Book cover AlembicalAlembical :
a distillation of four novellas
edited by Lawrence M. Schoen & Arthur Dorrance
Bell Bell, Pa. : Paper Golem, 2008

A Review by
Colleen R. Cahill
February, 2009

An alembic is a tool used in distillation; it concentrates the essences of a fluid, such as wine to cognac.  This is just what editors Lawrence M. Schoen and Arthur Dorrance have aimed for in Alembical, a collection of  four novellas from Paper Golem.  As Schoen points out in his preface, there are few markets for novellas, which is sad as this is the “’ideal length’ for speculative fiction”.  Gathered here are the works of four top flight authors and these works are definitely some of the cognac of literature.

The collection begins Jay Lake, an author known for challenging works.  He does not disappoint with “America, Such as She Is”, set in a world where the Axis powers won World War II.  While this theme has echoes of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, Lake takes a different path, moving between several viewpoints, some that are memories, some imaginings and some things that you should “never forget”.  This is a work of both the familiar and the strange, an exploration of alternate history with the edginess of speculative fiction.

Bruce Taylor also uses memory in “13 Miles to Paradise!”.  We have all been stuck behind a slow driver, which is what happens to the Garnet family while they are going up Mount Rainer to a old favorite vacation spot called Paradise.  Each member of the family is wrapped in  their own thoughts, some of the past, some of the present, and many of each other.  Taylor brings all the annoyance, humor, stress and love there is in a family, and demonstrates that the past is with us today.

Murder in a small town is the start of “Harvest” by James Van Pelt, as three high school seniors deal with the  murder of the parents of a classmate.  While none are close to the boy accused of the killings, all are effected, especially Graham, who is still dealing with his mother’s recent suicide.  Each has their own view of the afterlife, from Christian to Pagan to skepticism, which are tested when the trio hold a séance.  While death is a theme, this story is really about friendship and love.

The book concludes with “Now You See Us” by Ray Vukcevich, with a couple who met at a concert coming together again in an archipelago in the Arctic Sea.  David is there to research an article on polar bears and Maggie is there to learn about time.  What both discover is the People of the Ice, a small village set in an environmental anomaly. These are just some of the mysteries Vukcevich brings to this work, taking us a fascinating place.

Alembical has achieved what is set out to do: it is a sterling collection of the essence of speculative fiction.  Like fine liquor, these stories to be savored, letting the varied emotions flow through.  Applause to Paper Golem and I hope that this is the first of many such works.