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The Unexplained: stories of the paranormal edited by Ric Alexander, with a Foreword by Peter James (Orion, 17.99, 433 pages, hardback; trade paperback also available at 10.99. Published 16 March 1998; ISBN 0-75281-004-9).

People were so convinced, at the end of the last Millennium, that the world would cease to exist after 999BC, that a fair few of them went out and committed suicide. Either that or fell to their knees before the nearest priest to confess all before time ran out. How the others must have laughed and slapped each other's backs when 1000BC dawned and the beast failed to rise from the sea, three sixes on its head and a list of naughty boys in its claw.

Of course, we've evolved since then, mentally if not physically. Surely no one will die for this Millennium (unless you happen to be on a life support machine that isn't Year 2000 compliant). As a civilisation we have a firmer grip nowadays.

But if that's the case, why have newspapers over the past five years been littered regularly with reports of suicide cults? Why has alien abduction become a more popular pastime than Do It Yourself? Why can't a member of the British Royal Family be killed in a road traffic accident without there having to be a conspiracy? And most importantly, why does Mulder possess but one facial expression?

Peter James, in his Foreword to The Unexplained, suggests that our interest in all things Fortean stems from the fact that while we may consider ourselves men and women of science, incomplete without a cellular phone, laptop computer and email address, we are still very much bound by olde worlde convention. In 1920, he says, a survey was conducted amongst scientists on the subject of God. Forty-four percent said they believed in God. The exercise was repeated in 1997... and still forty-four percent said they believed in God. Thus, he goes on, not everything can be explained by science: we still can't say for sure how the universe was created, and we're still pretty clueless about what happens after death.

It's this dark matter, then - around since our ancestors first learnt to tell stories - that prompts us to watch the skies and to study our holiday snaps of Loch Ness that little bit closer.

It's also responsible for books like The Unexplained.

Ric Alexander is an easy target. In the same way that everyone has their own view on which stories should win awards, which should never have been published and which should constitute the various Year's Best anthologies, so most people would have an opinion on which bodies of work best exemplify his five chosen categories, these being: Supernatural Mysteries; Psychic Phenomena; Alien Encounters; Time Warps; Urban Legends. In some respect, his task was even harder than that faced by other anthologists, in that he had more or less everything ever written in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror to choose from. Think about it. From HG Wells to Stephen King. From Arthur C Clarke to Bram Stoker to Robert Heinlein. That's quite a choice.

A quick glance down the acknowledgements tells us that only two of the twenty-one stories offered here are original to this anthology. A similar glance down the contents page - Roger Zelazny; JG Ballard; Clive Barker; Ian Watson; Robert Heinlein; Theodore Sturgeon; and a host of others - and we might begin to worry that this book is primarily for those seeking an introduction to genre work.

However, some of the pieces here are relatively obscure. Unless you've a very extensive collection, you might not have come across 'The Trespassers' by Nigel Kneale, a classic haunted house tale which is, I'm sure, as chilling today as it was when originally published in 1949. More contemporary, and staying with the supernatural theme, is David J Schow's 'Red Light', an elegantly written account of modern day vampirism, with not a fang or a cloak in sight. Moving into a more scientific realm is Robert Heinlein's 'Goldfish Bowl'. I believe this story alone to be worth the price of admission. Detailing the investigation of alien phenomena on earth, it raises fundamental questions as to the nature of extraterrestrial life forms, and does so in a spine-tingling manner almost reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. Definitely a classic. The other classic reprinted here is Clive Barker's 'The Forbidden'. Filmed as Candyman, 'The Forbidden' explores the nature of rumours, the way in which urban legends are perpetuated by gossip and graffiti, and how our primeval need for stories sometimes gets the better of us.

Of the two stories original to The Unexplained, Graham Masterton's 'The Irish Question' is best. A subtle and understated story, it's more magic realism than horror, and concerns itself with what we truly desire in our heart of hearts, as opposed to the materialistic wants we express publicly. 'The Job' by Richard Laymon, the other original, is slight in comparison, and badly placed at the front of the anthology.

If I were cynical I'd say that this book belongs on the X-Files bandwagon (there's even a Chris Carter quote at the beginning). But I'm not, so I won't. All I'll say is that it's opportune.

Marketing ploy aside, there's some classic genre fiction here - real age of awe stuff - and plenty of dark matter to assure you that the universe is far from explained.

Review by Jason Gould.

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© Jason Gould 27 June 1998