Some reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #31:-
FEATHER (Eibonvale pb, 379pp, £8.99) is the second collection from Eibonvale publisher David Rix, and features a selection of stories, several of novella length, linked by the enigmatic figure of Feather, a young woman. Don’t expect much in the way of consistency from this though – Feather is a contradictory character, both feral child and computer user, a muse and an artist herself, with only the most oblique details carrying over from one story to another, and a sense that what we are witnessing is not strictly linear. Perhaps the best way to approach the character of Feather is to regard her as a Candidesque archetype, constantly questioning those she meets and throwing their artifice into stark relief by virtue of her own candour and innocence.
Rix himself is a character in the book’s Foreword, ‘The Tiny Window on River Street’, out walking late at night and spying a peculiar happening through the aforesaid window, one that involves a young woman who he decides to call Feather and whose presence continues to haunt him, prompting thoughts about the nature of reality and story, a theme that carries over into many of the stories in this collection.
‘Yellow Eyes’ gives us Feather’s back story, the first sixteen years of her life spent as a feral child, living with her mad artist father in a forest near an abandoned nuclear power station, his vision of the measuring men and the torments he inflicts on his daughter, all of it leading into the father’s death and the end of this period of Feather’s life, with episodes that show both the kindness and cruelty of humankind. Underlying it all is a subtext about the duality of faith and life, Feather’s perceptions of the world filtered through her father’s twisted mind set, and her liberation arising from the will to question, a quality that seems to be her foremost character trait. It’s a harsh story, cruel and compelling in equal measure, but with important issues being addressed. In ‘The Angels’ Feather spends time with a ghost writer who realises something of her true nature as the two of them attempt to hold the world at bay by containing it in a work of sculpture. It is an attempt that is doomed to fail, and yet the writer appears to learn nothing, in the wake of Feather’s passing incorporating her into his fiction, idealising what took place between them until it is rendered unrecognisable, lines of fact and fiction blurred.
The next two stories find Feather in an urban setting, the companion of Richard, a man who specialises in procuring rare items. ‘Touch Wood’ tells of what happens when a friend of Richard suffers from a broken heart and becomes detached from reality thanks to a special drink. With her feral instincts, Feather is the one who can save him, the story magical and dealing with the trials and tribulations of unrequited love, with sparkling dialogue and a sense of the numinous held at bay by social convention. Feather is peripheral to the action of ‘The Magpies’, just somebody on the other end of an internet connection. She sends a phial of Richard’s magical drink to her friend the composer Elizabeth Ise, who is living on her own in an isolated spot and being tormented by ghosts, including that of her deceased brother and a sort of magpie spirit, though nothing is quite what it at first seems with a need to reconcile ourselves to the past at the heart of the story.
In ‘The Book of Tides’ Feather spends time with a writer who collects whatever is washed up on the beach and endeavours to tell the story of each item he recovers, but at the heart of the text is a question about the nature of stories themselves: the writer sees the stories he tells as revealing the truth of the objects, while Feather sees them as control mechanisms, a way to ensnare meaning in a net of words. This difference of opinion is thrown into sharp relief by the arrival of dead bodies on the shore, and the two characters appearing to swap tracks into each other’s reality, with a subtext as to how thought mediates existence.
The longest story and to my mind the best, ‘To Call the Sea’ is set in an art college where Feather is a student and Kay finds a mysterious pipe that enables him to summon the sea. With a mounting barrage of special effects, almost Jamesian in nature, and erudite asides on student life, artistic endeavour and unrequited love, the story is uncompromising and powerful, with Kay hurting the ones he cares about the most, simply because they don’t care enough about him, or at least that appears to be how he sees things. It is a tour de force of storytelling.
Set in Slovenia, ‘The Whispering Girl’ is the least successful piece, with Tallis living in one building and studying the empty apartment in the mirror image tower block opposite, apparently undergoing several deaths despite the efforts of Feather and others to prevent him dying, the story fascinating but a little too oblique for its own good, a symphony of effects with no readily discernible pattern and that fail to reach a climax.
Finally we have an Endword to book end the Foreword, ‘The Sea Train’, in which Rix once again encounters Feather and gives her the opportunity to rewrite her own story, dealing with the recurring theme of the interface between fiction and reality. It was a fitting finale to a powerful and intriguingly different collection of fictions, one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and I hope that Rix brings us more adventures of the lovely Feather in the future.
With fourteen stories between its covers, A GLIMPSE OF THE NUMINOUS (Eibonvale pb, 168pp, £7.99) is the first collection by Jeff Gardiner, and after the excellence of the Rix I have to admit to finding this somewhat underwhelming. The stories are hit and miss, with too many weak entries, pieces that a writer with a more substantial back catalogue to choose from would have excluded from a showcase first collection.
Title story ‘A Glimpse of the Numinous’ is one of the better entries, grabbing the attention right away, albeit with a lack of subtlety, by plunging the reader straight into a sexual situation. What follows involves the sexual awakening of a repressed woman, but couched in visionary terms, with her psychologist brother-in-law apparently bearing witness to a physical transformation, the style of telling very much in the reader’s face but with the narrative ultimately fizzling out, after simply presenting its new paradigms, an interesting but failed adventure.
Near as I can make out, ‘The Curious’ is little more than a word picture of some abstract intelligence experiencing the physical world, and left me feeling that it was an idea the writer should have scribbled down in a notebook and hung onto until a suitable plot vehicle came along instead of just thrusting it out of the door and into the world. We get something more substantial in ‘Withdrawal’, the story’s protagonist dating a man whose best friend disappeared many years ago, an event that he recreates in his own psyche, the text offering a subtle exploration of need and vulnerability, showing the fear that leads us to reject those we need most. Another high point, ‘Gull Power’ is as humorous as its punning title would suggest, the story of a man and his gull, and how the one saved the other, making him rich and famous by association, but at the same time denied any human interaction, with asides on the fickleness of celebrity and media culture.
‘More Sinned Against’ is the story of Adam, who steals the beautiful Fern from another man only to then lose her to a religious cult, before eventually regaining her again when she comes to her senses. It’s a readable story, but doesn’t really go anywhere or have much insight to offer into the nature of cults and why people are drawn to them, and on that basis I have to consider it a missed opportunity. The two very short stories that follow are the nadir of the collection. ‘Delirium Tremens’ has some powerful imagery, but overall is pointless and dull, an episode in the life of somebody with mental illness and their carer, with nothing else to tell us other than that such situations are painful, a truth so self-evident as to be mundane, while ‘Heartwood’ is a simple description of a woman who falls in love with a tree, and allusions to dryads aside it’s little more than a word picture.
‘Bred in the Bone’ is a story in which Gardiner gets down and dirty, and to my mind the best in the collection, an economical black comedy detailing how a family of killers survive and prosper in the modern world, sombre and depressingly grim, like a cross between Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door and The Addams Family. There’s an element of gratification by proxy to ‘Foresight’, as the boy with glasses reduces the school bully to a quivering mess, the story engaging but somewhat pushing credibility and ultimately with little to offer beyond our satisfaction at seeing the bad apple get what’s coming to him.
A young girl is besotted by the singer ‘Dionysus’, her reality merging with mythic archetypes in a scene where the teenager turns into a maenad, finding liberation through slaughter, this in turn inspiring the singer to greater creativity. There’s an attempt to tap into our fears of the young, and the subtext that genius is grounded in bloodshed, with sacrifice a prerequisite to artistic endeavour, though Gardiner doesn’t do much with these themes. ‘Past Away’ has a woman dealing with a stalker, the story leading up to a revelation about his identity, one that seems to be of the common or garden variety in genre circles lately (a similar idea is used in a story in the Chômu Press anthology reviewed later in this issue, and a while back Ralph Robert Moore took it out for a run round the block), but the story has little to offer beyond the cleverness of the conceit.
Finally there’s ‘Writer’s Block’ in which a wannabe author with delusions of genius records his setbacks, before realising the nature of the masterpiece he was destined to write, only first he needs to watch the television. It was another largely indifferent piece, and while I think Gardiner has some talent my feeling is that there are too many duds in this collection, dragging down the book as a whole. In fairness to Gardiner, I’ve ignored a couple of the better stories, ‘351073’ and ‘Phobophilia’, as I’ve reviewed them previously and space is limited, but even allowing for that this remains a very uneven collection, one where too many stories are unsatisfying because the author doesn’t fully explore their implications.
Eibonvale’s latest anthology, WHERE ARE WE GOING? (Eibonvale pb, 262pp, £8.99) edited by Allen Ashley, presents sixteen stories and one poem based on the idea ‘that the world we live in is still something of an unknown planet’.
Opening the batting is Gary Budgen with ‘Dead Countries’, a story that put me very much in mind of the work of Alasdair Gray, with its protagonist whose life goes into decline while his childhood friend is enervated by thoughts of Quassia, a country whose stamps he collected. The crux of the story appears to be in how one finds escape through imagination and obsession, while the other’s dalliance with drugs leads him into a blind alley. Each plays games with the nature of reality, but only in the case of the former is the mind expanded with endless possibilities opening up.
Kathy, the protagonist of Joel Lane’s ‘A Faraway City’ is haunted by the idea that her husband is visiting vice girls from Eastern Europe, eventually taking on the guise of such a woman, the keenly felt story showing how we can become alienated in our own lives, and seek to control the very thing we fear most by embracing it. In ‘The Way the World Works’ by Ian Sales a miraculous discovery is made in an air bubble at the bottom of the ocean, the story beguiling with its elaborate build up and the mythic resonances attendant upon its final revelation, but having arrived at his destination Sales doesn’t seem to know what to do and so the story fizzles out with the literary equivalent of an actor knowingly winking at the audience. It felt anti-climactic.
There’s a wonderful sense of the almost whimsical about Ian Shoebridge’s ‘A Guide to Surviving Malabar’, an island holiday destination where the very landscape changes constantly with a view to taking the life of the hapless tourist, underlining the message that there is no way out except death, with even those who survive drawn irresistibly back. Malabar is perhaps intended as a metaphor for the human condition itself, but the appeal of the story resides in the humour and casual invention that informs it. Acronyms based on place names are at the heart of Andrew Hook’s inventive ‘The Human Map’, the story hinting at an unreliable narrator and his attempts to get back to some idyllic past state, with a witty end twist.
Alison Littlewood’s ‘The Discord of Being’ takes Emma to Morocco to discover the fate of her mother’s grave and make her own peace with her estranged father, but there are strange events going on in the background of the story. Beautifully written and with a real feel for the foreign setting, so that sights and sounds and smells come vividly alive on the page, this is a sensitive tale of loss and reconciliation, of learning to let go of the things we can no longer control or need. And from the sublime to the exuberantly over the top with ‘Xana-La’ by Stephen Palmer, a glorious tale of adventure and derring do, as explorers set off to a mythical land simply to prove its existence, but in doing so must take on the laws of time and space, the whole thing gleefully over the top and informed by a pseudo-steampunk sensibility.
Cleverly written, ‘The Bridge’ by A. J. Kirby is a backward running narrative in which the reader becomes aware of the terrible thing done by the story’s protagonist, even while he only suspects that something is horribly awry. There are echoes of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in Frank Roger’s ‘The Chain’, with a journalist’s interest in a found art project detouring off into terra incognito and conspiracy theory, along the way providing a pertinent commentary on our surveillance society and the nature of aesthetics.
Ralph Robert Moore’s ‘Our Island’ is the story that impressed me most, a simple and heartfelt rite of passage piece, as two children who believe they live in an island paradise, learn the truth of their world and how it came to be. The power of the story lies in its sense of creeping realisation, as the innocents come to see how their whole existence, everything that they take for granted in their lives, hangs by a thread, while the spare, economic prose renders this discovery all the more painful.
Marion Pitman’s story ‘Overnight Bus’ tells of a woman obsessed with a cricketer and following him on a tour of South Africa, who has an unusual experience on her journey cross country. Again, with a real sense of place and feel for the alien setting, the narrative cleverly uses elements of the weird to force a moment of epiphany for the protagonist, throwing her own behaviour into context. With ‘Entanglement’ by Douglas Thompson we do get to travel to an actual bona fide alien world, albeit the protagonist’s ‘real’ body remains on Earth. The story adeptly stage manages its toy box of science fictional tropes while delivering a compelling account of one individual’s descent into madness, the text seeming like nothing so much as the Patrick Bateman remix of Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
Geoff Stevens provides the poem, while stories by Terry Grimwood, Andrew Coburn, Daniella Geary and Jet McDonald help to fill out one of the best anthologies of the year so far.