Some reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #37:-
It’s time once again to cast a critical eye over the latest intake of chapbooks in the Case Notes TBR pile, and we kick off with two entries from Manchester’s Nightjar Press, GETTING OUT OF THERE (Nightjar Press, 19pp, £3.50) by M. John Harrison and M (Nightjar Press, 12pp, £3.50) by Hilary Scudder.
The Scudder opens with a quote from Longfellow concerning ‘the inner life of so many suffering women’ and is the first person account of Anna, who leaves her abusive husband to start a new life with lover M, but the hotel bar at which she arrives for the rendezvous is the scene for strange and minatory goings on, and another woman drags her from the venue. Kristina warns Anna against her lover, the story ending with our protagonist stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place, and disbelieving that things have gone so terribly wrong for her.
This is a story that benefits from an oblique telling, with clues planted in the text and the reader having to put the pieces together, Anna’s true situation emerging for us as it does for her, with a slowly mounting sense of dread. An opening reference to spies everywhere, suggests that the story is set in a police state, while events at the hotel imply a brothel of some kind, with the moment of epiphany arriving when it is too late for Anna to dodge the consequences of her actions. But it is all suggestion, with nothing to go on except the testimony of Kristina, who may very well be unreliable, and all the more disturbing for that, with the reader’s mind free to invent other, and more unsettling, interpretations of what is happening, and the final message that there are fates worse than death. At heart the story shows that the world is not a safe place, and that the desire to better our lives can lull us into believing things cannot get any worse, a theory to which reality seldom conforms.
Harrison’s Getting Out of There is the story of Hampson, who returns to the seaside town of his past after years spent in the rat race of London. He is a lost man, acting out of motives that he can barely articulate, finding once again Beatrice, the girl he was ‘quite stricken’ with in the past. The two interact, but Hampson needs time to come to terms with the altered conditions.
Reading this short work reminded me of nothing so much as the feel of surrealist cinema, speaking directly to the subconscious and the emotions, circumventing the filter of intelligence. Images that impact on the brain as you read, but always remain defiantly out of focus, dream and reality mingling to the point where the dividing line is indeterminable. Hampson trails Beatrice at night, slowly becoming aware of other men, and even women, involved in the same activity, until it seems a vast crowd follow her nocturnal perambulations, but we don’t know how much of this is imaginary. Beatrice introduces him to the idea of things being left behind for so long that you forget why they ever meant anything to you at all, and there is the suggestion that Hampson’s past is like that, a memory he has discarded. In his dreams peaceful things become objects of menace, statuary seguing into broken limbs, idyllic settings transformed into murder sites, while in his waking hours he sees people inexplicably disappear, and there is a hint that he may be one of those people. In the end I don’t really know what Getting Out of There is about, but in this case understanding may be beside the point. What I can say with certainty is that it is a beautifully written and elegiac feeling account of a man adrift in his own life in which the world is reified as a surreal, dreamlike landscape.
From the This Is Horror stable we have CHALK (This Is Horror, 21pp, £4.99) by Pat Cadigan, the story of childhood friends Mary and Daffodil (known as Dee), growing up on the poor side of town in the early 60s. Dee wants to get out of doing her chores, and to this end must find some way for the girls to avoid her family. She develops a sort of magic ritual involving the use of carpenters’ chalk that enables them to stay in one place and remain invisible, though it only works while they are together, but things go terribly wrong when the girls become separated.
Like Bradbury before her, Cadigan captures the feel of childhood and the potential for magic in those formative years, but her vision is bleaker, less idyllic. The setting is a distorted version of Green Town, Illinois; small town USA seen in a glass darkly. Mary and Dee have family problems that never touched the lives of Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. The wonder and magic of childhood become twisted to end in tragedy, while the small town setting contains hints of problems stored up for the future, the toils of pollution and economic downturns to come. Mary and Dee are perfectly realised on the page, with all their foibles and quirks of personality, shared traits and vital differences. The belief in their friendship and what it empowers them to do is at the heart of the story, with the rest of the world seen as a place of angry and threatening adults, viewed through the eyes of a child. This latter element of the story is personified in the enigmatic figure of Detective Jack Harrison, who comes to investigate Dee’s disappearance and has about him something of The Twilight Zone. He may well be more than a policeman, the envoy of an agency charged with maintaining some metaphysical status quo, a balance that Mary and Dee have disrupted through their actions, or he could simply be an ordinary man whose qualities are magnified by the mind of a frightened child, imagination giving rise to the nightmarish. Defiant to the end, on the border of adulthood Mary finally comes to realise that there are people and things you simply cannot save, that to attempt to do so is to become a victim yourself. Acceptance is central to the narrative, both of Dee’s fate and the limitations imposed by history, circumstance and an unforgiving reality.
SOUL MASQUE (Spectral Press, 29pp, £4) by Terry Grimwood doesn’t sit very well with the rest of the Spectral Press line of chapbooks, both by virtue of its novel mode of telling and the non-ghostly nature of the material. Which is not to say that it is a bad story; it is in fact very fine, like a blood ruby lying on a field of blue sapphires, a matter of contrast rather than any dip in quality.
Four people with disparate backgrounds, each involved in the war against evil and serving an angel known only as the Singer. Sian is a dominatrix and mistress of the Castrato Club, acting as go-between for the Singer and his agents. Drug addict and former priest Jon has the power to destroy the nests of demons that threaten mankind, and Meg is his handler, driving him to assignments and supplying his fix after Jon has done the work required of him, she herself held in check by love for Jon and the threat of a tumour returning. Rennie is the enforcer, kept compliant by the threat of exposure to Russian criminals he betrayed, and in love with Meg, something of which she is unaware.
Grimwood tells the story backward, with a demonic attack on the Castrato Club as the opening, and then revealing the events that led to this, the tangled web of alliances and conspiracies. What is interesting here, challenging even, is that the author gives us a picture of people fighting in a heavenly cause, but at the behest of an agency that adopts methods most of us will find dubious. People into drugs and kinky sex, career criminals, are all coerced into fighting the good fight, angels with more than dirty faces. Each character has the potential for good, but that ability has been warped, replaced with a pain that can only be relieved through action, and the Singer exploits their weakness. The writer appears to be implying not only that conflict corrupts, however noble the cause, but also that the ‘corrupt’ and malleably weak can be the most effective when it comes to waging war, though hand in glove with this he cleverly introduces a note of ambiguity as to who the real monsters are in this scenario. The back story, with its hints of a celestial underpinning, adds depth to the foreground, and Grimwood gets right the feelings of the various addicts in his dramatis personae, their desperation and pain, the sense of not belonging. Add to this the novel method of telling, the terse but lyrical language, the scenes of mayhem that punctuate the narrative, and it may well be the author’s best story yet. I loved it.
As we’re dealing with limited edition chapbooks, I assume a word or two touching on collectability is in order. Both the Nightjar titles are produced in signed, limited editions of 200 copies, and the price shown for each includes p&p. Chalk and Soul Masque are both produced in editions that are signed and limited to 125 copies, but in the case of the former you’ll need to pay an extra £1 in p&p. This Is Horror and Spectral Press both offer chapbook subscriptions that let you save money and offer other benefits – check their respective websites for full details.