Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #43:-
RICHARD FARREN BARBER
Steve, the protagonist of Richard Farren Barber’s novella THE POWER OF NOTHING (Damnation Books eBook/pb, 66pp, $4.78/$12.99), is a good guy. He’s interested in local politics and a socialist. He volunteers at the town’s youth centre and is always there to help teenagers like David when they get in trouble with the authorities. But the shop at which he works is in danger of closure and his boss Betty, even though he likes her, is a little too judgemental and right wing for comfort. And his past, maybe, isn’t as squeaky clean as it might be. Then into Steve’s life comes the grey man, at first just standing outside the shop and observing, but then following him home, all the time saying nothing, just watching as if accusing Steve of something. Eventually Steve cracks and takes drastic steps to get this unwelcome interloper out of his life, but nothing seems to work.
This novella presents us with an interesting variation on the vampire/doppelganger theme, with the grey man representative of the worst aspects of Steve’s personality, tinder for the anger he felt as a teenager and transferred into a desire for social justice. He is a foe that Steve can’t vanquish because in some strange way he is a part of himself, a projection of part of his nature, the metaphor made manifest and tangible even to others. Set against a back drop of high street recession and disaffected youth, this is a compelling story of what happens when we lose sight of our higher feelings, instead embracing defeat and apathy, the belief that nothing can ever be accomplished or changed for the better. But of course that seed has already been planted deep in Steve, despite all his protestations to the contrary. He is not the hero that he see himself as, instead regarded by the youths he thinks look up to him as a bit of an idiot, a hopeless case. The grey man embodies this feeling, this mood of defeatism, a psychic vampire who feeds on hope until the larder is bare and his victim, who is himself, must embrace a similar lifestyle to survive. Far from saving others as he wishes, Steve cannot even save himself.
Barber’s other recent novella, THE SLEEPING DEAD (DarkFuse eBook/limited edition hc, 89pp, $3.49/$32.50) deals with similar themes on a societal level. On the way to a job interview, Jackson Smith sees a man acting strangely on a bus and then his journey is interrupted when somebody jumps off a bridge. So far it’s only an inconvenience, but then a member of his interview panel jumps out of a window, with Jackson a witness to the event. Things escalate rapidly, with inexplicable suicides taking place all over London until the dead outnumber the living, with some of the suicidal trying to take others with them. Jackson links up with a woman called Susan, the pair beset by voices that urge them to kill themselves as they wander through a nightmarish urban landscape filled with dead bodies and others who appear to have lapsed into some sort of coma state, the sleeping dead of the title.
This is a pitch black horror story, one where the devastation unleashed is total and the only point to the narrative is watching how the characters cope with what is happening, an emotional rite of passage rather than anything more pragmatic or practical. It addresses the question that Camus asked regarding suicide, but does so in far more bleak terms. Barber writes well, bringing the inner life of his characters to the page and convincingly showing the disaster unfold in all its horror as the things they value are taken from them and they come to understand that the world they have known is gone forever. In Jackson, Barber gives us a recognisable, warts and all, type of protagonist, someone whose first thought isn’t always an altruistic one, who has to overcome fear to do the right thing. For Jackson and Susan only the support and comfort provided by each to the other enables them to avoid suicide and fight off despair, but in a bleak ending there seems to be no purpose to their survival other than survival itself.
The Sleeping Dead is an impressive work, a powerful and compelling new entry in the horror without hope school of the genre, chilling both for what happens to the world and the inexplicability of it all. On this evidence Richard Farren Barber is going to be a writer to watch, someone who is coming along in leaps and bounds.