Flight or Fright is an uneven anthology of air travel horror stories. Some of the stories, like "Cargo," "Diabolitos," and "Air Raid" succeed brilliantly in their modest way. Stories by Tom Bissell and Dan Simmons, on the other hand, reek of over-determined sanctimony and petty bourgeois moralizing.
A mixed bag.
Cargo • (2008) by E. Michael Lewis
An unnerving and moving story.
"Take a seat anywhere," I told them. "I'm Tech Sergeant Davis. We'll be wheels up in less than a half hour so make yourself comfortable."
The kid stopped short. "You didn't tell me," he said to the nurse.
The hold of a StarLifter is most like the inside of a boiler room, with all the heat, cooling, and pressure ducts exposed rather than hidden away like on an airliner. The coffins formed two rows down the length of the hold, leaving a center aisle clear. Stacked four high, there were one hundred and sixty of them. Yellow cargo nets held them in place. Looking past them, we watched the sunlight disappear as the cargo hatch closed, leaving us in an awkward semidarkness.
"It's the fastest way to get you home," she said to him, her voice neutral. "You want to go home, don't you?"
His voice dripped with fearful outrage. "I don't want to see them. I want a forward facing seat."
If the kid would have looked around, he could have seen that there were no forward facing seats.
"It's okay," she said, tugging on his arm again. "They're going home, too."
"I don't want to look at them," he said as she pushed him to a seat nearest one of the small windows. When he didn't move to strap himself in, Pembry bent and did it for him. He gripped the handrails like the oh-shit bar on a roller coaster. "I don't want to think about them."
"I got it." I went forward and shut down the cabin lights. Now only the twin red jump lights illuminated the long metal containers. When I returned, I brought him a pillow.
The ID label on the kid's loose jacket read "Hernandez." He said, "Thank you," but did not let go of the armrests....
The Horror of the Heights • (1913) by Arthur Conan Doyle
An ambitiously fantasticated adventure tale of early aviation.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet • (1962) by Richard Matheson
Matheson only wrote stories in lucid and perfectly composed prose.
....Impulsively, Wilson drew aside the curtain.
He did not know, immediately, if he would survive. It seemed as if all the contents of his chest and stomach were bloating horribly, the excess pushing up into his throat and head, choking away breath, pressing out his eyes. Imprisoned in this swollen mass, his heart pulsed strickenly, threatening to burst its case as Wilson sat, paralyzed.
Only inches away, separated from him by the thickness of a piece of glass, the man was staring at him.
It was a hideously malignant face, a face not human. Its skin was grimy, of a wide-pored coarseness; its nose a squat, discolored lump; its lips misshapen, cracked, forced apart by teeth of a grotesque size and crookedness; its eyes recessed and small—unblinking. All framed by shaggy, tangled hair which sprouted, too, in furry tufts from the man's ears and nose, birdlike, down across his cheeks.
Wilson sat riven to his chair, incapable of response. Time stopped and lost its meaning. Function and analysis ceased. All were frozen in an ice of shock. Only the beat of heart went on—alone, a frantic leaping in the darkness. Wilson could not so much as blink. Dull-eyed, breathless, he returned the creature's vacant stare.
Abruptly then, he closed his eyes and his mind, rid of the sight, broke free. It isn't there, he thought. He pressed his teeth together, breath quavering in his nostrils. It isn't there, it simply is not there.
Clutching at the armrests with pale-knuckled fingers, Wilson braced himself. There is no man out there, he told himself. It was impossible that there should be a man out there crouching on the wing looking at him.
He opened his eyes—
—to shrink against the seat back with a gagging inhalation. Not only was the man still there but he was grinning. Wilson turned his fingers in and dug the nails into his palms until pain flared. He kept it there until there was no doubt in his mind that he was fully conscious.
Then, slowly, arm quivering and numb, Wilson reached up for the button which would summon the stewardess. He would not make the same mistake again—cry out, leap to his feet, alarm the creature into flight. He kept reaching upward, a tremor of aghast excitement in his muscles now because the man was watching him, the small eyes shifting with the movement of his arm.
The Flying Machine • (1891) by Ambrose Bierce
A minor Bierce curiosity; perhaps better than no Bierce at all.
Lucifer! • (1969) by E. C. Tubb
The biter bit.
....Brooding he stared at the ring. You activated it and went back fifty-seven seconds in time. All you had done during that period was erased. You could kill, rob, commit mayhem and none of it mattered because none of it had happened. But it had happened. It could be remembered. Could you remember what had never taken place?
That girl, for example. He had felt her thigh, the warm place between her legs, the yielding softness of her throat. He could have poked out her eyes, doubled her screaming, mutilated her face. He had done
that and more to others, pandering to his sadism, his love of inflicting pain. And he had killed. But what was killing when you could undo the inconvenience of your crime? When you could watch the body smile and walk away?
The Fifth Category • (2014) by Tom Bissell
The epitome of bad taste in contemporary horror: using the crimes of US imperialism to rationalize dead-end acts of terror and vigilante "justice."
Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds • (1988) by Dan Simmons
Another bad-faith exercise in vigilantism, in which Dan Simmons portrays some individualist revenge against Morton Thiokol executives for their decisions preceding the Challenger disaster. For a short short story, the sanctimony and Rod Serling-style moralizing are laid on thick.
Diablitos • (2017) by Cody Goodfellow
Goodfellow goes Matheson one better: a man smuggles a poisonous artifact on a commercial flight home. Plenty of nicely sickening touches as the professional parasite protagonist realizes the tables are turned against him.
Air Raid • (1977) by John Varley
A shattering story of artifice and the future as dead-zone.
....I joined the Snatchers right after the brain bugs ate the life out of my baby's head. I couldn't stand to think she was the last generation, that the last humans there would ever be would live with nothing in their heads, medically dead by standards that prevailed even in 1979, with computers working their muscles to keep them in tone. You grow up, reach puberty still fertile—one in a thousand—rush to get pregnant in your first heat. Then you find out your mom or pop passed on a chronic disease bound right into the genes, and none of your kids will be immune. I knew about the para-leprosy; I grew up with my toes rotting away. But this was too much. What do you do?
You Are Released • (2018) by Joe Hill
The Ernest K. Gann approach: multiple passengers (high and low) and crew confront a crisis.
"Mom!" Janice shouts. "Mom, lookat! What's that?"
What's happening in the sky is less alarming than what's happening in the cabin. Someone is screaming: a bright silver thread of sound that stitches itself right through Janice's head. Adults groan in a way that makes Janice think of ghosts.
The 777 tilts to the left, and then rocks suddenly hard to the right. The plane sails through a labyrinth of gargantuan pillars, the cloisters of some impossibly huge cathedral. Janice had to spell CLOISTERS (an easy one) in the Englewood Regional.
Warbirds • (2007) by David J. Schow
Schow is a writer's writer. His taught tales are burnished with an almost magical skill at verisimilitude. "Warbirds" never drops a stitch.
The Flying Machine • (1953) by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury in his precious, all-knowing, uber- sanctimonious mode.
Zombies on a Plane • (2010) by Bev Vincent
An end-of-the-world zombie slice of life story of modest scope.
They Shall Not Grow Old • (1944) by Roald Dahl
Dahl was one of the 20th century's great short story stylists, probably second only to Maugham in that cold-blooded branch of English narration. "They Shall Not Grow Old" crosses the line into jejune bad faith and puerility as an Afterlife Fantasy, but is fascinating for all that. The setting is superby sketched, with characters and narrative delineated via economical dialogue.
Murder in the Air • (2000) by Peter Tremayne
"....Simple but effective. He knew that Gray did not like to be seen using the inhaler in public. The rest was left to chance, and it was a good chance. It almost turned out to be the ultimate impossible crime. It might have worked, had not our victim and his murderer been too fond of their Latin in-jokes."
The Turbulence Expert • (2018) by Stephen King
Minor key King: a man's career experienced as a deal-with-the-devil.
Falling • (1967) by James Dickey
Sublime poem. The most aesthetically ambitious piece in the anthology.
7 April 2020