This was posted to the old TTA Press website on 6th June 2007:-
BERNIE HERRMANN’S MANIC SEXTET edited by GARY FRY
Gray Friar Press paperback, 166pp, £5.99
Hard on the heels of Poe’s Progeny, comes this latest volume from Gray Friar Press, which has already racked up an impressive six Honorable Mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. The idea is to showcase that much neglected form the novelette, described as the ‘banana republic’ of fiction by Mike O’Driscoll in his introduction. We get six examples of the form plus a short story by way of aperitif, or coda in the musical conceit that runs through the text.
The opening movement, in this case described as allegro, is supplied by Paul Finch with ‘Hobhook’. The story concerns a policeman and his wife going away for a much needed break in the country, but as the narrative progresses we learn that the man is haunted by a terrible event in his past, one that makes him prey to supernatural forces at work in his holiday environment. Finch’s characterisation, the strained relationship between man and wife, is spot on and his skill at depicting place is evident in the contrast between natural scenery, wild in tooth and claw, and the bleak atmosphere of the building where the couple stay, the outré elements of the plot and the psychological complementing each other, and only refusing at the last fence when it seems to me he is guilty of wanting to have it both ways. Donald Pulker’s ‘Forced Perspective’ is an intriguing, one might even say Ligottiesque, tale in which a young boy’s nightmares of alienation seem to have an affect in the real world, domesticity giving way to the macabre and no real telling when the line is irrevocably crossed. The plight of parents unable to get a handle on what is happening to their loved one is put over with genuine feeling, while the ambiguity that undercuts so much of what is taking place adds to the powerful sense of unease. In ‘Live from the Hippodrome’ Andrew Hook resurrects Mordent, the anti-hero of his story Alsiso, a sexual deviant with S&M-lite as his variation of choice, and former copper now turned private detective. In this story Mordent takes it on himself to look into the case of some girls who have gone missing, the trail leading him to a shocking revelation, but while the story is far from being bad it is the weakest piece here, with too many coincidences for the plot to be entirely credible and despite the author’s best efforts it doesn’t quite have the gritty mock-noir feel he seems to be aiming for.
In contrast, Gary McMahon’s ‘Like a Stone’ is gritty as a shingle beach and never less than credible despite the fantastic elements that run through the plot like a vein of pure gold. McMahon takes the old horror staple of a group of friends with a terrible shared secret and the lone survivor returning to his home town to confront the guilt he feels over what happened all those many years ago and produces something that is a little bit special. What elevates ‘Like a Stone’ above all the clichés inherent in this material, is the writer’s gift for characterisation and the pitch of emotional intensity he is able to sustain from first page to last, the sense that the protagonist is really hurting deep inside and the brutal honesty with which he reveals his past sins. Honesty is at the heart of this story, and the refusal to lie even at cost of terrible pain is what ultimately redeems the ‘hero’.
Adam L.G. Nevill delivers a more traditional supernatural tale with echoes of Machen’s little people in ‘The Original Occupant’. It’s the usual case of academics biting off more than they can chew and choking on the results, skilfully constructed and utterly credible, with a growing sense of menace as the protagonist ventures into the wilds of Sweden in search of his friend’s fate, and never less than entertaining even if you are dogged by deja vu. Nothing could offer a greater contrast than ‘The Hydrothermal Reich’, which sees Rhys Hughes at his idiosyncratic best and gleefully kicking against the traces. Conventionally told and grimly naturalistic in its early stages, with the depiction of a Nazi scrambling round to escape from the ruins of Berlin, the mood changes to one of horror as he meets a terrible fate and this in turn gives way to a growing feel of absurdity as the aspirations of all would be ubermensch are reduced to comedic nullity.
And finally, the coda, Simon Strantzas’ short ‘Fading Light’, an atmospheric and unsettling tale of what a man thinks he sees when he looks in the wrong window. It’s a fitting end to a strong collection. And in case anyone doesn’t know this already, Bernie Herrmann is the composer behind all those jarring soundtracks found in films by Hitchcock and so many others. Go google, if you need to know any more.