Archive for November, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – 50th anniversary edition by Alan Garner

Posted in Book Reviews on November 22, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It never fails to amaze me how some scenes from a book stay with you. The one thing that has always remained in my head, from when I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen all those many years ago, is the episode where Colin and Susan, along with Fenodyree and Durathror the dwarfs, are compelled to escape their enemies through the twisting and flooded subterranean tunnels and the narrow, claustrophobic crawlspaces leading from the West Mine to Earldelving, under the hills of Cheshire. With just ‘mere’ words, Alan Garner brought home to me the full terror of being squeezed tightly between the crushing weight of millions of tons of rock above and trillions more beneath. However, in truth I can’t credit this children’s classic (this year celebrating its 50thanniversary) from instilling in me a fear of enclosed spaces or discouraged me from taking up potholing as a pursuit, but it certainly didn’t help either. (I have a healthy dislike of both, in point of fact)

Even now, three and a half decades on, that particular chapter (Chapter 14, The Earldelving) still has the power to send ice-cold shivers of fear through me. It isn’t any wonder, then, that this book, first published in 1960, has continued to be in print from that time to this. Neither is it any wonder to see why it has become such a classic of children’s literature, beloved of both young and old alike.

Colin and Susan are sent to stay with Gowther and Bess Mossock in Highmost Redmanhey (near Alderley Edge) by their parents, who have moved abroad for six months as part of the children’s father’s job. Hardly have they settled in when they’re drawn into the action and suddenly they’re being hunted by creatures of myth and local legend, who are all interested in an heirloom that Susan’s mother passed on to her. The wizard Cadellin Silverbrow, another figure emerging out of the folklore of the Edge and the guardian of Fundindelve (the refuge of fabled knights beneath the hills), is also interested, but for entirely different, and considerably less malign, reasons. From the moment the true nature of Susan’s heirloom is revealed, the fate of not only the children and the Edge, but of the world itself, hangs delicately in the balance.

There’s no doubting why it’s become an enduring classic, although I venture that it’s had to live under the shadow of Tolkien’s better known Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, even so. Certainly the latter two set the tone and also laid down the template for future fantasy literature, and here Garner successfully utilises both tone and template to bring us a rollicking adventure, peopled with unforgettable characters, like the aforementioned Durathror (the dwarven warrior with courage many times his size), Gowther and Bess (the plain-speaking, no-nonsense farmer and his wife, whose family have lived in the Edge for generations), the darkly brooding figures of Grimnir, the Morrigan and Nastrond (the erstwhile adversaries), and the hulking troll-wives the Mara. Interestingly, however, I found the children’s characters (and Cadellin’s as well, to a certain extent) to be fairly bland and unremarkable, presumably because this helps the readership at which the book is aimed strongly identify with them, maybe.

The real star of this book, however, is the landscape in which it is set. The places mentioned are all real locations, as far as I am aware. Garner himself (who provides an introduction to the story in the limited hardback edition – not reviewed here) still lives in Alderley Edge, and that familiarity with his home comes across strongly throughout the book. It’s a living, breathing and constantly-worked landscape, home to, and farmed for, countless generations, and, as described so poetically here, possesses a solid, ages-old familiarity about it. However, beneath the surface (both metaphorically and literally) lie noisome cankers and grimly unwholesome presences, whose only joy is to bring darkness and death to the world of light above. The underworld places are dark and oppressive, inhabited by things that would do us harm; the wide open spaces are too exposed, and ever under the watchful eye of creatures with malice on their minds. It is into this dangerous world that the children are plunged, and we are pulled headlong with them.

On top of that, it’s a cracker of a story, too – the pace, especially in the last two thirds, is often frantically heart-stopping and breathless. Unconsciously, you always find yourselves willing the party on ( Susan, Colin, Fenodyree, Durathror and Gowther), willing them to achieve their goal of the summit of the hill of Shuttlingslow. Their battles with both otherworldly creatures and eldritch weather are keenly felt and envisioned, and there were many times when my heart-rate quickened considerably, not knowing whether they were heading into danger or safety. The hook is there from the very beginning, and it reels us in inexorably and with assured certainty.

Just like Philip Pullman’s magisterial His Dark Materials trilogy, or the runaway success of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen has a primal power contained within it, a power that appeals to and resonates with some ancient part of us. Plus, there’s an utter timelessness that envelops it, despite the fact it was written fifty years ago and is ostensibly set in a world and time long gone now. However, for all the supposed sophistication of the 21st century, there still dwells within us an ancestral memory of the times when the world around us was full of unknown and inexplicable terrors. In later years those terrors were personified in the plethora of gods and monsters we invented to explain why things were as we saw them. Garner describes a world that is at once wholly outside our experience and yet we can still indentify intuitively with it, and it has the power to terrify us. And, more to the point, this book has been doing that for half a century – this reviewer sincerely hopes it’ll continue to do so for another fifty years.

This review originally appeared on Bookgeeks.

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: September 2nd 2010

ISBN:  978-0-00-735521-1

Guest-blog: WAYNE SIMMONS

Posted in Guest-blog with tags , , , , on November 18, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

My guest-blogger today is a man who understands and I can completely get where he’s coming from – Wayne Simmons. He is the very heavily tattooed author of the UK bestselling horror novel, Flu (available now from all good bookstores). His novel, Drop Dead Gorgeous,  is due to be released in February 2011 through Snowbooks.

Here he talks about the very thing we have in common – and no, it’s not about the lack of hair on our heads.

—()—

So let’s talk tattoos.

I love them. I love the process of getting a new tattoo. The thinking. The planning. Sourcing a good artist to do the work. Booking the appointment. Showing up on the day, the smell of disinfectant as I walk through the door.  I love all that.

And it’s okay: I love talking about it, too. I won’t roll my eyes if you ask me about my tattoos. I’m proud of them and delighted to show them off, to talk about the artists whose hard work has gone into creating them. Feel free to ask me what they mean – that’s cool – but the answer may surprise you. You see, there’s little deep going on here.  I just think tattoos look cool. My pale, freckle-speckled skin looks better with them than without them. And that’s the height of it, really.

But then there’s my favourite question of all, slurred by some drunken geezer at the local pub. “Here, mate. Great tats. But what’ll you do when you’re eighty, like?”

And my reply? Hopefully get more tattoos. Or maybe I’ll be dead and some sinister collector will be peeling my skin to hang on their wall. Or maybe you and I will be in the fold, mate, staring at afternoon telly. But come bathtime, I’ll be looking a lot more interesting than you, Sunny Jim. Hellloooo, Nurse!

My forthcoming (re)release, Drop Dead Gorgeous, stars a surly tattoo artist. She’s the book’s anti-heroine, a chain-smoking, coke-snorting diva who hates the rest of the world marginally more than she hates herself. But she loves tattoos. The whole world falls dead around her and what does she do?

Run? Hide?

Nope.

She sits on the floor, next to her fallen client. She fires her kit up. And she finishes the tattoo.

My kind of girl.

So, if you’re reading this and have been thinking about getting your first tattoo, here’s my advice:

Hell yeah! Go for it.

—()—

Many thanks to Wayne for writing this… it’ll be a veritable feast of colour when the two of us finally meet – so don’t forget to keep sunglasses handy just in case YOU are at the convention where that meeting happens….

Meet Wayne online at www.waynesimmons.org

End of the Line book launch – the event

Posted in Events on November 17, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Cover image © Solaris Books - used with permission

Foyle’s Bookshop, Charing Cross, London – 6:30pm 16th November 2010.

Meeting up with friends, both old and new, is always a good thing, especially when it’s a book launch in the capital, no less. And that’s exactly what happened yesterday, when I travelled into London (despite the best efforts of Milton Keynes train station to make me miss my train – fortunately the one I was headed for was slightly delayed, thus allowing me to buy my ticket and catch it on time) and met up with Mick & Debbie Curtis and John Probert and Thana Niveau. After a fabulous Thai meal, we wandered around a few shops before John and Thana headed off to their hotel and Mick, Debbie and I settled into comfy seats in a pub.

Then on to the event itself, which, I am glad to say, was very well attended (about 120 people). Met up with more friends there (Gary McMahon, Greg James, Stephen Volk, Mark Morris, Charles Rudkin and Jasper Bark), all of whom had made the trip into the capital from far-flung parts of the kingdom. Jonathan Oliver of Solaris Books (and editor of this particular anthology) hosted a short panel session with Adam LG Nevill, Pat Cadigan and Christopher Fowler, followed by a Q&A session. Which was then followed by the requisite book signing… or not.

Herein lies my only criticism of the evening – there wasn’t an organised autograph session, plus, apart from the authors whose faces I was already familiar with, I didn’t know who any of the other writers were. A few identification badges wouldn’t have gone amiss. I did manage to get people to scribble various graffiti in my copy anyway, despite their rabid search for alcohol…

However, all was not lost – the Phoenix Artist’s Club, opposite Foyle’s, came to our rescue. A much needed couple of drinks, courtesy of the lovely Greg James, revived me. Then the rest of the evening was spent talking and waffling myself hoarse, meeting people and catching up. And then, unfortunately, I had to make my way back home to the Midlands – but, when I did get home, my bed was the most incredibly and wonderfully welcoming thing at the end of a great day.

Thanks are due to Jonathan Oliver of Solaris Books for organising things, Pat Cadigan, Christopher Fowler and Adam Nevill for being such entertaining panellists, Foyle’s and the Phoenix Artist’s Club for hosting everything, and to all the people who made it such a pleasant evening. Thanks also to all those who signed my book for me. AND, of course, thanks to Mick, Debbie, John and Thana for the food and drink, and to Greg for the much needed revivifying drinks! See you folks again soon.

(A review of this anthology will be forthcoming fairly soon…)

End of the Line book launch

Posted in Books, Events with tags , , , on November 16, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Cover image © Solaris Books - used with permission

Foyle’s Bookshop, Charing Cross, London – 6:30pm 16th November 2010.

Tonight sees the official launch of this anthology of horror stories, published by Solaris Books, set in and around the London Underground, the Metro and other places beneath our feet. It’s a virtual who’s who of new horror writing, and includes stories from Paul Meloy, John L. Probert, Nicholas Royle, Rebecca Levene, Jasper Bark, Simon Bestwick, Al Ewing, Conrad Williams, Pat Cadigan, Adam LG Nevill, Mark Morris, Stephen Volk, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Marshall Smith, James Lovegrove, Gary McMahon, Natasha Rhodes, Joel Lane and Christopher Fowler.

I will also be reviewing the book very soon, so watch out for that, but I will also be reporting back on the night’s shenanigans in a blog post tomorrow – that’s if I’m up to it… =D

See you all tomorrow!!

A welcome break

Posted in General Musings on November 15, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I have to say, the couple of bits of work that have come my way recently are something of a welcome break. In just the last month I have been asked to edit a book and to scan some stories into the computer for a collection due to be published early next year. I will admit here that reading was beginning to pall slightly, which is rather awkward considering that I’m a book reviewer. I’ve noticed, however, that such things go in cycles and on a fairly regular basis too.

Don’t get me wrong – I still love reading (and always will) but, like everything else, I don’t like too much of a good thing. Having too much of anything, even if it’s something you’re particularly fond of doing, inevitably leads to ennui and boredom (even resentment) setting in (in my case, anyway. That’s the last thing I want happening. I could already feel  that resentment starting to nibble away at the edges of my mind.

Thankfully, then, two projects landed in my inbox in just the nick of time, promising to keep the gremlins of “I-don’t-want-to-do-this” at bay. But, that’s also an indicator that I do have a mind that needs to be constantly occupied otherwise I just start metaphorically dribbling and losing brain-cells (which is starting to happen now anyway, given my age LOL). In the wake of the stroke I had nearly 14 years ago, you can’t imagine how grateful I am that my mind is still very active (and I want to keep it that way), despite the unwillingness of the flesh that houses it to move with the alacrity it once possessed. Depending on the day and how I’m feeling, I can either be a slightly crippled hare or a tortoise.

This also prompts me to wonder how the world turns – six or seven years ago I was a distinctly different creature – living in a smelly, damp flat, drinking ally day and every day and with about as much enthusiasm (in those rare moments that I was sober) as a very dead brick. Plus I was probably deep in the depths of depression without even realising it. Now, all those years later, in the middle of a different set of circumstances (wife, house, family, a fridge full of cheese), things are much more hopeful, not to say positively productive.

Plus I am getting back into the old painting malarky, too. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it, but when I’m in the mood for it, nothing can stop me and I enjoy the frisson it brings immensely. I find it much easier if they’re commissioned paintings, rather than ones that have been dragged kicking and screaming from the depths of my rancid subconscious – it’s much better and more satisfying. Again, this means that next year, I’ll be able to take a break from the reviewing and get on with something to occupy my grey matter with.

In the more immediate future however, tomorrow night (Tuesday 16th November) I will be attending the launch of the End of the Line anthology from Solaris Books, at Foyle’s in Charing Cross Road, London. My copy of the book will be scrawled upon, shoulders will be rubbed against and drink will be consumed. Promises to be a great night… which will be duly reported on in Wednesday’s blog.

Okay, just off to talk to some printers… =)

News

Posted in News on November 15, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Just a short post to let people know that over the next ten to fourteen days I will be doing very little in the way of book reviewing… I have editing and scanning jobs that take priority (and the blogging, of course). Plus the wife and I are off to a wedding in the lovely city of Salisbury at the weekend, too…

… however, if I do get time, I will also fit in some of that reviewing as well – life is getting busy again, much to my relief… =D

INFLUENCES: David Lynch’s Dune

Posted in Film, General Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Attempting to bring Frank Herbert’s mighty mystico-socio-political series of Dune novels to the big screen has had a somewhat fraught history, to say the least. Back in the seventies, for instance, when I was a teen obsessed with sci-fi literature and art, I was highly intrigued by artist Chris Foss’ conceptual drawings (seen in his Dragon’s Dream book 21st Century Foss) created for Chilean film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s proposed adaptation of the first book in the series, Dune. Bizarrely, he cast Salvador Dali as Emperor Shaddam Corrino IV and also asked Orson Welles to play Baron Harkonnen. As well as Foss, he also brought on board the comics illustrator Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud and HR Giger (one can only wonder what the film would have ended up being like with people like that involved). Needless to say, the whole thing collapsed due to extravagance.

Other attempts have also been made by producer Arthur P Jacobs, who asked David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India) to take on directorial duties; and also the late Dino De Laurentiis bought the film rights and hired Ridley Scott (Alien) to direct a version as well, but after just seven months he walked out due to personal reasons and also a realisation that the film would be a massive and lengthy undertaking, something he felt he couldn’t commit to.

In the present, efforts are once more being made to bring it to a cinema screen near you. However, just as in Jodorowsky and Scott’s day, the production appears to be plagued with problems. This time it’s Paramount Pictures who are trying their best to get it made, but already it appears that directors have come and gone even before a single frame has been shot (Pierre Morel and Peter Berg, both named as directors, have both left the production). Pre-production has already begun, with a release date slated for sometime in 2012 (according to IMDb), but it’s now increasingly looking likely that it’ll never see the light of day – with more pressure being piled on Paramount because the option they have will expire relatively soon.

Despite all the difficulties, one director did manage to film Frank Herbert’s novel – David Lynch. However even this version carried on the tradition of having less than a smooth journey from script to screen. Lynch himself has stated that pressure from financiers and producers curtailed his artistic freedom and vision, meaning that when it was eventually released in 1985 he distanced himself from the project. The compromises he would presumably have had to make in order to satisfy the various camps necessarily resulted in a diluted film, a fact that was reflected in the lukewarm critical reception it received.

Since then, like so many other films that were panned on their initial cinema showings, Dune has built up a cult following, of which I proudly consider myself a member. I saw the film before I read the novels and, even though the film was in some respects confusing, I absolutely loved it. I locked into the arabic-influenced mysticism immediately – and the scene where Paul Atreides (played by Lynch mainstay Kyle MacLachlan) is standing in the desert, waiting for the sandworms to appear, and played out against Brian Eno’s haunting Prophecy Theme, positively sent shudders through me.

Even on a superficial level, however, it had everything that would instantly draw me into both Lynch’s vision and the world of Arrakis, politically and socially, that it portrayed. You have internecine intrigue, political and familial struggle between the warring houses of Harkonnen and Atreides, the promise of an all-powerful saviour (the Kwisatz Haderach) who would set things right, linked to the efforts of a religious order of nuns to prevent the birth and maturation of that saviour. Plus it took place within star-spanning societies and hierarchies, worlds very much different from our own. On top of that it starred many well-known names of the time: Kyle McLachlan, Francesca Annis, Brad Dourif, José Ferrer, Freddie Jones, Everett McGill, Jürgen Prochnow, Patrick Stewart and Dean Stockwell amongst many others. Each of the actors instilled their performances with an authenticity that brought great depth and complexity to the film.

I have often felt that Lynch’s version has been much-maligned, both then and now. Having subsequently read the novels, I can see how difficult it must have been for the scriptwriter to condense all that convoluted plotting and subtext into a comprehensible screenplay. Even just that first instalment in the six novel series is pretty daunting reading – inter-relationships, personal and political, are extremely complex and weave a tangled web, indeed. Added to that are deeply abstruse philosophical and socio-political themes that are integral to the narrative – is it any wonder, then, that it’s had such a chequered cinematic history.

Forget what the critics at the time said about it – I suggest you hire it out or buy it, watch it, and just let the atmospheres and intrigues seep into the pores of your skin, and enjoy a celluloid spectacle that was both forward-looking for its time and yet redolent of the era when it was made. It’s definitely nowhere near as bad as it’s made out to be.

Spectral bits and pieces

Posted in News with tags , , , , , on November 14, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Okay, just a few things to tell you before I get down to working on the main piece for today. First off, I am excited to be able to announce that the artist Daniele Serra has agreed to create the cover for Spectral III, Cate Gardner’s Nowhere Hall. His work has appeared in a whole panoply of places, including DC Comics, Image Comics, Weird Tales magazine and Cemetery Dance, and has adorned the covers of many books, including works by Allyson Bird, Brian Stableford and the recent anti-fascist anthology Never Again, published by Gray Friar Press. Cate’s surreal tale of a man haunted by other people’s ghosts would be better represented by Daniele’s beautifully and darkly eerie artwork than a photo – and I think you’ll agree too when you see his work. His website can be accessed here.

Don’t forget, yearly subscriptions are available for Spectral Press publications – you can pay through Paypal or you can now send me a cheque if you prefer. Each sub will cost £10UK/£12EU /$20US/ $25US RoW (all prices inclusive of postage and packing). Individual chapbooks will be available for £3.50UK/£4EU/$8US/$12RoW (again all prices inclusive of p+p). You can send remittances to spectralpress[at]gmail[dot]com – for details of how to pay by cheque, please send an email to the same address and I’ll get back to you forthwith.

As an incentive, if you do choose to subscribe before the first publication, then your name will be entered into the prize-draw, where you’ll stand the chance of winning a specially signed and framed edition of the first chapbook by Gary McMahon (What They Hear in the Dark). Alongside it will be a copy of the annotated manuscript, ie  Gary has scrawled all over it in his best red biro – he’s even signed it and ‘illuminated’ it with a little doodle of a smiley horned devil on it as well. The winner will even get a free subscription extension for another year on top of that… now that’s what I call a bargain!

I look forward to hearing from you!!

REVIEW ESSAY: With Deepest Sympathy by Johnny Mains

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Cover image is © Johnny Mains - used with permission

(Note: I feel it only fair to point out that the book I am writing about in this review-essay [With Deepest Sympathy] I actually read and commented upon before publication. This is principally why I have chosen to post this here rather than anywhere else – it might [and will] be seen as a conflict of interest in some respects. However, in this case, I genuinely feel that Johnny Mains’ work should be talked about, on two levels – first, he deserves recognition for his gargantuan efforts to republish The Pan Books of Horror and also Mary Danby’s stories, and secondly, I want to talk about how his involvement with those older tales has influenced his work, and also brought about a revival, perhaps, of appreciation for them.)

—()—

Now, I like a bit of gore in my stories as much as the next horror aficionado, but there are times when I think that certain stories disguise their lack of literary merit with bucketfuls of the red stuff, or that it’s nothing more than an excuse to either try and gross the reader out or just to see how inventive and sickening a writer can make the torture/murder scene. Some stories I’ve read concentrated solely on the visceral to the exclusion of just about any other consideration, leaving me slightly nauseous but ultimate dissatisfied and I walked away from it thinking “I’ve just wasted valuable time reading that…”

So, increasingly I find myself being drawn to the older horror/supernatural/ghostly stories, the kind that leave you to fill in the gaps and envision the action with something called your imagination. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t horror writers out there now who are following in the footsteps of those who have gone before. One such writer is Johnny Mains, a one-man champion of the crusade to bring back an older style of horror and ghost story. Within the past year or so he has published Back from the Dead, an anthology of new tales from some of the surviving writers whose work featured in the original Pan Horror books, along with a reprint or two. Then, he succeeded in persuading Pan-Macmillan to reissue the original 1959 first volume of the Pan Book of Horror Stories itself in facsimile (originally edited by Herbert Van Thal), along with a new introduction that charts the history of the series over the course of its more than thirty annual editions. Next year sees the publication of a collection of the stories of Mary Danby, who edited and contributed to more than a few volumes of both the Armada Book of Ghost Stories and the Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories.

Being so heavily immersed in such tales, it isn’t any wonder then that the flavour of all those old stories has thoroughly seeped into the ones included in his debut collection With Deepest Sympathy (published by Obverse Books). Fourteen tales are showcased here, many of which are based around his fictional town of Effingham-on-the-Stour: some of the stories work and others don’t. Mains has dutifully taken his cues from the time when stories suggested more than they actually described, and on that level they work considerably better than if he’d poured in some gratuitous gore just for the sake of it. The discomfort we feel from reading the title tale, With Deepest Sympathy, isn’t so much to do with what actually happens but arises from the sheer nastiness of Mrs. Primrose Hildebrand and the obvious pleasure she derives from upsetting and controlling people the way she does. The horror in The Bag Lady (the best story in the collection I think), isn’t just about a woman feeding children to a voracious sentient handbag, it’s the terror incipient in any parent’s heart when their child goes missing and also the horror when the woman in question appears to be going against natural instinct – women are meant to nurture and protect, not betray the trust of children. Life Through a Lens is also a terrific read: a prominent surgeon exacts his hideous revenge on a hospital photographer for not being professional enough when being presented with the aftermath of a car accident (which, ironically, happened to the surgeon himself). In this one, we really feel the building up of a subtle pressure, inevitably meaning something untoward is about to happen. And when it does, the reader really feels it.

It’s not all serious, however; Mains is also possessed of a blackly humorous streak as well. Losing the Plot, where an avid allotment holder has an encounter with a busybody council official which ends rather bloodily, is one example. Another instance is The Spoon, starring everyone’s favourite ‘psychic’ spoon-bender, Uri Geller – I have to admit that the ending had me wishing that it would happen in real life.

However, in the interests of balance, I should point out that not all the stories worked for me – the major one being The Family Business, which consists of nothing more than a description of how a funeral director/embalmer prepares a body, albeit the processes are being showed by the said embalmer to his young son who will one day inherit the business. Bloody Conventions has a nice idea at its core (author travels to convention, slowly losing his identity along the way) but it somehow missed the mark for me. The same can be said for Gun Money, a tale of a particularly nasty individual who not only contrives to leave hotels without paying but also steals money from the base of a memorial – the denouement, in one form or another, was obvious from the start. I also felt the end was rushed somewhat.

Overall, however, I can say that this collection is hugely enjoyable, atmospheric and delightfully spooky in places (check out Reconvened: The Judge’s House to see what I mean). Certainly for a first collection it shows potential and a lot of promise for the future. One other reviewer mentioned that Johnny shouldn’t rush to get to the end of his stories and to a certain extent whoever said that was right – some of the stories seemed to accelerate too quickly towards the end. However that may be, the fact remains that Mains is a writer at the start of his career and as such has the ability to take things in his own direction. In which case, I suggest you invest in a copy of With Deepest Sympathy right now and follow how Johnny Mains’ writing develops from here on in….

—()—

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Obverse Books

Publication date: October 2010

ISBN: 978-0-9565605-2-0

BOOK REVIEW: Tragic Life Stories by Steve Duffy

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , on November 12, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

“It was an attritional season, the spring of slow destruction.”

And then we’re right in it. Just ten words in that first line, but what powerful words they are, plunging us straight into the heart of Steve Duffy’s world.

So, what does he write about? Just ordinary people, living ordinary lives but ending up, through a cruel twist of fate, being pitched head-first into bewilderingly extraordinary circumstances – this is what he writes about. Couples just taking the first tentative steps towards setting out on a life journey together, for instance, or a young woman breaking out from her hometown for the bright lights of the city, or a young man visiting the idyllic country home of the parents of his best friend’s girlfriend. Then again, we could be talking about the writer attempting to get himself out of a string of bad luck maybe, or the teenage boy experiencing the thrill of life and punk rock in the heady days of its first emergence, right in the heart of one of its most vibrant centres. These are the characters that Steve invites us to empathise with – and then, just as we get to know them, he pulls the rug right out from under their feet (and by metaphorical extension, ours too).

The thing is, we could easily be any of the people in the nine tales featured in this latest collection from the Manchester-born-but-currently-resident-somewhere-in-Wales writer. Even though a debt is paid to the likes of the classic stories of MR James (evidently a strong influence on Mr. Duffy’s writing), it’s a world we can identify with only too well. Whereas there’s a deliberate distance in James’ tales, of the milieu of the cloistered academic, for instance (and a part of life that has long gone, in part destroyed by the very forces that assailed it in James’ fiction), Duffy brings his landscapes of terror as close into us as he can, sitting them down next us practically. That closeness is brightly comforting and beguiling, lulling us into letting our guard down. It is then, and only, that the threat is revealed: in contrast to James’ world, where the threat was to an ordered but ultimately hermetic existence, Duffy lets us get comfortable, and then rips away the veil of reality, revealing the writhing, squirming putrescence and rottenness underneath that threatens the very stability of everyday existence, without us ever being aware of it.

Let’s take The Fabric of Things as a particularly appropriate example. A young woman, desperate to get out of her native Bridgend, gets her wish when she starts a new job at an office in London. However, right from the start, it’s obvious that it’s nothing like she imagined: work is still ongoing at the building, which worryingly appears to need a constant stream of repairs done to it. This is a major inconvenience to the recently arrived young upwardly-mobile small-town girl, as the builders get in her way and constantly test her patience: but nothing is quite as simple as that. Unbeknownst to her, those very same builders, as annoying and boorish as they are, are doing a vital job: they are there to protect her from a very real threat, literally existing just below, and just on the other side of, the surface.

Then there’s Tantara, where the threat is implicit in the rural/urban and class divide – the country and its rituals are markedly different to the ways and rhythms of the city, and events are centred about one of the rites eternally incomprehensible to the visiting city-folk: the hunt. A young couple, anxious to cement their burgeoning relationship, rent a cottage somewhere in north Wales for a week. The surface of the rural idyll is entrancing and everything the couple wish for, but it hides a dark secret: a secret that, through no fault of their own, they inadvertently get caught up in. And it’s a terrifying mess they get themselves into, a terror that plays on the fears and differences engendered by the evident cultural chasm between country and city. Furthermore, it paints an uncomfortably unsettling picture of the decay behind the idyllic picture postcard stereotype, and is genuinely scary and unnerving.

Equally unsettling and unnerving is Only Passing Through Here, one of the best stories in the collection. Our main protagonist has unwillingly accompanied a friend on a trip to steal antiques from a house, situated deep in the heart of the countryside and the black of night. While waiting for their contact (a young lady), to signal them, an accident occurs, resulting in our unhappy accomplice being knocked over by a car. When he comes to, everything has shifted slightly and his friend has disappeared (inconveniently leaving him stranded), with the brooding house looming alarmingly out of the night. Alarms bells should have been sounding even before the hit and run: there’s that enigmatic house with its absentee owners and there’s no sign of the contact. More than that, when one of the men attempts to get through to the young lady via mobile phone, her voice is distant and distorted by a strange static. The silent bulk of the house is home to many secrets, that much is plain: where is their contact, for instance, or what was source of the light briefly seen in an upstairs window? Where are the house’s owners?  `

One more example, in what is already a substantially fine collection. Certain Death for a Known Person is probably the best story here, at least for me. A simple premise of a young man visiting the house of the parents of his best mate’s girlfriend, nestled in the heart of the Devonshire countryside. A fracturing of realities – the young man comes from a poor background and the house speaks of money, comfort and security. He already feels uncomfortable and out of place, and then comes a furthering fracturing of reality in the form of a visitor, a menace from outside the circles of familiarity. Questions of what is real and what isn’t come to the fore, and a snatching away of certainties and verities. Also, a challenge presented, completely unlooked for and unwanted, with a warning that words can be slippery things.

Most modern horror tends to the urgent and in some cases to the frenetic – here the stories take their time, building the atmosphere slowly, deliberately, and only dropping the occasional subtle hint here and there about the true nature of what’s going on. It’s very clear from the style and manner of storytelling the strength and depth of the influence his antecedent James has had on him. While they may indeed be reminiscent of an earlier style of writing, it has the effect of enhancing rather than detracting from their contemporary settings. There’s no reliance on blood and gore: instead, the underlying threads of unease worm their insidious ways into the mind as you’re reading, tickling the fear centres and priming them for the clincher’s revelations. Simultaneously, the everyman characters are real enough that we fall into step with them without thinking. This is understated, undemonstrative writing – but don’t for one minute think that it lacks power, because it has that in bucketloads (read the story The First Time for strong evidence of that… and that’s all I’m saying).

This is the third Ash-Tree Press collection I have read and I am quite simply astounded at the consistency of editorial quality displayed across all three. Without hesitation I can recommend as another essential purchase from this Canadian publisher. I have one or two more of their collections to review – if what I have encountered so far is anything to go by, then I am in for yet more treats!!

This review originally appeared on the Bookgeeks website.

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Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

Publisher: Ash-Tree Press

Publication date: march 2010

ISBN: 978-1-55310-124-6