As well writing a column for the magazine, Christopher Fowler has had a couple of stories published in Black Static, and he’s also the contributor whose work I’ve read the most of, some fourteen titles last time I checked, with another one waiting in the TBR pile. And still only a fraction of the total.
Fowler’s work falls all across the spectrum (though horror is probably the most appropriate flag of convenience for what he does if your description allocation comes in at only the one word), but whatever genre he works in Fowler brings to it his own quirky take on things, combining that with solid plotting and a world weary eye for the less appealing traits of we human critters, both as herd animals and lone wolves. Though it never veers over into preachiness or lush sentimentalism, I’d say that there’s a very keen sense of justice, social and otherwise, at play in most of his short stories.
“Piano Man” from #10 is a fine example of Fowler doing what he does best. On the surface it’s a finely executed tale of spectral vengeance, albeit hardly original on that score, but the characterisation and back story add that little bit more to make the tale special.
It begins ‘I knew I was right to hate jazz, but New Orleans gave me a reason to fear it’, and instantly I’m there. The jury is still out on New Orleans, but as far as jazz goes I’ve never understood the appeal.
The never named narrator is a freelance journalist who is charged with writing a piece about ‘secret New Orleans from an insider’s perspective’, and isn’t about to let the fact that he isn’t an insider get in the way of that. It’s a few years after Katrina, and the city still bears the scars, seen most obviously in the unease of its residents as the rain falls.
In a bar off Bourbon Street, our hero stumbles across the story he has been looking for, when he witnesses an attempt at extortion, with an antique dealer setting his eye on the acquisition of an exquisitely crafted piano. At first he plans a piece along the lines of post-Katrina corruption, but events escalate quickly, with the shooting of bar owner Stormy Beauregard, and as he digs deeper our hero finds that it all leads back to the previous owner of the coveted piano, a ‘magic woman’ with the evocative name of Warena Samedi, who worked sex magic and allegedly could raise the dead. He begins to see the potential in the piece, the possibility of a book deal even, but as he plans his own story the journalist has become ensnared in a fiction plotted by others, and it doesn’t have a happy ending.
Fowler is excellent at capturing the feel of New Orleans and transferring it to the page, so that it seems so real to those of us who know the city only from books and films, every scene imbued with a sense of faded gentility and bargain basement decadence, as we drink deep in seedy bars and visit the homes of people clinging on to pride when they have nothing else left. He deftly manipulates the material of the back story to suck in the reader along with the protagonist, building a pattern from rumours and hearsay about the beautiful and provocative Warena Samedi that seems all the more convincing for being so nebulous. Even though dead, she remains a femme fatale, the presiding genius of the story and a temptress who, for better or worse, triggers the actions of the others. And at the end he gives us a memorable monster, the piano man of the title, a terrifying fusion of man and musical instrument hellbent on revenge.
My only reservation is to do with that ending, and the role allocated to our narrator, that of the fall guy, in that it seems so unnecessary when the truth of what has taken place would never stand up in court.
But perhaps he is being punished for greed, the lust for a story and whatever financial compensations it will bring that motivates him to get involved in the lives of these people, and so fall prey to them while seeking to take advantage, to strip mine their history for his own purposes. In one form or another greed drives the plot, whether it be that of the narrator or Sam Threefinger’s lust for the piano, with a strong contrast between the poverty of the innocent and the affluence of the corrupt, while over it all the shadow of Warena Samedi lies heavy.
‘Man, I knew I was right to hate jazz’ the narrator concludes, and the fact that he appears to feel sorry only for himself after all that has happened speaks volumes.