Filler content with progeny

Here’s another review from The Third Alternative #42 to keep this blog ticking over:-

POE’S PROGENY edited by GARY FRY

Gray Friar Press pb, 380pp, £13.99                         

Editor Gary Fry explains the premise behind this volume in his Introduction, ‘I asked contributors to take a classic author or figure or trope from the rich tradition of dark literature, and to use this as the basis of a contemporary tale.’ It’s an intriguing concept and the end result is certainly rewarding, though I might offer the quibble that some of these ‘classic’ connections seem a tad tenuous. For instance, while the horrific is a part of their work, dark literature is not the brand name that immediately springs to mind upon hearing such names as Borges, Wells and Woolrich, and elsewhere, though I can appreciate that the distinction between a ghost and a haunted house is valid, some of the tropes listed, as for example ‘genre character’ and ‘the movies’, seem to possess a catch-all vagueness, suggesting that for the writers they are simply flags of convenience.

The nature of the project also presents difficulties for the poor old reviewer, in that maybe he should consider not only the merit of the stories but how they conform to their ‘classic’ template, and in some other reality where TTA has double the page count and reviews are written by S. T. Joshi that’s undoubtedly what happens, but in this one I’m going to follow another classic example, that of Alexander confronted with the Gordian Knot, and pay only cursory attention to the classic angle, or maybe ignore it altogether.

Mike O’Driscoll kicks off with Poe reification ‘The Hurting House’, whose hero Jim goes to the aid of former best friend Richard, when his wife Madeleine, the woman they both loved, goes missing, but this is the pretext for some finely calibrated character study and psychological observation, as dreams and fantasies, reality and occult texts merge in a shifting narrative where nothing is certain, least of all love. It’s a striking opener and sets a high standard for much of what’s to come, magnificently fulfilling the volume’s ideal by taking and building on Poe, making overt so much of what was only suggested in Usher.

‘Save the Snutch’ sees the perils implicit in Frankenstein reaffirmed with the tale of two pranksters who fool a group of  eco-protesters and subsequently get the short end of a very nasty stick, a satirical broadside that is atypical of writer Antony Mann’s work, a slight but thoroughly enjoyable story. Tim Lebbon tackles Arthur Machen with ‘A Ripple in the Veil’, whose protagonist is led to an understanding of the magic in nature and the need for man to put his house in order by the death of a bird, an emotive story that stops just short of sentimentality and, for me, comes closer than many to capturing the feel and concerns of its progenitor. Joel Lane’s ‘A Night on Fire’ is a savage and brutal indictment of human cruelty, with shifting perspectives and no hint of any redeeming moral, as revenge escalates into mindless violence in a story that is definitely not for the squeamish.

Greg Beatty’s mad science outing, ‘Dr Jackman’s Lens’, is one of the highlights of the book, as a man’s visit to the optician results in his learning to see the world in an entirely different manner, becoming part of another species in effect, the story full of confident bombast and cruel invention. Chico Kidd’s ‘Unfinished Business’ is another excursion into the world of her character Captain Da Silva, a man who could easily give Indiana Jones a run for his money, the end product a hugely entertaining confection of werewolves, rat demons and ancient science, rich in atmosphere and with a certain timeless quality that is symptomatic of all the best adventure yarns. ‘Once Seen’ by Conrad Williams is another chilling evocation of other worldly menace, littered with touches of macabre invention as a crime scene photographer is inexorably drawn into the investigation of a series of gruesome suicides.

‘Earth, Water, Oil’ by Jon Hartless is one of the weaker stories, told in the form of media reportage and amounting to nothing more than the usual skit on the ecological malpractice of big business and the corruption of politicians. Nicholas Royle’s ‘Sitting Tenant’ is an unusual haunted house story, its revelations having more to do with the psychology of the narrator than the supernatural, satisfyingly different from the norm in its emphasis and with a killer final twist. In ‘The Good Unknown’ by TTA’s resident film guru Stephen Volk, a female star bonds on set with the unknown boy actor who will play her dying son, with events and the emotional ground subtly shifting in a ghost story where the identity and nature of the phantom are left ambiguous to telling effect. Editor Gary Fry’s own ‘The Strange Case of Jack Myride and Company’, is the tale of student Louise Stephenson who is drawn into the world of a computer designer with a radical solution to the problem of job sharing. This is the second longest piece in the volume and something of a qualified success. While meant to echo Jekyll and Hyde it invites less flattering comparisons to the Michael Keaton film Multiplicity and, for me at least, wasn’t totally convincing. Fry’s writing is assured though, effortlessly drawing the reader in to the story and making him care about the characters, while the philosophical concerns it enables him to address, having to do with the nature of identity and personality, carry sufficient weight and interest to more than offset whatever artificiality is found in the plot.

Andrew Hook’s ‘The Pregnant Sky’ captures perfectly the feel of Kafka but brings originality to the table as well, with Baxter visiting a city where the people have embraced sterility to atone for some terrible error in their past, investigating the results of such a decision and how it impinges on the real world. Curiously this is the only story that comes with an afterword by the author explaining the connection to its classic inspiration. ‘Evidence’ by Gene Stewart is one of the low points, the humdrum tale of femme fatale Velma who gets Ed to kill her husband and then double crosses him, a strictly by the numbers rendition that offers absolutely nothing new on this already shop soiled theme. Rhys Hughes, unsurprisingly, takes a shot at following in the footsteps of Borges, but adding his own choreography to the grand design, with ‘The Jam of Hypnos’ in which a man’s dreams of food are given tangible form, the sheer delight of Hughes’ invention outweighing his often bizarre and inconsistent plotting.

‘Where Angels Come In’ is Adam L. G. Nevill’s take on M. R. James, as three boys visit a supposedly haunted house that’s something of a local legend and, of course, encounter more than they bargained for, a tour de force of creepy invention, macabre events and unsettling imagery. ‘The Volkendorf Exhibition’ by John L. Probert offers an offbeat look at the art world and its more extreme practices, a vignette with a satisfyingly nasty sting in the tail that more than justifies its status as conte cruel. Richard Gavin’s ‘The Pale Lover’ is another highlight, deftly merging pornography and occultism in the modern day tale of a succubus that’s meant to reprise De Maupassant, a story rich in atmosphere and invention, the author’s delivery supremely confident and each step on the road to understanding carefully worked out. ‘Living Room Zombies’ by Kevin L. Donihe is a laugh out loud parody of zombie films, with some delicious dialogue as coke buddies Jim and Randy do a somewhat better job of coping with The Night of the Living Dead than the USA’s dear old Pres, and, while the story can be treasured for its deadpan humour, there’s also a subtle and painfully relevant subtext about our fear of things perceived as different and what that can lead us to.

‘Papa Loaty’ by Donald R. Burleson is billed as American Gothic and the longest story here, a novella in fact, and wonderfully entertaining, with a deft ear for dialogue and finely tuned sense of place, excellent characterisation and an intriguing story, as handyman Chad goes to work for the Walker clan, a family with several generations living under the same roof, whose own natural peculiarities have been exacerbated by their nearness to Roswell (think The Colour Out Of Space, only without Lovecraft’s quintessential misanthropy). Chad’s discovery of what’s going on, with romantic rivalry as a subplot, is a delight to read from first word to last. And finally we have Ramsey Campbell, who’s given the task of embodying the brand name ‘modern master’, something of which he’s eminently capable. Campbell’s story, ‘Just Behind You’, is representative of his work at its best, with a tragic incident from childhood coming back to haunt a teacher, the story rich in sinister atmosphere and with a compelling build up of detail, though as so often with Campbell the story’s real thrust can best be gauged from what’s going on in the background, as shown here in the inevitably low key, and all the better for it, denouement.

A feisty introduction by Michael Marshall Smith and ten more stories of varying quality by the likes of Mark Morris, Allen Ashley and Simon Clark – my apologies to those writers who didn’t get a mention – fill out a substantial volume that all lovers of dark fiction told with skill and vision will want to have on their shelves, and for those who value books not simply as communication media but as objects in their own right, a limited edition hardback version of Poe’s Progeny is also available.

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