Subterranean Press is reissuing Connie Willis’s moody and bleak novella Jack (1991), which was a finalist for the Nebula and Hugo awards and has appeared in several anthologies over the years. It’s set during the London Blitz in WWII, one of Willis’ favorite settings for her works, including the time-travel novels Blackout and All Clear and the Nebula and Hugo award-winning novelette Fire Watch. Once again, there’s something peculiar going on during the Blitz … but this time it’s not just time travelers visiting from the future.
Jack Harker is part of a squad of air raid wardens, charged with helping to put out the fires caused by German incendiary bombs and digging survivors out of the rubble left by explosive bombs. Their group is joined by a new part-timer, Jack Settle, who proves to be unusually good at finding live people who are trapped under the rubble. But Jack Harker can’t help but think there’s something suspicious about the new Jack. He never shares the group’s food, even when it’s a special treat; he works during the night and disappears at dawn.
Jack has a sense of mystery about it, although Willis doesn’t try especially hard to hide the answer. On rereading Jack for the first time in many years, I noticed all of the hints that Willis strews around like so many breadcrumbs. References to churches, the “walking dead” (exhaustion caused by lack of sleep, poor nutrition and anxiety), allusions to places and even characters’ names: all combine to create an increasing sense of anxiety and dread, compounded by the Nazis’ constant bombing.
But in the final analysis it’s not the particular mystery of “who or what is Jack Settle?” that Willis focuses on, but how the events in this novella affect Jack Harker and those around him. The name “Jack” isn’t all he shares with the man of whom he is so distrustful. And there are many ways for people to be monstrous, as well as human. The ending is gut-wrenching. It’s a finely crafted novella.