Filler content with menace

Yeah, I know it’s not the 1st of July. Stuff.

Here’s a feature on Gary Fry that appeared in Black Static #38:-


Apart from a slight “misstep” when his first published story appeared in the hallowed setting of the Ramsey Campbell edited section of “international” anthology Gathering the Bones, it could be argued that Gary Fry’s career trajectory has been a textbook example of what we’ve come to expect from small/indie press authors. No overnight sensation stuff, just a succession of stories printed in obscure magazines, then better known publications and “by invitation” anthologies, the author building up a solid reputation and learning his craft along the way, with the seemingly inevitable shift to work at greater length, novellas and novels. 2013 has been his most productive year yet, with a new collection, a new novel, two new novellas and an old novella nominated for a prestigious British Fantasy Award.

The collection first, Fry’s fifth to date. SHADES OF NOTHINGNESS (PS Publishing hc/signed jhc, 249pp, £20/£40) contains seventeen stories, the earliest dating from 2008 and five of them previously unpublished. Five of the stories I reviewed in Black Static when they originally appeared and so I’ll ignore those ones now.

Kicking off is ‘Out of Time’, in which carer Jim and his wife Jane, who suffers from dementia, join a party out walking on the moors, the group becoming lost and then finding evidence of something terrible following them, the nightmarish situation steadily deteriorating until Jim suffers what may be a post-death fantasy, travelling back to an earlier time in his life. The story takes a familiar trope, that of the disparate group of people being picked off one by one, but then turns it into something else, with the menace that confronts them an embodiment of Jim’s inner fears, the isolation of the landscape mirroring the sense of alienation that he feels in his own life, so that the story can be read on two levels, as psycho-drama and as pure adventure. Bereaved Arnold in ‘The Lurker’ visits the haunts he shared with his previous wife in the company of new girlfriend Pam, but they attract the attention of an alien creature, with aspects of Pam’s behaviour mimicking that of the dead Kate, the story containing strong hints of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, but at the same time digging deep into Arnold’s fears that he will never replace his lost beloved, that all future partners will fall far short of his romantic desiderata, and with the suggestion that his psyche will reinvent them in Kate’s mould.

The most traditionally slanted of what’s on offer, and to my mind one of the least successful, ‘The Jilted Bride of Windermere’ has the third party in a love triangle enlisting supernatural help to dispose of his rival. It’s a story of spectral vengeance that has a by the numbers feel to it and with characterisation that didn’t quite ring true to me, and yet entertaining enough for all that. In ‘Mother’s Pride’ the discovery of a feared book from childhood carries a curse over into the present day, one that places a child in danger, though there is a subtext in operation that suggests this may all be down to the externalised fears of the mother and issues she still has with her own father, the story subtle and understated, every bit as disturbing for what it does not reveal as it is for what is shown.

Jake unloads all his troubles onto a stranger in a bar in ‘Behind the Screen’, but then thanks to the wonders of the internet and webcams bears witness to this man entering his life and helping to deal with the family he has categorised as a burden, the story operating along the lines of “be careful what you wish for” as the horror of what he has brought down on his loved ones is revealed to the needlessly self-pitying protagonist, the whole undercut by an almost Lynchian feel of unreality. Brits abroad fall victim to ‘The Pincers’, creatures that are perhaps evoked by Ted’s distaste for the bigotry of his compatriots, in a story that hints at much more than is conveyed, with undertones suggesting that the downtrodden have their own means to avenge and defend themselves.

In ‘The Demons of New Street’ Fry gives us an original take on vampirism, while at the same time having a little bit of fun with the tropes of this subgenre. Carl and Elvira Adu move into a quiet residential area and invite their neighbours over, but they have an agenda, tapping into the envy of their guests, a hardworking couple denied the consumer goods and lifestyle that they desire. The story has a subtext suggesting that the materially comfortable lives of predators like the Adus are an illusion purchased at the cost of their own non-existence and bolstered by the emotions of others, tying the story into economic concerns and the wish for social justice, something that is common to much of Fry’s work. ‘Adam in Amber’ tells the story of a family in which traditional gender roles are reversed and unspoken dissatisfaction with this situation is brought to a head when the wife stumbles across a tourist attraction known as Darwin’s Garden and the Adam of the title, the subconscious manifesting in the form of an attack on the couple’s son by bees, the story intriguing with its strong suggestions of emotional problems made concrete (the author talks about this story’s genesis in the interview that follows).

‘Keeping it in the Family’ is a story that references Kafka’s classic Metamorphosis, with Uncle Brian who cannot live in the world transforming into a giant insect, just like one of the monsters in the stories he tells to nephew Eric, though there is also the suggestion that actually he commits suicide and the rest is just down to the boy’s troubled imagination, the story deftly melding the real and the fanciful to good effect, each bolstering the other. The shortest story in the collection at only seven pages, ‘Biofeedback’ takes the novel approach of telling a writer’s life story through the bio entries in various Year’s Best volumes, with art informing life and vice versa, the man’s fiction growing ever more dark and embittered as his personal circumstances deteriorate.

The rich are not like us and their children are not like our children, as shown in ‘With Friends like These’, the story of gardener’s son Will, sent to play with the children of his father’s employers and seeing them transformed into monsters who threaten to tear him apart. Superficially a chilling story of transformation and the monster hidden behind the veil, it also acts as a powerful metaphor for social injustice, with the monsters speaking the rhetoric of austerity and hard decisions, coercing the support of the only child in the group who might be Will’s ally, making him feel that he has no choice other than to betray his “comrade”. It gives us a picture in miniature of how class distinctions work and the elite maintain their power.

Last story ‘The Careless Companion’ has an autobiographical feel to it, with the protagonist Ian a research sociologist who writes horror stories in his spare time, somewhat mirroring Fry’s own situation with one foot in academia and another in the literary world. After interviewing a bereaved mother, Ian appears to bring home the ghost of her deceased son who suffered from autism, an experience that causes him to reorder his own priorities. It’s a powerful story, one that works on several levels, with its depiction of the plight of home carers, the idea of the ghost making real what can only be imagined, and presenting a cogent and convincing argument as to the worth of horror fiction, the story itself illustrating the argument that it contains. It’s a fitting end to a strong collection from a writer who is going on to bigger and better things.

And talk of bigger things segues neatly into a discussion of Fry’s latest novel CONJURE HOUSE (DarkFuse pb/eBook, 242pp, $16.99/$4.99), which returns to the haunted house theme of his first, The House of Canted Steps (to be reissued in e-format by DarkFuse in 2014), but while I had many reservations about that work I’m happy to report that this is much more the ticket, an accomplished and confident work from a writer who knows his stuff.

The setting is the Yorkshire village of Deepdale, where the so called Conjure House has a reputation fit to make Borley Rectory turn green with envy. Abandoned now and feared/shunned by the locals, at one time it was the residence of magician Peter Suman, who was attempting to achieve a “God’s-eye view” by turning his house into a shrine to consciousness. Psychologist Anthony’s young brother Simon inexplicably disappeared inside the house fifteen years ago and now the murder of his parents brings Anthony back to Deepdale with his young family, wife Melanie and son Carl. But there is evidence that something terribly awry is taking place, as with the mystery of how his parents were killed and Carl’s sightings of an elusive figure who could be the missing Simon, not aged after all these years. All he learns of the Conjure House’s history unsettles Anthony, causing him to summon back to Deepdale the three friends who were with him on the night Simon disappeared, each of whom has developed special gifts – art, music, literature. But in doing so he has unwittingly set the stage for a final showdown inside the Conjure House, a conflict in which the fate of mankind could hang in the balance.

This is a deceptive book. Initially the material all seems very familiar, the bog standard haunted house story given a scrub up and pushed out onto the stage to strut its stuff, with such familiar tropes as the children daring each other to enter the house. And with four adults, each of whom has carved out a career and place for themselves in the world, now coming back to confront the thing they feared in childhood, Conjure House inevitably invites comparison to Stephen King’s It. But Fry is his own man, and after laying down the groundwork his story gradually veers away from the familiar template and into uncharted territory with a Lovecraftian subtext. The feel of life in a small village, one where everybody knows everybody else, is perfectly evoked, making the intrusion of the outré into such a comfortable setting all the more unsettling. Fry builds his effects with a rare skill, giving the house an unusual but credible history and heightening the macabre elements of the story through solid grounding in the everyday, and if this were an ordinary ghost story it would be a fine example of the type. But in the final passages Fry truly comes into his own, giving us a vision of cosmic horror reminiscent of Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, one that elicits awe from the reader. Anthony and his friends must battle to contain a quantum shift in reality, one that almost appeals even though it would have dire consequences for the human race. He succeeds because of his grip on the things that matter, love for his wife and son giving him the strength to win through. The philosophical concepts contained in the book are not simply window dressing but the true heart of the story and plot driver. At bottom what we have is a story of knowledge that is too terrible for the human mind to contain, and attainable only by means of torture and abuse, with Suman embodying the figure of the scientist without compassion, a man for whom the end will justify any means. This is Gary Fry’s third novel and I would have to rate it his best so far.

Of late, it is in the novella form that Fry has been the most prolific, with two published in 2013 and another imminent in January 2014 (perhaps available by the time you read this feature).

EMERGENCE (DarkFuse eBook, 52pp, $2.99) is the story of retired teacher Jack, who lives alone in a bungalow near to Whitby. His grandson Paul comes to stay, while the boy’s mother is travelling to forward her career. Paul is dyslexic and Jack is supposed to help him with his reading, but Jack has problems of his own, and is losing the ability to read. He fears the onset of dementia. Google views reveal a strange, black growth outside Jack’s bungalow, something not evident in the real world. On the beach Jack and Paul discover a symmetrical formation of cones covered in unrecognisable hieroglyphics, leading to minatory dreams. The next day an entire miniature city formed of sand awaits them, and at a temple like building they find a dismembered seagull. These occurrences may somehow be related to Jack’s reading debility and as events escalate his grandson’s life is placed in danger.

This is an intriguing story, one in which Fry explores themes of language and the ways in which everything is connected, with words and letters as the atoms of understanding. The strange events which seem to threaten man and boy are possibly the attempts of an alien consciousness to comprehend what is unknown to it, and not necessarily harmful, or at least not deliberately so. By way of an illustration of this point we have television programme The Squigglies in which letters of the alphabet have consciousness and their own identity. Another strength of the story is in the relationship between Jack and Paul, two generations held together by a very obvious bond of love, while Jack himself is a nostalgic figure, grieving for dead wife Christine and a way of life, traditions and ways of doing things, that he feels is endangered. There is a lot going on in this novella, and nearly all of it is good. The only reservation I have, is that for somebody who is supposed to be reading challenged, Jack doesn’t demonstrate this shortcoming when researching on the internet, which is an omission I found curiously convenient for the story the writer is attempting to tell. It’s only a quibble though, and as everyone knows reading from a screen isn’t reading at all, not proper reading like with words on paper and all.

Just down the road from Jack, Meg and Harry have troubles of their own in LURKER (DarkFuse limited hc/eBook, 62pp, $30/$2.99). After the loss of their baby, the couple moved to an isolated cottage on the coast near Whitby, but relocation is not a cure for what ails them. Meg doesn’t trust Harry to be faithful, and now that she is “retired” she finds his devotion to work and making money a source of frustration, is affronted by the apparent indifference with which he takes responsibility for making other employees redundant. Researching the local area and in particular the Sandsend alum works, Meg finds an account of an entity, “like a centipede, but as big as a shark” that preyed on the miners, and she finds evidence that the monster is still preying on the innocent in the present day – muddy handprints on the side of the cottage, an unidentifiable creature seen in photographs, a missing woman. Events culminate when the creature attacks Harry and his lover Amanda, or at least that is what Meg believes happens.

Fry accomplishes quite a lot in this short novella. His evocation of atmosphere is assured, with the loneliness of the place and the sense of a tragic history brought to vivid life on the page. He is also excellent at characterisation, with both the main characters totally convincing, the conflict between them touching on loss, but also tinged with a political element, the collision of the opposed value systems of academia and the business world. Harry, while his actions seem entirely rational, has perhaps lost touch with his conscience and finer feelings, so that in effect he isn’t really all that different from the monster in the way that he acts. And what a memorable monster it is, festooning its appendages with the hands and heads of its human victims, a Lovecraftian creature described in a way that is unsettling, recognisable and yet totally alien. And at a push the manner in which it adapts and uses the body parts of its victims can be taken as a metaphor for the way in which workers are exploited by business, Meg’s doubts about capitalism given a concrete form and adding extra justification for our concerns as to her reliability as a narrator. This novella is one of Fry’s best, remarkable for the way in which it uses the supernatural elements to illuminate very human concerns.

MENACE (DarkFuse eBook, 73pp, $2.99), released on the 21st of January 2014, but available for pre-order at $1.99, is easily the most traditional of the three novellas. Pregnant after a fling with an actor, model Jane Marlow goes to an isolated house on an assignment to pose for a book cover, her presence having been specifically requested by the author. While there she has a vision of six children sitting on the grass around her, and when the book cover materialises these same children are in the photo. Jane contacts author Luke Catcher, who tells her that his book will be autobiographical and the six children on the cover are him and his brothers, while Jane is standing in for their mother. There are signs that Jane’s pregnancy is not normal and hints of something very wrong – she has developed a strange facial tic, a streak of grey in her hair that won’t come out and lost her appetite for meat, while the father of her child has gone down with a paralysing illness for which the doctors can provide no explanation. As she learns more of the Catcher family history Jane begins to suspect the terrible truth behind what is happening to her.

To not put too fine a point on it, this is old school horror, very reminiscent of books like Rosemary’s Baby and To the Devil a Daughter in the way it develops, particularly at the end. Fry’s story is more complex though, with plenty of twists and turns, evidence of something unnatural gradually mounting until we, like poor Jane, have no alternative but to accept a supernatural incursion of some kind. The joy of the book is in the eloquent prose and characterisation, the measured way in which Fry piles detail on top of detail so that the text evolves into a master class in how to construct this type of story. It’s not as convoluted and meaning fraught as much of his other work, and I can’t find much to say about it, at least not without giving away vital plot elements, but for pure reading pleasure it can’t be beat.

It’s now ten years or more since Fry’s first published story. He has come a long way in that time, and what’s characterised his work throughout and made it stand apart from most of his contemporaries, are the themes that he tackles, the way in which he uses horror fiction to address and concretise intellectual concepts. He can on occasion be a difficult writer, one who demands much of the reader, but the rewards are more than worth the effort.

Onward and upward.

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