Psi-Wars: Classified Cases of Psychic Phenomena, ed. Joshua Viola (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

PsiWars“And When You Tear Us Apart, We Stitch Ourselves Back Together” by Betty Rocksteady is the story of a protagonist named Violet who wakes up to find that her conjoined twin has been separated from her. A group of researchers inform her that her sister is dead, but can be avenged: thanks to Violet’s psychic gifts, she is in the perfect position to fight in a war against the man responsible for the death of her twin.

Violet is far from the only character to be ushered into a strange and secretive psychic war over the course of Psi-Wars: Classified Cases of Psychic Phenomena. This anthology focuses on battles of wills in more ways than one: after an introduction by John Palisano that cites John Farris’ The Fury, David Cronenberg’s Scanners and the works of Stephen King, the assembled authors deliver various tales of telekinesis being put to military use.

The anthology’s contributors are capable of spreading the central concept across various different genres. Keith Ferrell gives us a short-form thriller in “Snake Eyes”, the story of a Scanners-style conflict between “psoldiers” that shows a Flemingian fondness for gambling as a backdrop. “The Jarheads” by Sean Eads and Joshua Viola is a straight-ahead, action-oriented story in which a group of psychics, who volunteered to take part in a military programme, realise that the powers that be have not been honest with them. Cyberpunk, too, turns up in the volume. “Under the Lotus” by Darin Bradley introduces the Lotus, a device that allows the user to achieve a state of enlightenment – consciousness without selfhood. After returning to normal, the user has no memory of what happened while under the influence of the Lotus; this poses serious problems when the device is hit by a virus.

The anthology’s themes lend themselves to stories of a conspiratorial nature. In “Bluebird Killing in the Dead of Night” by Gary Jonas, the host of a trashy TV series about aliens goes off-script and debunks UFOs in front of a live audience. He then delivers a potted history of government attempts to create psychic spies – something he has close knowledge of, as he is involved with an effort to de-program an agent. “Very Surely Do I Not Dream” by Matthew Kressel is set in a post-apocalyptic world where people’s minds have been ruined by wave after wave of “ZG” (“Tens of thousands died in the first wave, when ZG was projected from cell phones, computer screens, TVs, and billboards”). The story’s heroine has made it her mission to destroy ZG server farms across Europe; when she tracks down the group ultimately responsible, she receives a disturbing surprise.

Some of the stories rewrite conflicts from the real world. “The Visions of Perry Godwin” by Dean Wyant is a World War II story about a young man who has visions predicting future deaths: shortly before Pearl Harbour, he sees a giant quill writing the names of the victims-to-be in blood. The omens persist after he enlists in the Navy, and the somewhat meandering story follows the rest of his life. Wyant also provides the foreword to the anthology, in which he reveals that his strange tale was based on a true story.

Warren Hammond’s “The Calabrian” is an alternate history in which the Nazis successfully invade Britain thanks to a psychic who aids their strategy by conjure up images of potential futures. He also has designs on the story’s narrator, an English boy with a remarkable singing voice. Meanwhile, “Cradle to Grave” by Angie Hodapp turns its attention to World War I, during which a young woman with telepathic powers is sent to instigate an affair with the potential to damage the alliance between Britain and America; her mission leads to a macabre confrontation.

The World Wars are not the only past eras explored by the anthology. “Protectors of Atlantis” by Mario Acevedo depicts a cabal of wizard-like psychics defending Atlantis from pirate-galleys, while “Awake” by Gabino Iglesilas is a little more up-to-date in that it imagines an alternate version of the Obama administration. Its plot dealing with a military effort to enhance soldiers’ psychic abilities through sleep-depravation, the story was apparently based on the venerable old creepypasta of the Russian Sleep Experiment, which is cited by the charactersas a historical event.

No themed horror anthology would be complete without a story or two that explore the outer limits of the central premise. “The Talking War” by E. Lily Yu is more psychological than psychic, detailing the central character’s personal humiliation while a military conflict rages in the background. And then we have “To Jump is to Fall” by Stephen Graham Jones, in which a telepath mounts an attack on a federal facility that involves dive-bombing it from a plane. Despite the simple plot, the story – which follows the protagonist’s thoughts during the drop – is remarkably intricate, and one of the strongest entries in the entire anthology.

Compared to some of the other anthologies on the Splatterpunk Award ballot, Psi-Wars is a rather short volume. Nonetheless, it fits enough good ideas into its slim pagecount to be well worth a read.

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