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The Astonished Eye
Tracy Knight
PS Publishing, 192 pages

Alan M. Clark
The Astonished Eye
Tracy Knight
Tracy Knight's short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies embracing a variety of genres, including suspense, mystery, science fiction and horror. He has also written non-fiction focusing on a variety of psychological topics, including a chapter in the Writer's Digest book Writing Horror and a column for Mystery Scene magazine. He and his wife, Sharon, live in Carthage, Illinois, where he maintains a private practice in clinical psychology.

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A review by William Thompson

A reference to beat poet Kenneth Patchen's An Astonished Eye Looks out of the Air, this novel resonates with much of the same élan that invested the Beat Generation's poetry and fiction, both in tone and narrative theme, becoming, despite its dissemblance as contemporary science fiction and fantasy, a tale of quiet wonder and even more, a celebration of life and the human spirit.  Quirky, at times almost contemplative in its simple yet pregnant observations of the commonplace, The Astonished Eye is a metaphoric glimpse at hope found within the ordinary, renewal discovered in the nondescript pageantry of our daily lives, a recognition of ourselves and our brief existence as but an allegory to a leaf that falls from a tree on any autumn day, beauty unremarked but should we choose to notice.  A story of astonishment, not only at the grace within our shared experience but the obdurate willingness to ignore all evidence, this is a tale of magic dwelling more in what's neglected than perceived, becoming a Mystery and whodunit of itself.

Following the vicissitudes of two visitors (actually three, if one tallies the alien) to a small, rural town in downstate Illinois -- a region jokingly referred to as Forgottonia -- both arrive in Elderton seeking similar if not immediately associated goals.  Jeffrey Sprague is a runaway, a recidivist reject of the foster care system, searching desperately for "a new life role: the good kid, the one people liked, the one who belonged.  The one who [matters]."  Seemingly accepted without question by the community, his hope is that he has finally found a home.  Ben Savitch, on the other hand, is a cynical, wise-to-the-world reporter working for the tabloid, The Astonished Eye.  Following the lead of a UFO crashing somewhere in the vicinity, he returns to the town of his birth, assuming, even though he has not been back since age six, that his childhood connection just might open doors of information that might otherwise remain closed to an outsider.  Brooding over life's failures, a former graduate of Columbia who began his journalism career writing obits for a Podunk newspaper, he has since watched himself degenerate into a chaser of tall and fantastic tales for the tabloids, the incredible fed the credulous.  Ben has arrived in town looking for the big break, a news story that will make him a "somebody," transforming his unfulfilled past and present into a "future of fame and celebrity and meaning."

Jeffrey is taken in by a surrogate mother, a stunningly attractive woman "perfect" in every way, and Ben eventually locates his alien spacecraft, along with its lavender pilot.  However Elderton, for all its rustic, Mayberry-like charm and somnambulism, turns out to be a rather odd town, with some truly peculiar traditions and residents.  A dead girl wanders the streets, and children are taken blindfolded outside of town to an abandoned pound where files are kept containing scraps of clothing meant, through their smell, to reawaken communal memories.  The town gathers every year to watch the fall of the first leaf of autumn, and the spiritual leader of the community is a man claiming to be the Last Munchkin from the film The Wizard of Oz, who guides the populace by accurately foretelling the future.  Archives of the local paper contain no obituaries, and a blind man who lost his sight during a forgotten moment of "undiluted volition" accosts residents and strangers alike, demanding to be led.  Elderton is a community where "unusual things happen... all the time.  It's our blessing..."  But equally unsettling for Ben is his recurring experience of being recognized wherever he goes, the town's residents all recalling his childhood fondly, though he can remember "nothing" of his hometown or the time he spent there.  Soon enough, the oddities and eccentric residents of Elderton begin to compete with the UFO for Ben's attention, and he will find himself confronted with choices and dilemmas that will threaten his dreams of success just as they finally come within his grasp, leading to a conclusion that is entirely unexpected.  Similarly, Jeffrey will also be faced with options that are no less significant, and the decisions both characters will ultimately make will have indelible consequences, both for their own and the town's future, to say nothing of an alien and a reanimated comic book superhero (you'll just have to read the book!).

This whimsical, wry and often wondrous novel packs the surreal punch of the best of the Twilight Zone into a multifaceted, protean script that Serling would only have envied.  A work that lives up to the transitive verb of its title, The Astonished Eye offers the reader levels of meaning and reading at once direct and subtle, caricatured and earnest, as ephemerally tangible and heartfelt as the desire for belief inherent yet unreported in the headlines of either tabloid or traditional journalism: a search for the real story, a supposition that within what can be observed and recorded resides meaning and the truth.  Mulder says it's out there, but I suspect Terry Knight might suggest looking closer to home.  In many ways, despite its manner of expression, this is arguably an old-fashioned affirmation, a recognition and acceptance of the ineffable disguised in modern, speculative prose, and a remembrance of values and notions lost in the dissociative social contract of urban living or the more recent illusion of community touted as binary communication. 

Told with both humor and an always engaged humanity, some time has passed since I last read a novel with so much thought and ability condensed into a single slim and conceptually compressed novel.  Known almost entirely for his short fiction, The Astonished Eye signally marks Knight's first foray into the speculative novel, and hopefully is but the start of more to come.  A memorable beginning, for the author as well as the publisher, Peter Crowther's PS Publishing, both of which until now have specialized in short stories or novellas, and an auspicious merger of fortune, it would appear. However, if you wish to read this remarkable novel you will need to look beyond the usual retailers' shelves.  To date, PS Publishing has devoted itself to the publication of limited, signed editions by some of the most notable authors writing speculative fiction today.  Therefore, if you wish to enjoy this novel, you will need to order it directly from the publisher: Fortunately, the book is more than worthy of the expenditure and effort to obtain it.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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