Flight or Fright: 17 Turbulent Tales by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As with most anthologies, this collection is filled with stories that are mostly fine, a few that are great and some that are merely okay. That Bev Vincent managed to collect enough stories based around a specific theme–terrible things happening on aircraft, makes the overall quality noteworthy.
All but two of the stories have been previously published, but given the narrow focus of the collection, it’s likely you will not have read many of them. Here’s a short summary of each. Overall I can recommend this collection to fans of horror or suspense. And if you read these stories while flying, I salute you.
“Cargo” by E. Michael Lewis is an effectively creepy opener in which a Loadmaster onboard a Lockheed C-141A StarLifter transport must deal oversee dozens of coffins being sent back to the U.S., straight from the Jonestown massacre. Things go bump in the plane.
“The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle. This story has been scuppered by the inevitable march of progress in air flight (not to mention space travel), but it’s still a nifty epistolary of a pilot who dares to fly his solo aircraft into the unheard of reaches of 40,000 feet, where strange and hostile creatures are rumored to dwell.
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” by Richard Matheson. This is easily the best-known story of the anthology, and if you’ve seen the classic Twilight zone episode, which Matheson also adapted, you’ll find it is largely faithful to the original story of a man convinced he is seeing a creature on the plane’s wing, trying to tamper with the engine. Chilling, suspenseful and an all-around good time.
“The Flying Machine” by Ambrose Bierce. An odd short short more about procuring investment from gullible types than flying (Bierce died in 1914).
“Lucifer!” by E.C. Tubb. A morgue attendant pries the ring off a dead body before it is claimed. He discovers the ring has certain unique qualities while abroad a flight and from there a devious mix of time travel and terror unfolds.
“The Fifth Category” by Thomas Carlisle Bissell. A man who worked for the U.S. government during the Iraq invasion, writing legal opinions on torture, earns himself a reputation for being a war criminal by some. He agrees to give a speech, with others, in Lithuania, then on the flight home, strange things happen that seem to relate to his defense of torture. This dark tale is wonderfully written, with prose that snaps and sparkles.
“Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds” by Dan Simmons. A shorter piece in which a man feeling guilty of what he has done with his life, decides to do something about it while in a private jet full of executives. This one didn’t grab me and the rollercoaster analogy fell flat.
“Diablitos” by Cody Goodfellow. Ryan Rayburn III tries to smuggle a mask from a now-extinguished primitive people known as the Xorocua onboard a 727. The mask was worn in harvest ceremonies to summon Diablitos, or little demons. You know how you shouldn’t steal uranium with your bare hands? This story is kind of like that. And it is delightful.
“Air Raid” by John Varley. This is a weird time travel story taking place on a commercial flight in 1979 (the story was written in 1977) and I can’t really say much without spoiling it, but it’s a neat idea, filled with quirks and people just doing their jobs, however strange their jobs may be. Another good one.
“You Are Released” by Joe Hill. This story os one of two originals written for the collection and is my favorite. It’s a simple story–a group of passengers on a 777 are returning to Boston when the pilot announces a report of a flash near Guam. Details emerge that it may be a nuclear strike, and the various characters–an actress, an alcoholic, a MAGA adherent and others–begin to realize that a full-on nuclear exchange is likely taking place as they cruise 30,000 feet above what could be the start of the end of human civilization. Harrowing and authentic.
“Warbirds” by David J. Schow. An old flyer from World War II tells the son of a fellow flyer, now deceased, about the warbirds, strange creatures that he swears flew with them through their battles in the sky. This one has a haunting quality to it I liked.
“The Flying Machine” by Ray Bradbury. A short and dark tale sent in China in AD 400, in which the servant of Emperor Yuan spots a man impossibly flying, using some kind of contraption he has apparently built himself. The emperor, fearing what might happen if flight became more common–and the great defense of The Great Wall was trivialized–orders the flier executed, and swears the servant to the same, hoping to prevent anyone else from inventing another flying machine and using it for dark purposes. Well, we all know how that turned out. :P Bradbury writes well, as always, but the lesson here felt a little too on-point.
“Zombies on a Plane” by Bev Vincent. This is a short, slight tale about a group of survivors amid a zombie apocalypse trying to escape dodge on a small passenger jet. A twist ending of sorts and there are zombies, as promised in the title. A decent take, but nothing revelatory.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” by Roald Dahl. I adored this story, not just for the language, but also for the sheer earnestness of WWII pilot Fin, describing to his baffled comrades how he came back two days after a surveillance mission, long after his plane would have run out of fuel. Published near the end of the war, it brims with authentic detail as Fin depicts his trip into the light.
“Murder in the Air” by Peter Tremayne. A straight-up murder mystery on a commercial flight, with suspects, an investigation, the explanation and everything neatly wrapped up by the end, including, presumably, the body. Despite the gore surrounding the deceased, this is probably the closet the collection gets to high brow. There’s Latin and all that. I enjoyed it, though murder mysteries aren’t really my thing.
“The Turbulence Expert” by Stephen King. The other original story, this story hints at people who can see the future and conscript others to avoid worst case scenarios–in this case, potentially fatal clear air turbulence on commercial airliners. It’s fun and the characters are smart and witty and engaging. My one nit is the Mary Worth character (literally named Mary Worth) seems a little too quick on the uptake, given the oddities she is presented with.
“Falling” by James L. Dickey. Stephen King introduces this with, “Before you groan, shake your head, and say ‘I don’t read poetry,'” which is exactly where I stopped. It may be a dazzling poem and perhaps I will go back and read it one day. But not now.
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Flight or Fright: 17 Turbulent Tales by Stephen King