Filler content without prisoners

This review appeared in The Third Alternative #38:-


Willowgate Press pb, 248pp, $13.95

 John Grant is a writer whose work covers the waterfront, slipping comfortably into such arbitrary categorisations as Science Fiction and Fantasy, Horror and Crime, or eluding easy classification altogether, a diversity that is reflected in this collection of fifteen stories from Willowgate, with the quality of the prose and the calibre of the ideas they convey as the only common denominators.

There are however areas of overlap and connectivity between individual stories, such as similar sounding names that recur in different contexts, a ploy reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s collection The Lottery and Other Stories, among others, and clusters of thematically linked stories.

One such grouping consists of ‘I Could Have a General Be/ In the Bright King’s Arr-umm-ee’ and the more prosaically titled ‘Sheep’, contrasting fantasies of a baroque splendour, with the former telling, in a lilting singsong language, of how a beautiful princess is betrayed by the man to whom she has given her heart, while in the latter the two are translated into mythic figures wandering through a barren landscape. ‘A Lean and Hungry Look’ is a pastiche of Agatha Christie style crime fiction, with the murder taking place during a performance of Julius Caesar by the local amateur dramatic society, a light-hearted story that will tax neither the reader’s little grey cells nor his patience. The character of Inspector Romford is reprised in ‘A Case of Four Fingers’, another pastiche (this time of crime cosies in a rural setting, such as Midsomer Murders) but far more inventive, in that the story is set in the wonderfully named Cadaver-in-the-Offing, the archetypal village where detective stories take place, so that Romford must tackle not only killers but archetypal figures and philosophical conceits as well.

Lead story ‘Wooden Horse’ will already be familiar to TTA readers, an engaging and beautifully paced alternative history story in which the true nature of reality is gradually revealed through the protagonist’s love of old World War Two black and white films in which events are depicted in fantastical terms, with a particular joy the way in which, having come to like and identify with the obsessive film fanatic, the reader then has the rug pulled out from under his feet as the man’s real personality emerges. More overtly SF, ‘The Glad who Sang a Mermaid in From the Probability Sea’ is slightly less convincing, with the real strength of the story rooted in its backdrop, the depiction of an elder ‘faery’ race co-existing with mankind and attuned to the universe, only to find itself a victim of man’s tunnel vision with regard to technology, while what’s going on in the foreground, an exercise in demiurgy, seems slightly superficial and tacked on. ‘Snare’ is one of the highlights of the collection, the story of seemingly ordinary Dave, who every year on a certain day follows a specific ritual that relates back to his youthful involvement with a band on the make and the enchanting Alyss. With keenly felt emotions and song lyrics used to enhance the narrative, ‘Snare’ is a story that captures all the nuances of lost hope and lost love, the pitfalls that we dig for our own future selves, while at the same time offering a thoroughly jaundiced view of the music industry and fame of the five minute variety. In contrast ‘The Dead Monkey Puzzle’, another story in which reality and fantasy collide head on, is a short and savage foray into the realms of brutality, as an innocent young woman is raped and tortured by three thrill seekers. The personalities of the men are cleverly conveyed through the use of dialogue, which affords a telling counterpoint to the inner life of their victim, so strongly felt that it spills over into our own world. This is the most powerful story in the book, and totally harrowing in terms of the events it portrays.

Fantasy ‘All the Best Curses Last for a Lifetime’ is slightly reminiscent of Dunsany in its depiction of an all powerful magician living in an impregnable castle, but the story of how he got to be who he is and the role he must play in the world is a fascinating dissection of the nature of good and evil. In ‘The Machine It Was That Cried’ an astronaut must learn to deal with the true nature of his partner on a voyage that lasts a lifetime. Thematically this story is standard SF fare, asking all the usual questions about what it means to be human, but Grant’s prose is never less than engaging and the sensitivity that informs the text enables it to sidestep all the clichés inherent in the scenario. ‘Coma’ is the weakest of what’s on offer, a story about a girl who comes out of a coma and discovers the universal chord which I found somewhat confusing and with a point that sadly eluded me, while in ‘Mouse’ two scientists who are trapped in an alien labyrinth must make an accommodation to save themselves, a very clever story with solid characterisation and convincing interaction between the two leads.

‘How I Slept with Queen of China’, another highlight in a collection that has plenty of those, is a rite of passage piece in which a young man who, in a fit of bravado, has bet his mates that he can pull the local barmaid instead comes to relate to her as a human being, marking his own entry into adulthood. ‘Imogen’ has a character from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline looking back on her lives and loves, all of which have a fantastical element. The story is well written and intriguing with its hints of lycanthropy and metamorphosis, but I suspect my appreciation was seriously hampered by ignorance of the source material. Finally in ‘Me Topia’, a delightful three pager which sits like a coda at the end of the book, a chance meeting in a pub has transformational consequences for one of the parties involved.

John Grant does indeed take no prisoners with this collection of fine stories, but readers could do far worse than to allow themselves to be captivated by his vivid imagination and dazzling prose.

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