Trailer Trash – Better Watch Out

Now this looks like fun.

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Filler content with wet pooches

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #5:-

Humdrumming hardback, 224pp, £20

Fate and circumstance bring Guy Renford and Rosie Crouch back to their Yorkshire hometown of Stonegrave. He has just been released from prison after serving a three year sentence for the ‘murder’ of seventeen year old Billy Crouch (Rosie’s relative), who broke into his home. Estranged from his family – wife Bella was shocked by the violence and decided to break from him for the sake of their daughter Kay – Guy is a changed man and wants to put things right. As a child Rosie was ‘killed’ by Uncle Tommy, her mother’s lover, who murdered seven other young girls, and since then she has been able to see dead people, and now, after many years in America, the girl victims seem to be encouraging her to leave her abusive husband and return to Stonegrave. But waiting for the returnees is an ancient evil: the rain falls constantly and prowling in the downpour are terrible creatures, the rain dogs of the title, who prey on humankind, and as the deluge continues they kill ever more freely and grow in strength.

This is the first novel by Gary McMahon, a young writer who is beginning to make a name for himself, and it delivers on the promise of his short stories and novellas, the plot rendered with an enviable skill. Guy and Rosie are two sides of the same coin; each is released from an institution at the start of the book, a prison for him and a hospital for her; a violent act of self-defence is pivotal in the life of each, the impetus for so much that follows, and each of them must return to Stonegrave. McMahon uses this ‘mirroring’ to reinforce the individual plot strands so that resonances are set up in anticipation of the moment when he brings them together for the first time.

McMahon gives weight to the supernatural elements of the tale by creating a convincing back story, fleshed out by local legends, one that stretches back to druidic times. The omnipresent drumming of the rain permeates every page of the book, a soundtrack to all the rest and providing a climate for the hideous creatures it contains, things at first seen only out of the corner of the eye, or hinted at in events, but gaining strength as the narrative progresses, while the writer deftly keeps his options open by laying in another plot strand with revenge on the agenda for the spirit of Billy Crouch and his somewhat more tangible family. The monsters, when they finally materialise, are chilling in their simple ‘otherness’, the suggestion that they are only playing and its implications for our standing in the great cosmic scheme of things.

There are occasional slips, the odd phrase that comes over as slightly stilted, and moments when the writing seems a little flat, but overall McMahon’s prose is lovingly crafted, with similes and metaphors that stand out for their quirkiness as well as aptness. He is equally adept at describing events in the real world and the interior lives of his characters, with the ‘action’ scenes as his monsters cut loose holding the attention and generating genuine tension, while incidents such as Rosie’s flashback to her time with Uncle Tommy are written to repel but at the same elicit our sympathy for the child victim, this in turn undercut by a final revelation.

Characterisation is another strong point. Guy Renford comes across convincingly as a man who is just a little too prone to violence, but has learned this about himself and is painfully aware of what it has cost him. His love for his family, the feelings he has for Bella and Kay, seem totally genuine, heartfelt and real. Rosie is similarly well drawn, the runaway returning home, somebody who has allowed herself to be beaten down by others and must now make a stand. There are other memorable characters too, as for instance Bella, a woman who wants to do the right thing for everybody, but aware that she cannot put herself first; precocious daughter Kay, the innocent who has to be protected at all cost; the boy Kieran Crouch, a cat’s paw for others; Helen Crouch, so desperate for the return of her dead son that she will do anything, the Renford family ensemble, mum and dad and brother, each of them with distinctive traits and insignia.

I do have some slight misgivings. I think the novel would have benefited from some more background to Guy’s imprisonment – as is, it sounds rather like a case of perfectly justifiable self-defence. And the monsters, the suggestion of something even worse that could follow them through, have a certain familiarity about them (Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers comes to mind, as do certain episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), though McMahon makes them his own. All quibbles aside, this is a compelling first novel, a book that stands firmly rooted in the traditions of supernatural horror, but is also an original work written with skill and fuelled by anger at the shit life rains down on the undeserving. It bodes well for McMahon’s future.

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Song for a Saturday – Piano Man

Love the lyrics of this song.

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Filler content in which nothing happens

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #12:-

Quentin Crisp’s novella Shrike (PS Publishing hardback/jacketed hardback, 110pp, £10/25) boldly declares in its opening paragraph that it concerns a time in the protagonist’s life when ‘nothing happens’, which is perhaps a case of the author being disingenuous, but also in a sense completely true. Crisp takes as his role model the I-novel, defined by Wikipedia as a ‘genre in Japanese literature used to describe writing about oneself’. In effect then, this is the journal of a literary character, though without the structural conventions and sense of narrative usually found in fictional exemplars of the type.

Trent, a middle-aged man who is curiously dissatisfied with his life, visits Japan to stay with the Kunisada family, friends from his student exchange days. The patriarch of the family has died recently, and Trent spends his time with the widow Kunisada, visiting various places, writing and studying Japanese culture. His preoccupations are culture and spirituality, a failed romance which he dwells on, and an abiding desire to write, with asides and reflections on the previously mentioned I-novel form. The only outré moments are a dream Trent has in which his soul is judged by Egyptian gods, and a strand in which the presence of a shrike in the garden gives rise to some animal butchery, but both can be accounted for within the realistic framework of the narrative and no demands are placed on the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

This isn’t storytelling in the traditional sense. In lieu of the beginning, middle and end structure we get a slice of life in which it appears to be all middle, the narrator’s thoughts and feelings, the landscape of a mind. The virtues of Shrike reside in Crisp’s controlled prose, the reflective nature of much of what happens and the vividly described series of events. It is a study of a character, of a stranger in a strange land, but one who seems to be more at home than in his own culture. The appeal is not so much that of being taken out of oneself by fiction, as total immersion in the life of the mind of another as Trent, like the butcher bird of the title, impales components of his own psyche on the text.

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Trailer Trash – The Disaster Artist

Proof that the spirit of Ed Wood is alive and well and kicking.

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Filler content with feral children

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #12:-

Marly Youmans’ novella Val/Orson (PS Publishing hardback/jacketed hardback, 125pp, £10/£25) is coming from a similar place to the Wexler, though its primary concerns are environmental rather than aesthetic, and the text harks back to both the French medieval romance of Valentine and Orson and Shakespeare’s romantic comedies with their sylvan setting.

Abandoned by her lover, Bella gives birth to twins while out in the forest, but the first born is taken away by a man. With partner Fergus she raises the second, and Valentine grows up to love the forests of California, making a life for himself among the trees, but he is always troubled by a feeling of incompleteness, the absence of the brother he has named Orson. Val is involved with a group of environmentalists protecting the trees from the inroads of the NAXXIN Corporation. When the girl Diamond arrives to tree sit in stately Thoor Ballylee, Val’s fascination with her leads to change in his own life and that of all around him.

This is a clever work of fiction, beautifully written and with the theme of the twin recurring throughout. Val’s love of nature comes over well, with the forest setting and his desire for a life in harmony with the environment portrayed strongly. Youman’s writing has a genuine feel for the landscape, so that the reader wants to wander beneath the forest canopy with Val, to follow in his footsteps as he leaves civilisation and all its troubles behind, and trees like Thoor Ballylee become every bit as much a part of the book’s dramatis personae as the human protagonists, given their own characteristics and distinct personalities. Infusing the work is an awareness of and respect for the trees as living beings, with every bit as much right to continue on into the future as the messy bipeds who stroll aimlessly among them.

These concerns underlie the story, but the conflict with NAXXIN, which at first looks set to give the book a more dynamic aspect, ideology in action, proves to be a side issue to more intimate and personal concerns. Love is the quality that animates this text, be it that of the various couples, of estranged brothers whose hearts cry out to each other or, on a grander scale, man’s love for the environment, his worship of the Gaian principle. After various misalliances and misunderstandings, alarums and excursions, Youmans brings the curtain down with happy ever afters all round and an ending reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which it elegantly and joyfully pastiches.

Val/Orson is a quiet, perfectly judged account of love and loss, of the feral child and what comes after, and lucid with intelligence and a true feeling for what is being recounted.

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Song for a Saturday – We Didn’t Start the Fire

A month in the company of Billy Joel.

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