Michael Kelly made the mistake of commenting on one of my Ray Bradbury posts, and so his ‘reward’ is to have me reprise this review from Black Static #17:-
Which brings us to ‘New Voices of Horror 4’, UNDERTOW AND OTHER LAMENTS (Dark Regions Press paperback, 143pp, $15.95) by Canadian author Michael Kelly, with an introduction by Gary A. Braunbeck. This collection consists of eighteen stories, many of them with a common theme of loss, and again, as with the Hawkes, several would qualify as flash fiction.
Opener ‘Summer Ghosts’ is one of the strongest stories in the book, a moving tale of childhood and loss, of how life itself can become polluted, all told through the eyes of a young boy now grown to adulthood, but unable to move past the death of his brother. There is imagery here that will stay in the mind and tragedy to touch the heart. And there’s also ambiguity, so that you can never really be sure if there is anything outré taking place, or if the young protagonist is haunting himself, finding signs and portents in prosaic happenings.
Flash ‘Nervous Goats, Huddling in the Dark’ is one of the most powerful offerings, an Afghani marking the murder of his family, the story all the better for the matter of fact prose which captures the unreality of what is happening while at the same time making it all horrifically real. In addition to Kelly’s pithy, understated telling, the other great strength of the piece is that it avoids apportioning responsibility, which in a sense is to lay the blame at all our doors, to present this terrible atrocity in all its meaninglessness.
The other flash pieces are more of a mixed blessing. ‘Like a Gift From the Ocean’ is slight, a word picture of a man finding a washed up angel and throwing it back, with the suggestion that possibly he has failed to save a child from drowning. ‘Time, As Seen in a Merry-Go-Round Blur’ has a woman looking back on her life and lost chances, deciding to climb the beanstalk at long last, though there is a hint in the text that actually she is committing suicide. ‘The Bluest of Grey Skies’ seems to suggest our moods colour our perspective on the world, and was a bit too abstract to work for me. A similar sense of vagueness pervades ‘In the Valley of Sweet Sorrows’, an allegorical piece in which a man packs up his sorrows and goes out to die, more prose poem than story, and one which didn’t really engage me. More traditional in form and entirely successful on its own terms, ‘Princess of the Night’ is a short, sharp shocker, in which a young girl playing at trick or treat arrives at a man’s house with dire consequences.
‘A Haunt of Hammers’ is the closest this collection has to offer to the Jamesian ghost story, as the protagonist has a chance encounter in Prague which leads to his being haunted and taking desperate measures to shut out the voices in his head. Cleverly blurring the boundaries between the supernatural and mental illness (does the former cause the latter, or is it a symptom of insanity?), and with an intriguing back story rooted in history, it’s a tale with a strong atmosphere and sense of place, pitching the reader into a maelstrom of uncertainty along with the character. There’s a touch of Indiana Jones to ‘Basking in the White of the Midnight Sun’, in which an amoral archaeologist and explorer comes undone when he enters the jungle in search of immortality. The story is well written, but the plot is rather mundane and offers nothing new. Much better is ‘A Song of Knives’, in which an ugly woman disfigures herself and discovers the truth of her butcher father’s assertion that inside everything is beautiful. The plot is deceptively simply, but Kelly captures perfectly the emotional turmoil of his character, the way in which she is humiliated and the desperate measures to which it drives her, so that at the story’s heart is a plea for more kindness and consideration in our dealings with others. ‘If You Only Look Down, There Will Never Be Stars’ is the bittersweet story of the birth of a paedophile and child killer. Kelly enters the mindset of a monster, and shows us the world through his eyes, the prose almost tender at times as the character is given flesh and a purpose that horrifies even as, at least from the perspective of the protagonist, it seems entirely reasonable and laudatory.
Many of these stories take as their point of departure the death of a child, and that’s the case with title novella, ‘Undertow’. A man mourns his ruined marriage and the mess his life has become: a father grieves for his son, lost in a drowning accident for which he blames himself. But sometimes the dead do come back and redemption of a kind is possible. ‘Undertow’ is a keenly felt tale, one in which the sorrow almost weeps off the page, and shot through with a terrible sense of pain and undoing, as hints of the outré are injected into the text, the reader never able to be sure if these things are really happening or simply the hallucinatory experiences of the character, and in the end it doesn’t really matter. The authenticity of the lived experience is all that counts.
On this evidence, Kelly is a writer to watch. The stories are uneven, with the sense that on occasion he lets his prose fluency run away with him to the detriment of the plot, but the very best of them are as powerful and moving as work produced by more experienced practitioners of the fictional arts.