Filler content with Andrew Humphrey

Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #4:-

LOVE ON THE ROCKS: ANDREW HUMPHREY IN REVIEW

It’s been five years since his debut collection Open the Box and now Andrew Humphrey is back (not that he’d ever been away) with two new books. Other Voices (Elastic Press paperback, 221pp, £5.99) contains thirteen stories that, in the words of the publisher, encompass ‘the genres of urban horror, science fiction, crime and slipstream’, most of them set in a Norfolk landscape that Humphrey has made his own.

Back cover blurb aside, science fiction is not really a genre I think of Humphrey in connection with. Rather he uses the trappings of SF on occasion, but only as backdrop to his trademark stories of alienation and estrangement. Lead story ‘Grief Inc’ is a good example. The setting is a Norwich of the near future, one in which society has reached such a point of collapse that comparisons to downtown Beirut are not far off the mark. Carter, the story’s protagonist, makes a living by using his ability to take away the grief of others, but the irony of his situation is that he cannot deal with his own dissatisfaction and know the relief his customers feel, must make do with a cynical philosophy that allows no room for caring. It’s only by confronting his own shortcomings and taking a risk on somebody else that he is able to break the pattern in this gripping and beautifully realised dystopian tale.

The science fictional elements are more overt in ‘Mimic’, a Dickian story, in some ways reminiscent of The Prisoner TV series. Men at a secret underground installation guard aliens who can take any shape, including human form, giving rise to the suspicion that one of them has been replaced by a duplicate, but how can they know? It’s a familiar genre trope, but Humphrey plays a new riff on an old theme by conflating concepts of memory and identity with an ever more pressing sense of paranoia induced by the motives of the faceless bureaucrats who control these men’s lives. The same interplay between the personal and larger events can be seen in ‘Tilt’, which opens with a series of inexplicable explosions rocking the world, possibly heralding the Rapture and End of Days. For Humphrey’s characters though this drama played out on a global scale is just background noise for their business as usual marital discord, the wife using the opportunity to settle a few old scores and the husband’s response largely one of diffidence, giving the story a bleak subtext along the lines of the more things change the more they stay the same. It seems that not even the end of the world will allow us to break out of the old routines, only empower us to indulge them with even less restraint than before.

‘Think of a Number’ is the most overtly horrific of what’s on offer. A young man training as a killer for hire goes back to murder all those who abused him as a child, when his father farmed him out to a paedophile ring. This is a grim and unflinching story, one that neither looks away from nor sensationalises the terrible events it describes, and whatever pleasure there is for the reader comes from the satisfaction of seeing the evildoers get their deserved comeuppance and a sliver of insight into the mind of the killer. There’s a different father and son pairing in ‘Dogfight’, with the two attempting to bond after the death of their wife/mother, but for the boy any olive branch extended by the man is tainted with the memory of past betrayals. They find common ground in the old wartime stories of the boy’s great grandfather and time slip visions of a dogfight in the empty skies over Norfolk. The story has echoes of Graham Joyce’s Tiger Moth, but Humphrey gives it a uniquely compelling resonance with the way he depicts hostility within the family unit and the hint of hard won trust coming to the fore at the end, even though it may cost both man and boy their lives.

‘Strawberry Hill’ is perhaps my favourite story and one of the most moving in the collection. The protagonist is forced to deal with an incident from his past, something he had thought long forgotten but has returned with a vengeance. It’s a beautifully written and chilling story that raises questions about personal culpability, the role of the voyeur and the sins of childhood, and does so in a way that drags the reader into its world, asking us all to hold a mirror up to our own faces. The past similarly comes back to haunt the present in ‘Old Wounds’. The protagonist’s son gets involved with an older woman, one who sounds suspiciously like the big love of his life, only she was supposed to have died years back in an S&M tryst gone wrong. It’s an artful story, one in which revelation follows revelation, with many subtle touches of emotion along the way and a surprising but entirely appropriate note of ambiguity at the end.

‘Last Kiss’ is the final story in the collection and also the longest. John uncharacteristically performs a good deed, saving a young man on the brink of committing suicide, only for it to come back and haunt him when the young man invades his life, exposing his flaws and infidelities to his trusting wife and absent mistress. It’s a measured piece, each step in the disintegration carefully charted and slotting neatly into the whole, with the various interlocking relationships compellingly detailed, John with wife Becky, with mistress Helen, with best friend Charlie, and a bright light shone on all the weak points. In John we get a typical Humphrey protagonist, the cheating husband and lover who thinks only of himself, but all the same can’t quite cope when others do unto him as he has done to them. It’s a powerful end to a collection that will linger long in the memory.

Similar themes of trust betrayed and love gone sour are played out on a larger canvas in the novel Alison (TTA Press paperback, 174pp, £9.99), but first I have to declare an interest. TTA also publish Black Static and so, while the reviewer will vigorously protest his impartiality, the reader may feel a need to flavour his comments with a pinch of salt and assume that he won’t mention the five typos the book contains or the very obvious plot glitch on Page 200 etc.

The novel opens with a scene of domestic bliss, Chris and Alison at home together and doing the ordinary things that lovers do, and then quickly hits us with another, shocking scene, Alison’s funeral and graveside recriminations as her family vent their anger at her suicide by blaming Chris. From then on it divides into two strands, one moving forward in time and the other reprising the relationship between Chris and Alison. Both strands are written in the first person and with Chris as the viewpoint character, but one is in the present tense and the other in the past, a simple but effective ploy that enables the reader to keep track as events segue and bleed into each other.

In one strand we get Chris’ first encounter with Alison, who is the flatmate of his then girlfriend Emma, and we see their relationship blossom into romance, his attempts to lure her away from a boyfriend who makes her unhappy and a controlling family. In the other strand we learn the secret’s of Alison’s life, the things which she never revealed to Chris and the complicity in her deceit of his best friends, nightclub singer Emma and drug dealer Spike. Both strands play off of and inform each other, while presiding over both like some evil genius, a spider at the centre of its web, is the monstrous Charlotte, Alison’s abomination of a mother. The tag line for this book is ‘every one has their dark side…’ Chris uncovers Alison’s guilty secret, but it’s the catalyst for getting in touch with his own dark side.

This is a fast paced story, one that I read in two sessions, punctuated by a break for pizza (spicy chicken, if you’re interested). Part of the speed is down to the short chapters, but it’s also owing to Humphrey’s terse, driven prose, with an almost machine gun delivery at times and cutting dialogue. He is superb at showing how love can develop, the ups and downs of a relationship, the ties that bind people, the things that can drive them apart, and pitching it all in terms the average reader will be able to relate to, events that carry the stamp of authenticity in personal experience. Gentle Chris is the ideal foil for damaged Alison, so that you sense things were always doomed between these two, and ultimately it is Chris’ innocence that is lost, while the other characters, manipulative Charlotte and amoral Spike, bullying Miles and needy Emma, are all just as fully rounded and well realised on the page. Humphrey never allows us a moment’s doubt as to the reality of these people or the ways in which they interact with each other. His piecemeal disclosure of the plot is an object lesson in how to hold a reader’s attention, lacing the narrative with a heady dose of violence and off the wall sex. It’s only in the latter regard, with the pivotal event that shaped Alison’s fatal ‘flaw’, that I have a smidgen of doubt as to credibility, but it’s a tiny voice whispering ‘Well, maybe’ rather than shouting ‘No!’, and not something I want to make a big deal about, or feel will in any way detract from the enjoyment of this entertaining and insightful study of dark psychology.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another five years for something new from Andrew Humphrey’s pen.

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