TITLE: Acres of Perhaps: Stories and Episodes
AUTHOR: Will Ludwigsen
195 pages, Lethe Press, ISBN 9781590213650 (paperback, audiobook)
DESCRIPTION: (from back cover): Creepy late night television shows. Disco-dancing mass murderers. Sky-gazing psychopaths. Cursed pirate treasure. Haunted presidents. Viewer Discretion Advised.
MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars
MY THOUGHTS: The stories in this collection exemplify what I love about Will Ludwigsen’s writing. Two of the five give subtle fantastic/horrific twists to the world outside our own front door (to steal a phrase from Philip Jose Farmer), while two are character-driven alternate histories. The fifth story very neatly splits the difference. All five are propelled by strong voices or character points-of-view. The narrators may not always be reliable, but they are compelling.
“Perhaps” is what this book is all about. Or more properly, “what if?” ‘Perhaps’ what these characters are experiencing is supernatural, but it could all be in their minds. ‘What if’ one detail of our history was different, what would the ramifications be?
I’ve read or listened to the title story, “Acres of Perhaps,” several times now, but it was cemented as a new favorite on the very first read back in 2015. Ludgwigsen posits the existence of a 1960s horror/sf/fantasy anthology TV series that becomes a hit with fans due to the quality of the episodes but then flames out thanks to a sudden drop in quality in the second season. A fate many television shows fall victim to. But what if … what if that drop in quality was because the writer behind the most popular episodes experienced supernatural phenomena not once, but twice? Narrated in retrospect by the (in his own terms) “less talented” member of the writing staff, Barry Weyrich, we are privy not only to the rise and fall of the show and its staff, but also to the decades-long aftermath of cult fandom, tense convention appearances, and regret both professional (his role in the show’s fall) and personal (his long closeted life with his partner Tony). Each time I read it, I tease out some nuance in the characters of Barry Weyrich and David Findley that I hadn’t noticed, or hadn’t been paying attention to, before. And I still vacillate, with each reading, as to whether there’s really something supernatural going on in the story or not.
“The Leaning Lincoln” likewise teases the reader with a supernatural aspect – is the narrator’s childhood bad luck because of a possessed piece of leaden pirate treasure, or is it all just the luck of the draw – that sits behind a tale of a dysfunctional family, a sick friend, and a shattered friendship. The author’s notes at the back of the book reveal that this is one of Ludwigsen’s most personal stories, and I think it shows in the language of the narrator, who sways from conviction that the supernatural exists to conviction that it doesn’t, and back again – an ever-shortening pendulum of belief that motivates his positive and negative choices throughout the story. Other than the possibly-haunted (or maybe radioactive?) titular figurine, this story is straight out of the house down the road, and it feels both intimate and an intrusion. The real life horror exposed is far more frightening than the idea of a haunted toy.
When Ludwigsen takes on alternate history as a genre, he eschews the big socio-political events (like the outcomes of major wars or political campaigns) for more immediate (as in personal) changes that still have major impacts on the timeline.
“Night Fever” hinges on a seemingly-small thing: Charles Manson getting out of prison a decade after he did in our world, after a botched escape attempt. In some hands, this would lead to Manson having a positive effect on society, following the prevalent theory that it was the culture of the 1960s that led him to do the things he did. Ludwigsen thinks Manson would have been Manson regardless – his cult would have just developed in a different city, with different music as inspiration/justification. The story unfolds in a documentary/epistolary format: details given to the reader from various newspaper accounts, magazine profiles, tell-all memoirs, essays by Truman Capote, courtroom and interrogation room recordings. Charlie himself is quoted and described but never gets his own chance to tell his side of the story, which allows him to be exposed for what he is while still retaining an aura of mystery.
The alternate history of “Poe at Gettysburg” also hinges on a personal moment: what if the orphaned Edgar Poe had been adopted not by the Allans, but by theatre folk friends of his late parents? In this world, his rebellion against the wishes of his adoptive family leads him to law practice, which leads to his Presidency, rather than Lincoln’s, during the Civil War, and thus to a very different, but no less moving, Gettysburg Address.
“The Zodiac Walks on the Moon” could be considered a touch of alternate history, in that it’s presented in the form of a letter to the newspapers that the real Zodiac Killer never wrote. But it’s also a bit of the supernatural-tinged world outside our door, in that there’s no reason to think the real Zodiac Killer wouldn’t have been affected by the first Moon Landing. This is the shortest story in the book, relying on the audience’s familiarity with the real events mentioned at the start and on the reader’s sketching in their own mental image of the man writing this letter about how stunning human achievement can be and how it’s motivating him on his chosen path. It’s emotionally raw in a different way from “The Leaning Lincoln,” and it’s as distinctly voiced as Poe’s speech in “Poe at Gettysburg.”
In between each of the five stories are short “excerpts” from a non-existent (as of yet, anyway) episode guide to the Acres of Perhaps television show. Ludwigsen not only captures the essence of the 60s anthology shows (Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, even Alfred Hitchcock Presents), he captures perfectly the tone of books that analyze the episodes for their socio-political commentary both in and out of the context of the times. On Facebook, I petitioned Ludwigsen to please get in touch with Barry Weyrich and David Findley and any other crew of Acres of Perhaps to get their memories of the show and create a full episode guide before they pass away. Because yes, I’m convinced that there must actually have been such a show, even if the episodes themselves are no longer extant. (My favorite summary, of the episode “Dark Horse Candidate,” includes mention of a character played by an “uncharacteristically oily Leslie Nielsen”.)
In fact, any of the five stories in this collection could easily be episodes of the titular television show (although maybe “Night Fever” would need to be a tv-movie-of-the-week-length installment). If Netflix is looking for an anthology challenger to CBS’s streaming Twilight Zone, (and a creepy-horror sister series to their own more SF-based Black Mirror), this would be the ideal basis. And I mean, come on, what genre fan wouldn’t watch a show called “Acres of Perhaps”?