BOOK REVIEW: Last Exit for the Lost, by Tim Lebbon

Tim Lebbon is that rare writer, an author possessing a deceptively spare way with words yet painting images, themes and atmospheres of infinite detail, colour and nuance, stories that dig themselves beneath the skin and burrow into the bones. These are deeply-felt and envisioned stories, drawn out from the deepest of the pits of human experience. The horrors he assails us with are viscerally raw, the pain and fears screamingly primal, the regrets and losses his characters feel are empathised with completely, and the burden of sins perpetrated weigh heavily on our shoulders in concert.

Before anything else, however, mention should be made of the solidity and size of this volume – it’s a reassuringly massive tome indeed, 557 pages and 150,000 words, and wrapped in a gorgeously atmospheric cover by Les Edwards. That solidity, that substantiality, however, merely reflects the quality and depth of the sixteen stories and two novellas contained herein. Beyond that is the physical quality of the book itself, an aspect that is rarely noted in reviews – kudos to the folks at Cemetery Dance for the care they’ve taken over this, and especial mention should be made here of the attention to details, like the paper quality, the clean clear printing of the text and the general layout.

Lebbon ranges widely here, dipping into and mixing genres with practised ease. The title story, Last Exit for the Lost (and yes, before you ask, Tim IS a big fan of Fields of the Nephilim), is a story which reminds us that not all ghosts are those of the dead. A mysterious set of related of paintings, ultimately creating a triptych, arrives at the door of a man who has let both himself and his family go. The ghosts of relationships, regrets and of what might have been, all conspire to provide the catalyst for transformation. Another ghost of the living, emerging from out of the past, also features in the next tale, The Cutting, when a young boy’s grandfather, a war veteran, is visited by someone from decades before to whom he made a promise and he’s here to collect. Even the passage of time is incapable of denuding honour and dignity.

There is also fantasy here, too, in the form of Forever, the tale of Nox, a Krote warrior, part of an island army that is always preparing for war (a war that never actually comes), who is seeking a means of escape from his perpetually frozen home. Steampunk of a kind makes itself known here in Old Light: a mysterious old man bequeathes an ancient torch to an ascendant of a character from a Jules Verne novel. The item holds the power to show people how they are going to die if the beam is played upon them. Then there’s a wonderfulhomage to the creation of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle in the form of The Horror of the Many Faces (originally published in 2003’s Shadows over Baker Street), wherein Holmes’ intrepid assistant Watson is faced with the ultimate dilemma: is the great detective a murderer, or is there something deeper going on here? Lebbon artfully combines the classic detective story with elements of horror, to very satisfying ends.

However, it is the unalloyed horror story where Lebbon excels. From the Lovecraftian The Stuff of the Stars, Leaking, where a widower finds the rotting corpse of an unknown deep-sea creature on the beach near his home, the discovery of which is bound up with disturbing dreams of his drowning wife: to Black, the tale of a murderous soldier, whose encounter with a woman obsessed with witnessing a murder perpetrated during enigmatic blackouts leads her right to him. From Skins, where sometimes it is better that the deep, secret horrors of the world, lying just beneath its thin crust, remain where they are, out of the purview of mankind and the light; to the novella In Perpetuity, a powerful meditation on the strength of familial bonds and the lengths we will go to just to secure the safety and future of our offspring. Any parent will empathise with the father in this tale, the despair, the frustration and the desperation he experiences as he tries to find a way to save his son.

The best, and most powerful, tale in the book by far, in my estimation, is the last one, the novella Nothing Heavenly. It’s a deceptively complex story, on one level simply about a woman being kidnapped by an unseen agent and on another being confronted by truths about both herself and the greater forces that weave about the world, forces that have been forgotten by the human species. Her journey of self-discovery is set against the End of Times, and the great battles that ensue. Who or, more accurately, what is she? It’s a treatise, told in fiction, on the nature of belief and fate, and one woman’s struggle to rediscover herself, her legacy and ultimately, her role in shaping outcomes of the many. It’s a harrowing and emotional story, expertly told. The excruciating pain and cruelty, the atrocities and bloodshed, linger in the mind long after the last word has been read and the cover closed. Nothing Heavenly possesses an extraordinary cinematic quality, the imagery readily springing, fully formed, to the imagination and pitching us in the midst of unearthly battle.

As was pointed out in the opening paragraph, Lebbon writes in a very lean, spare style. For all that, however, along with the sparse description, the reader still comes away with vividly-realised tableaux playing in technicolour on the screen of the mind. There’s also an ease with which Lebbon’s writing worms its way into our emotional centres, pulling and teasing them at will. Above all, his stories manage to convey the essential bleakness of existence, that the hopes that we carry with us in life are, in the end, hollow, and that even when a resolution has been brought about there is still a trace of malignancy besmirching it. There are very few writers out there, I feel, who can achieve the same with such facility and power. For that reason, I very much look forward to reading more of this man’s work.

This review originally appeared at Bookgeeks.


Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Cemetery Dance

Publication date: May 2010

ISBN: 978-1-58767-170-8

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