Filler content with demonz

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #38:-


Serpent’s Tail pb, 241pp, £10

This is the fifth collection of short stories that I’ve read by Fowler and in many ways the strongest, with seventeen pieces that ably capture the terrors of urban life and human nature, offering contrasting visions of bleakness and redemption, all couched in Fowler’s atypical laidback prose.

‘We’re Going Where the Sun Shines Brightly’ borrows from the film Summer Holiday, using it as a vehicle to tell the story of four young men whose hopes for the future are soured by a vision of what actually lies ahead of them, a common enough theme in supernatural fiction but here made special by a humour and lightness of touch that throw the final revelation into sharper contrast. ‘Hitler’s Houseguest’ is less substantial and somewhat fanciful as regards plot, though rich in detail of life at Berchtesgarden as a reporter tries to persuade the woman he loves to elope with him but instead receives a premonition of absolute evil. ‘Dealing with the Situation’, again slightly contrived, is nonetheless a compelling picture of a woman whose life is unravelling while she pretends all is well, shot through with a bitter irony and bearing witness to the human capacity for self-delusion. In ‘The Green Man’ a jealous husband finds himself angered by the attentions a baboon pays to his wife, a story that runs along familiar tracks for much of its length but ultimately wins the reader over through its convincing psychology and the ambiguity buried in the plot. ‘Breaking Heart’ is slight, a moody depiction of two young women on the pull and the duplicity of men, while the ironically titled ‘Where They Went Wrong’ looks at the relationship between two serial killers, giving us a marriage made in hell and detailing the childhood events that gave rise to such monsters of the mundane.

‘In Safe Hands’ and ‘Seven Feet’ both hint at terrible things in hiding behind the everyday, the first with its chilling exposure of an anti-Semitism that is so seamlessly incorporated into modern life no-one even suspects its existence, a telling variation on the theme of the madman who is shown to be correct in his paranoia, whereas in the latter story we are shown in frighteningly plausible terms a London of the future infested with rats as the setting for an obscene attempt to placate the old gods. ‘American Waitress’, which was originally published in Crimewave, captures the quiet dignity of a working class woman persecuted by a rich pervert, finding heroism in a stoic refusal to give in to temptation, while ‘Above the Glass Ceiling’ deftly satirises the atavism of the business world when a female executive inadvertently joins a select boy’s club of those willing to kill to succeed.

‘Personal Space’ is one of the most harrowing tales I have read, rendering the fate of an elderly lady who becomes a squatter in her own home when it’s taken over by drug addicts. The narrative is informed by a terrible anger at the plight of those who are abandoned by society, and yet in the person of the narrator Fowler finds a quiet dignity and tolerance that eludes her persecutors and ultimately moves the reader far more than the terrors that are inflicted on her. The story deserves to be in every Year’s Best anthology going. ‘Hop’ is a story that plays slight of hand with the reader’s perceptions, giving us a man who on the surface appears to be a paedophile but in reality something entirely different is going on, while ‘The Scorpion Jacket’, one of those Arabian fantasies Fowler is so fond of, has a skilled tailor delightfully outwitting an evil Sultan, a slight story compared to the others but immense fun. The quasi-documentary ‘Feral’ catalogues some of the wildlife populating our city streets, a witty and amusing examination of urban life. ‘One Night Out’ is a simple, though not simplistic, ghost story allowing a man to make peace with the spirit of his father, while ‘Emotional Response’ has a woman wreaking terrible revenge on the man who wronged her, ultimately demonstrating that revenge not only is a dish best served cold but sometime should be left off the menu altogether. Finally ‘Cairo 6.1’ posits a society in which euthanasia is practised, though one man finds that the promised blissful death is an illusion. It is a fitting end to a strong collection, one that shows Fowler has lost none of his ability to give us convincing stories that entertain while at the same time telling us rather more than we perhaps want to know about where society is heading.

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