Filler content with face masks

Another review originally appeared in The Third Alternative #42:-

THE MASK BEHIND THE FACE by STUART YOUNG

Pendragon Press pb, 74pp, £4.99                            

Stuart Young is a writer whose work has been appearing in the Small Press for a number of years now, and this second print collection, which comes with an Introduction by Mark Samuels, neatly bookends his career, featuring as it does both his very first story and the latest.

The novella from which the book takes its title, tells the story of Craig, husband of Paula and father of Sophie, a devoted family man and devout Christian. Craig suffers from Pick’s Disease, an affliction that leaves him prone to Tourette’s style outbursts and causes radical changes in his personality; for one thing he suddenly finds that he has talent as an artist, an ability that hadn’t been evident before the illness took hold. And for another he’s increasingly drawn to question all that he previously took for granted, such as his faith. At the suggestion of an old girlfriend and against the wishes of his wife, Craig undertakes meditation to help him cope and as a result has a vision of God that both undermines accepted theology and places his family in danger.

This is an engaging and well written story, brim full of believable characters, intriguing concepts and a satisfying ambivalence about matters metaphysical. God, depicted here as an idiot creator along the lines of Lovecraft’s Azazoth but with elements of Nietzsche in the mix, is most likely a symptom of Craig’s derangement, but Young holds out the tantalising possibility that God could also be Craig’s counterpart, with mankind playing the role of Pick’s Disease in His life. Ultimately it seems that knowledge of final things is relative, with Craig’s wife ‘gifted’ a revelation of the true nature of the universe and twisting it to fit the preconceptions of her faith. ‘The Mask Behind the Face’ is perhaps a little too vague in its conclusions, with the sense that the story actually goes nowhere and the writer has drawn himself into a corner, but all the same the trip to this point is enjoyable enough, time spent in the company of people who, thanks to Young’s skill at rendering the ordinary weft and warp of human relationships in credible terms, we come to care about and with a compelling eschatological backdrop to it all.

The three stories that make up the rest of the collection are less ambitious but perhaps more successful on their own terms. ‘The Death of Innocence’ is a powerful and effective indictment of violence, dealing with psychological effects rather than the physical, as a man who has been beaten up by a gang is left housebound with fear, and forced to confront unpalatable truths about his own nature. ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’, which previously appeared in Nasty Piece of Work and was Young’s first published effort, is a story that never comes out and clearly states what is going on and is all the more effective for that, as a young girl looks forward to starring in a film for her daddy and his friends, the horror of this situation made very real by the child’s lack of guile and innocent desire to be famous. ‘Mr Nice Guy’, the other ‘new’ story and the only piece that didn’t work for me, is excellent as the character study of a Goth guy who is looking for love in all the wrong places, but that’s grafted onto a bog standard horror plot about the songs he writes causing people to die, lacking both the psychological acuity and more challenging concerns of the other stories here. It’s a weak note on which to end but doesn’t undermine what’s generally a very strong collection from a writer who shows real promise.

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