Dark corners = black angles…
This review was posted to the old TTA Press website on 27 June 2007:-
DARK CORNERS by STEVE VOLK
Gray Friar Press paperback, £8.50
This collection consists of sixteen stories from an author whose writing will be familiar to most readers from his scripts for the critically acclaimed TV series Afterlife, landmark docu-fiction Ghostwatch and the Electric Darkness column in this very magazine. What may come as a surprise is the range of Volk’s writing and concerns.
Several of the stories are traditional supernatural fare in the vein of M.R. James, most of which are linked by the character of Mr Venables, an old school antiquarian come dabbler in matters occult. In the very first story in which he appears, ‘The Anamorph of Hans Baldung Grien’, Venables is a collector who acquires a cursed painting, one which comes to torment him with the optical illusion it contains. Later stories see Venables taking a more proactive role. In ‘The Chapel of Unrest’ he hears the tale of an undertaker who was once asked to bury a ghoul, while ‘The Fall Children’ concerns fairy photographs, only it’s not exactly fairies that are involved. ‘A Pair of Pince-Nez’ sees Venables unravel the mystery of alchemical spectacles that enable their wearer to view the past, while in ‘Sleepless Nights’ he helps a woman whose husband doesn’t realise he is dead, and so returns to her bed each and every night. These are pretty much formulaic outings – the mystery is presented, unravelled and a happy outcome secured – but it’s a formula that’s time honoured and at which Volk is a dab hand when it comes to providing the reader with a good time.
The non-Venables supernatural fare is slightly more challenging, in that the absence of a recurring character gives the author more leeway with regard to the resolution of the stories, as with ‘The Best in the Business’, which features an LA deal broker who gets his just desserts when he tries to cheat the man who cured his house of its rat infestation, a story that is very much in your face and laced with attitude as compensation for the predictable but nonetheless satisfying twist at the end. Similarly ‘The Latin Master’ has a nasty teacher punished for the sins committed in a previous lifetime, a story that builds well, with the writer deftly dropping hints into the text as to what is really taking place here, and the reader gratified to see this suitable case for treatment get his much deserved comeuppance.
And then there are the stories in which Volk breaks out of the straitjacket of genre convention and stretches himself, as with ‘31/10’, composed ten years after the transmission and a sequel of sorts to the famed Ghostwatch, which traumatised parts of the nation in the same way Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast galvanised America many years earlier. Like a criminal returned to the scene of his crime to both gloat and muddy the waters, Volk cleverly redefines that moment in television history with a take no prisoners narrative that looks into the motives of all involved and adds its very own tincture of unease to the legend. ‘Three Fingers, One Thumb’ plays fast and loose with the iconic figure of Mickey Mouse, as parents face up to the unimaginable when their child goes missing on a trip to Disneyland, a ghost story of sorts in which guilt plays a large part and with a shocking final revelation that pulls the rug out from under the reader’s feet. In Frankenstein inspired ‘Blitzenstein’, a clever story with near perfect characterisation and understanding of the adolescent mind at work and play, children create an artificial man from corpses against the backdrop of the London Blitz. Volk’s empathy with children is seen in several of these stories, as with ‘Indication’, a story that brings to mind events in the life of publisher Robert Maxwell and his family, the adult narrator recalling an incident of bullying and the resultant betrayal that shaped his life in childhood, a beautifully observed and keenly felt piece of storytelling.
For ‘Curious Green Colours Sleep Furiously’ Volk gives his prose skills free rein in a torrent of words that describe how private eye Malachi Persona finds the Fi for Beautiful Words to give to her lover Alto Sax for his birthday. It’s a bravura performance, the writer walking the high wire of narrative without a safety net in an impressive blend of hard boiled chutzpah with the wordplay and invention of Lewis Carroll, but in the final analysis is perhaps slightly too long for its own good. In the comparatively restrained ‘Time Capsule’ a teacher looks back at the good old days when children knew their place, a subtle and poignant story that reveals the banality of evil with its convincing picture of a wholly ordinary man who just happens to be a child killer. ‘The Good Unknown’ explores the relationship between a film star and the young boy hired to play her son in a new movie, an oblique ghost story, the narrative permeated with a sense of loss impending that prepares the reader for the final expose of what is really happening here.
‘No Harm Done’ was my favourite story in the collection. A young French thief takes advantage of the blind woman whose handbag he has stolen, only it’s not entirely clear who is taking advantage of who as events develop. There’s excellent dialogue here, combined with good characterisation and strong sense of place, the tension mounting all the while and the writer keeping us on our toes as to which way the narrative will turn, before the minatory but ambiguous ending. Finally we have ‘Little H’, written in the form of a screenplay and dramatising a supposedly true incident from the childhood of Alfred Hitchcock, the events that take place almost as surreal and threatening as the scenes he was later to place on the screen.
Tim Lebbon, a friend of the author, provides a gung ho introduction to the collection, while Volk himself writes an afterword that is valuable for its insights into screenwriting techniques and what he has to say about the genesis of the individual stories. It’s the perfect end to a book that most fans of this writer’s work will surely want to find a place for on their shelves.