Filler content with chapbooks

Four reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #35:-


ROADKILL (This Is Horror, 28pp, £4.99) is written from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, involved in a race with a woman known as Dubb. They are driving Vindicators at 180mph along a stretch of road called The Final Five, circumventing various obstacles in their path. Both are Gentleborn folk, members of some rigidly hierarchical society, one where everyone has a function defined by their name/clan. The winner of the race will receive Convergence, and become one of the Boymen, ageless seekers after wisdom.

You can approach this work on two levels. Superficially it’s a kind of Death Race, dragsters driven at high speed along a dubious racetrack, and on that level it’s certainly an exciting read, author Joseph D’Lacey’s slightly breathless prose capturing perfectly the thrill of speed and the demands on the driver. The heart of the story though lies in the backdrop, the vision of a barely populated Earth and wandering clans, the ceremonies and rituals that hold their society together. And in the prevalence of blood in their way of life and hints such as the fact that the Boymen are ageless and never leave the Dark Hall, we gain vital clues as to the nature of what has happened. Beneath the surface trappings is a familiar theme given a strikingly original twist.

But perhaps the most significant moment in the text comes when the Black Fox, a nature spirit of some kind, asks both drivers what they truly wish for when they and their people already have everything they need, an interlude that seems almost intrusive, a blip in the narrative arc, but one that deftly questions the values and aspirations we hold dear, the fact that we never seem to be satisfied. This is the best thing I can recall reading by Joseph D’Lacey, with all the sound and fury of novels like Meat and The Garbage Man condensed into a single poignant story, one that challenges the reader. I loved it.

TOUCH ME WITH YOUR COLD, HARD FINGERS (Nightjar Press, 15pp, £3.50) is the story of Maureen who thinks she is in a serious relationship with Tony and then one night she goes round to his flat to find him almost comatose and sitting in a chair facing a mannequin seated opposite. Tony has no idea of where it came from, and there are disturbing signs that the thing may in fact be alive. Tony appears to be hopelessly attracted to it, and in attempting to deal with her ‘rival’ Maureen might have bit off more than she can chew.

This is the first work I can recall seeing by writer Elizabeth Stott and it’s certainly an impressive piece, with a subtext on gender and sexual politics underlying the surface mood of creepiness. Maureen has ambitions to change Tony, to make him the man she wants him to be, but the implication seems to be that he also has visions of how Maureen should be, and his will appears to be the stronger, even though he seems unaware of this, with the result that her personality is subsumed. It’s a subtle work, one that captures perfectly the feel of this embryonic relationship and the futility of love in the face of conditioned expectations, with some delicious dialogue as the put upon Maureen comes to terms with her fate. And, of course, you can ignore all of this and simply see it as a spooky tale of the supernatural, one in which the doll is much more than it appears to be.

THE JUNGLE (Nightjar Press, 13pp, £3.50) put me in mind of Bradbury’s classic tale ‘The Veldt’, though the resemblance is only superficial. An over-protective father takes his son Fred out for a trip in the world, but the man’s grip on reality appears to be tenuous. He is starting to see things, people transmuting, and images from the painting of a jungle that he is producing back in his studio are bleeding into the real world. The father loses sight of Fred in a jungle gym.

This is the second Conrad Williams chapbook I’ve reviewed this year. The Fox set the bar extremely high, and this doesn’t quite clear it, but it’s still an excellent slice of disturbing fiction, the sense of unease growing as the story progresses, so that we wonder when the line is crossed and a father’s natural concern for the safety of his child becomes a terrible, stifling obsession. It’s beautifully written, as always with Williams, and the flawed personality of the father comes over well, with so much revealed by means of the snap judgements he makes about other people. And, underlying it all, there’s a feeling of angst and existential menace, the suggestion that reality can be altered through a system somewhat similar to sympathetic magic, the world of the painting seeping over into reality.

I’m not sure if AN ANTIQUE LAND (Invocations Press, 56pp, £5) belongs under the Chapbook heading, but I don’t know where else it would fit and so, in Kate Bush parlance, ‘I put this moment here’.

The inside cover defines this small book as ‘A Cryptic Caprice; Collected and Edited by John Shire’, and that’s a fairly accurate description regarding a work for which such terms as Borgesian and meta-fiction seem to have been invented. It all revolves round a travel book published in 1909, An Antique Land by Henry Piers Thursby Curtis, a volume for which he invited various explorers and travellers to submit their stories. Specifically we are reading the journal of a man who got lost in the desert and was sold as a slave to an order of monks. The Librarians, as they are known, at their mountain retreat care for the Library of Untouched Works, the Virgin’s Library, and our narrator is to join their ranks.

This Library brings to mind the idea of Platonic forms, that these unwritten tomes are the ideal books of which those in the real world are mere shadows, and occasionally one volume will escape and become an actual book. Appended to this stem narrative, are other sections detailing the origins of An Antique Land, offering snippets of criticism, quotations and comments that touch on what books represent to us, even photographs and illustrations.

It’s collage writing, but does it actually tell a story? No, I don’t think that it does, at least in any conventional sense of the term. Instead it offers a kaleidoscopic vision of literature, giving us different ways to look at books and reassessing their place in our existence. In the end only the books are real, it is we who are the fiction, characters in a drama that timelessly plays out, or at least that is how it appears in this brief but touchstone narrative, one that will set the ideas spinning inside the mind of the reader.

All four books are available in limited editions of 125, 200, 200 and 100 copies respectively, and the first three are signed by the authors. The price shown for the Nightjar Press volumes includes p&p, but for Roadkill you’ll have to pay extra, while An Antique Land appears to be available only through Bibliomancy on Amazon.

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