brand new — one each by King and his son, the novelist Joe Hill — but about half were originally published since 2000. The older ones date back as far as 1899, the year of a three-paragraph gag by Ambrose Bierce about credulous investors sinking their money into a “flying machine” that they don’t understand.
The second-oldest story is one of the best. “The Horror of the Heights,” by Arthur Conan Doyle, came out in 1913 — only 10 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight — but it is set in an imagined future in which pilots reach such extreme altitudes that they discover a whole new ecosystem. It’s based on a wispy, plankton-like mist on which peaceful creatures resembling translucent gas-filled jellyfish feed. Further up the food chain, there are monsters no pilot would want to meet. The story’s final, vivid image leaves a lasting impression.
Moving toward modern times, there are stories by Roald Dahl, drawing on his Royal Air Force experience in World War II; Ray Bradbury, imagining the mystery of flight being solved in ancient China; and Richard Matheson, whose story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” became a famous “Twilight Zone” episode. From U.S. Air Force veteran James Dickey, best remembered as the author of “Deliverance,” there is a poem imagining an airline stewardess making the long fall to earth after being blown out of a defective door.
Back in the present day — or perhaps next week — Hill’s black comedy “You Are Released” is another of the best, weaving together nine characters’ points of view as their flight is rerouted for reasons that include the message: “Sorry about this, ladies and gents. Uncle Sam needs the sky this afternoon for an unscheduled world war.”
As for King himself, his story “The Turbulence Expert” includes the line, “The plane seemed to run into a brick wall.” Nearly these exact words also appear in his introduction to the book, when he recounts an incident in the 1980s when a small plane he was in had a near-miss with a 747. It was “caught in its exhaust, and tossed like a paper airplane in a gale.” King says the episode cured him of his fear of flying, as it showed the extreme abuse a plane can take and keep on going.
In a book that’s meant to be scary, that anecdote is oddly reassuring.
Where to read
At the airport, if you’re feeling bold. Leave it for a traveler to find, if you’re feeling wicked.