Pieces of Midnight, by Gary McMahon

Gary McMahon writes about what it is that really scares us all, as humans, and as gregarious, social creatures. The monsters may still be there, the ones that haunt the deepest recesses of our nightmares and the ones that we fleetingly glimpse at the corners of our eyes; but the real fears the monsters embody, and which he writes so deftly about, are those that have a frightening tangibility in the real world. That fear of physical isolation, of unutterably cruel loneliness, of social dislocation and of being coldly distanced from life. The fear of being cut off from the reassuring and much-needed company of our own kind, or of being ostracised and shunned by society. A fear of our familiar and comforting world suddenly changing into something utterly alien, hostile and disturbingly strange. Of friends, lovers and neighbours turning away, and becoming unknown to us.

These are the fertile grounds into which McMahon has sown the seeds of his inventiveness and, in return, those seeds have flowered spectacularly into seventeen of his finest tales. These are all stories where the commonplace takes on dangerous colours, the places where our fears become primal and instinctive and take tangible shape. These are also stories where most of the characters have experienced a wrenching social dislocation, effectively removing them from the secure orbits of comforting familiarity. Nothing is safe in McMahon’s world: everything we take for granted harbours a studied malignity, aimed for the most part against us.

Danger lurks in places like the seemingly quiet countryside that Milton Davis retires to on health grounds, in the MR Jamesian The Knocking. Here a world older than time comes, quite literally in this case, knocking at the door. Or, for another interpretation, the pagan-tinged Brokenback Isle, a new, cruelly dark take on the milieu of The Wicker Man-theme of the clash between the old and the new. Ancient rituals, as black as the night in which they are practised, brings ages-old powers back to life, powers that rip easily and startlingly (and unwelcomingly) through the thin fabric of modern civilisation.

A theme that courses through much of McMahon’s writing is the idea of the commission of transgressions, ones that inevitably raise the spectres of retribution in one form or another. Like Tom in All the Lonely Places, who has been running away from the ghosts of the past, which have now returned to finally catch up with him. Or the broken soldier, Brett, haunted both by the war he’s returned from and the personified spectre of his cowardice, in A Shade of Yellow. Then there are the restless ghosts and shades of Paint it Black, out for redress after a silly student prank. However, McMahon’s creatures don’t necessarily inhabit a clear-cut moral universe, as in the story Slap, where the protagonist, Blane, ostensibly doing society a favour, ends up being on the wrong end of vengeance, and yet, despite that the balance has been restored. Plus the ambiguity of the end of The Sand King, where an artist seeks to find both inspiration for his illustrations and forgiveness for the sin against his wife, points to the same thing.

Never let it be said though, that McMahon is all about grimness (although he does it extremely well). Take, as an example, the absolutely beautiful My Grandfather’s Ghosts, a delightful story of a young boy revelling in the fantastical tales his elder relative weaves for him. Or look at My Autumn Hands: an edgy fairy-tale, in which a boy with destructive hands gets the human contact he craves, but in a surprising way. Or the chilling Before She Leaves, about a man looking for love and finding it where he least expected it. Cold, but still very deeply and very bone-freezingly haunting.

What the above should emphatically underscore, is McMahon’s extensive versatility, and his breadth and depth of imagination. Ranging all the way from the gentle, to rolling headlong all the way downhill to wallow in the absolute depths of nastiness, he has a wonderfully keen eye for detail and atmosphere, and all told very directly and with no time for extraneous fluff. The stories, even the longest one (Paint it Black), clip along at a goodly pace, never letting the reader go until the last word.

This is masterful storytelling, nothing less than is expected from the man who brought us the superb The Harm, and is an absolute delight to read. More importantly, it leaves us hungry for more. Without a doubt, this is an essential collection. Thankfully, then, a couple of novels are due from him at the end of this year and beginning of next, and promise to be his darkest yet. If this is the quality from just his short stories, then imagine what Gary McMahon could create on a larger canvas…

(The original review can be found here)

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Review by Simon Marshall-Jones

PUBLISHER: Ash-Tree Press

PUBLISHING DATE: January 2010

ISBN: 978-1-55310-116-1

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