“Maximum Darkness” by Alan Scott Laney

This story appeared in Black Static #15 and was the first published work of Manchester based writer Alan Scott Laney, which tempts me to shake my head ruefully and say it’s all downhill from now on for Mr Laney, even though that’s not necessarily true.

Conceptually there isn’t much that’s new here. The story opens with Robin Parker scouring the attic of his family home in search of a favourite horror anthology from his childhood years that he now thinks contains the clue to how his reality is changing. And it ends with a resolution that, if it’s not there yet, is certainly edging in the direction of genre cliche, with his twin sister reading the opening of this very same book and the words almost identical to the opening passage of the story.

The worth of the story is in what lies between these two poles. Robin’s reality is unravelling at a rate of knots, and every person he sees is accompanied by either a glowing aura or a dark shadow. It’s a revelation that ultimately drives him to embark on a shooting spree in the high street (and for me the weak spot of the story is the almost arbitrary way in which he obtains a gun and ammunition).

So what’s going on here? Is Robin undergoing some form of mental breakdown, or is it a conceptual breakthrough which allows him to perceive levels of reality denied to the rest of us? Or perhaps there’s a supernatural explanation, with his condition identical to that of the doomed protagonist of a horror story; alternatively, the story may have made such an impression on him as a child that when his psychosis erupts in adulthood this is the form it takes (cue subtext for the Daily Mule demographic: see parents, you really do need to keep your kids away from that nasty horror stuff).

Laney doesn’t let on, though there are hints, such as the suggestion of some antagonism between Robin and twin sister Susie, the different directions their lives have taken, and also underlying banter with his mates in the pub a sense of loneliness and something ineffably sad.

The key perhaps is in the balance Robin perceives between shadows and auras. Whenever two or more people are together, both auras and shadows will be represented in the grouping. Within the Parker family unit, both Robin and his mother have shadows, his sister and father are accompanied by auras: Robin dreads the moment when he and his mother are alone together, and seeing which one of them swaps shadow for aura. When he lets loose in the high street he fires his gun not at people but at their auras, as if he is trying to maintain some sort of balance, or possibly culling the auras to attract one to himself, or maybe he even sees the shadows as harbingers of death and so wants to compensate for that.

Nothing here is certain. It’s a text that lends itself to various interpretations, with Robin’s motives in striving after that ‘maximum darkness’ of the title never entirely clear.

The writing is a bit rough in places, lacking in polish, as you’d expect given the author’s tyro status, and ultimately it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, exploring the material rather than steering it to some grand and revelatory finale (the meta-fictional nature of the ending feels to me like a cop out), but for a first published story it’s a decent enough piece of work, showing plenty of promise.

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