NIGHT LIVES 

by Phyllis Eisenstein
(with Alex Eisenstein) 

Five Star Press

0-7862-4958-7

311pp/$25.95/May 2003

Night Lives
Cover by Ed Emshwiller

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


“In the Western Tradition” is only the first story in the collection to deal with obsessions about a person. This story is perhaps the most science fictional of all the tales in Night Lives, looking at a company which provides time viewing for scholars interested in the past.  Eisenstein makes it clear that there can be no communication between the subject and the viewer.  The story takes its form when Alison, one of the technicians, develops an unfathomable obsession on one of her subjects and her lover/coworker, Barry, must try to figure out what has caused the changes in her.  The story is a little on the long side and does not fully satisfy, leaving certain aspects of the Barry-Alison-James triangle in the air.

Although Alaric’s story in “The Island in the Lake” seems a straight forward tale of a stranger come to a legendary lake and solving a mystery, in this case the illness of the lord’s heir, Eisenstein brings an interesting, if subtle, twist to the expected story which turns out to be almost a tale of how the ruled can ruled over their overlords.  Her characters are interesting and well defined, although the villain is easily identifiable.  She provides background in a manner which suggests that the characters, especially the secondary characters, haves lives which are independent of the story Eisenstein has to tell.

“Nightlife” is the story which provides the title for the collection.  It is also a story which ties two of the collections themes together.  As in other stories, dreams and their relation to reality are a central focus of “Nightlife,” as is obsession with another person.  Jane has tremendous lucid dreaming abilities and comes to believe that a recurring character in her dreams, Jack, is a real person.  Her escape into her dreams and then her desire to discover who Jack is allow to improve a small part of the world with a little philanthropy.

Returning to the idea of obsessions about a person, “Wallpaper World,” co-written with spouse Alex Eisenstein, focuses on Edward’s obsession with a woman who rides his bus to work.  Following a series of dreams about the unknown woman, a theme which will also appear in “Altar Ego,” also written in collaboration with Alex, Edward tracks down the woman and forms a relationship with her, only to discover that dreams have more power than simply to inspire.

In “Subworld,” Eisenstein explores the tunnels and warrens of a big city subway, creating in it an escapist world for those who no longer wish to face the harsh realities of their day to day lives.  Narrated by an unnamed father describing the weekend visits he has with his young son, he relates his son’s love for the bustle of the subway, particularly the discovery of the mice which live in the tunnels.  “Subworld” is a bittersweet story of love and duty, although the father never fully seems to connect to his son.

“Altar Ego” takes a look at a man who has felt an avocation for the priesthood since his earliest childhood.  Now that Father Stephen has attained his goal, he has found himself wracked by dreams of a sensual nature.  The two Eisensteins, for this story is also written in conjunction with Alex, do a good job describing the nearly succubal dreams and the priest’s methods of dealing with them, rejecting all thought that he has made the wrong choice of career.  The ending of “Altar Ego” may be the most surprising ending of stories in Night Lives, in which many of Eisenstein’s endings manage to be both telegraphed and surprising.

Eisenstein looks at vengeance in “The Amethyst Phial,” in which her protagonist, Tayis, relates the tale of her desire for vengeance on Lord Caral, who destroyed her father’s holdings and killed her family.  Tayis is mirrored by a captain of Lord Almyn’s guard who also has a hatred for Lord Caral and has vowed vengeance.  The story is a powerful tale of the importance of motive when carrying out an act and how an apparent act of vengeance can be stripped of all negative connotations when it lacks the accompanying hatred.

“Dark Wings” relates how Lydia, who has lived a cloistered life taking care of her parents, remains apart from the world following their death, giving herself into her art and the pattern she established while they lived.  However, the sight of an eagle on a moonlit night and her attempts to capture the beauty of what she saw present her possible desire to escape from the cage of her own making, no matter than cost.

Alex Eisenstein once again joins Phyllis for the final story in the volume, a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty.”  For those who only know the story through sanitized versions offered for children, this form of the tale, which hearkens back to older source material, will be something of a surprise. 

In the Western Tradition Altar Ego
The Island in the Lake The Amethyst Phial
Nightlife Dark Wings
Wallpaper World Sleeping Beauty:  The True Story
Subworld  

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