Filler content with five collections – Part 1

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

FIVE COLLECTIONS

Most of the short story collections and anthologies that come in for review are rather meaty tomes, but just recently we’ve had an influx of slimmer volumes, as if all the publishers have sent their doorstops off to the gym to shed some pages.

Given that I can’t see a publisher’s name on the book and the only place it currently seems to be available for purchase is the author’s website, I’m going to hazard a guess that EVERYTHING IS ALWAYS WRONG (Pb, 67pp, £8.50) by Irish writer Graham Tugwell is self-published, but no matter as Tugwell has some decent credits on his CV and all five of these stories have appeared previously in publications of varying degrees of respectability.

Opener ‘Romancing the Crab’ is as bizarre as the title makes it sound, told from the viewpoint of somebody who asks the crab who works down at the florists out on a date, but Darren finds that there’s a bit more to this than he anticipated. Surreal and blackly comic, the story highlights the difficulties of dating by throwing them into relief with the distorting fictional device, and with a possible subtext on themes of prejudice. Interestingly the Crab is never given a name. I also wonder, given a lobster love story in last year’s Chômu Press anthology Dadaoism, if crustacean romance is the new black.

‘We Left Him with the Dragging Man’ is more conventional horror, though still told with Tugwell’s trademark short, snappy paragraphs and terse language. It deftly builds the picture of a group of schoolboy outcasts, and how they feel they must deal with a sociopath in their gang, luring him to an abandoned house where the fabled ‘dragging man’ dwells, only things don’t go to plan and what doesn’t kill Alby only makes him stronger. With hindsight, the story could be a variation on I Know What You Did Last Summer, a lively and entertaining outing made all the more so by the pace and impressionistic feel of the prose. ‘High Five, Danny O’C’ has a young man being led astray by someone who claims to be the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, culminating in disaster, only the ending seems to suggest that Danny O is just an imaginary friend used as a pretext to justify bad behaviour, the story shot through with a larger than life feel and an air of exuberance.

‘Unskin Me with Your Neck of Knives’ was the weakest story, the tale of a woman whose dearest wish comes true when she sprouts knives around her neck, or something like that. I suspect there may be a masochistic subtext lurking in the shrubbery, but if so then I’m afraid it didn’t work at all for me. Tugwell’s prose is at its most imagistic in this piece, but at the expense of the plot. Last we have the best story, ‘They’ve Come to Paint the Doors Again’, set in a world where creatures seem to be crossing over from some other reality and taking possession of the human occupants of houses, whose doors are painted red as a warning. The story is told from the viewpoint of Tom, whose job is to do the painting, and who learns that his own daughter has become the latest victim. Tugwell resists the urge to pin everything down here, instead giving us suggestion and leaving the reader to fill in the gaps, which makes the story all the more effective, and while the implications of the text run deep, set firmly centre stage is a very human tale, that of a father dealing with the loss of his daughter, wondering if somehow he is to blame. It’s good stuff, and a strong end to a solid collection, one in which I think the ‘pure’ horror stories are the most successful.

Six stories make up LITTLE RED TRANSISTOR RADIO FROM TRIESTE (Nine Arches Press pb, 125pp, £7.99) by Serbian writer Dragan Todorovic, and the eponymous little red transistor radio gets mentioned in all of them, though far as I can recall its country of origin is only listed in the first.

There’s a biographical feel to ‘Little Red Transistor Radio from Trieste’, with the sequence of events organised in chronological order by year, telling the story of a young man’s life, events both personal and political that shape him, and all of it set to a background of music drifting from the talismanic radio. It’s an absorbing synopsis of a life, one made all the richer by the way in which the reader is left to fill in the spaces and to mark touchstones with his or her own experience of this history. My favourite story, ‘Camera Obscura’ tells of a photographer who discovers a modified camera that lets him take pictures that show things that are not there or slightly different from reality. The story takes us inside the mind of a voyeur, one who has the feeling that he is missing something and seeks to capture it through the lens of his camera, but the story suggests so much more, culminating in madness so that we come to question the viewpoint of this unreliable narrator.

The next two stories have their moments, descriptive grace notes and eloquent turns of phrase, but don’t seem as cohesive or work as well as the first two. ‘What I’ve Seen’ is a visionary piece, with a man having reality explained to him by an angel, apparently, the shifts here making the story too obscure for its own benefit. ‘Deathroom III’ appears to be a meditation on grief, with the protagonist visiting his dying mother in hospital, but he is also visiting the hypermarket and mourning the fact that his art won’t be exhibited, and frankly the whole thing left me cold.

Things pick up again with the engaging ‘Postcards from Past Winters’, the account of two broken people trying to relate and royally fucking it up, with a strong sense of nostalgia for lost love running through the piece, scars both physical and emotional manifesting as they run from each and any chance of happiness. Finally we have the surreal and oneiric ‘14 Years’, with a man told that after fourteen years in the hospital his mother has been cured, but the whole thing spirals off in other directions so that you don’t really have a clue what the story is about, it all becomes a dream of the reader filtered through the writer or possibly vice versa.

This was a very mixed collection, one in which the good outweighed the bad, but not as striking as I’d hoped it would be, though kudos to Nine Arches for introducing UK readers to the work of somebody from a different cultural backdrop to the usual suspects.

Anne Michaud’s GIRLS & MONSTERS (DarkFuse eBook, 123pp, $3.10) contains five novelette length stories, opening with ‘Death Song’, set in the town of Lakeside View, whose water is supposed to be inhabited by Limnade, a mermaid who feasts on human flesh. Liz is the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, involved with Jo, the son of the wealthy mayor, but circumstances cause their separation, and when she returns to the town after an absence of many years it is to a showdown with both the mayor and Limnade. At the heart of this story is the idea of sacrifice, of appeasing impersonal forces for personal or societal gain, but woven in with that is a description of the America of the Haves and Have Nots, a keenly felt tale of unrequited love and a truly revolting monster, one that is as original and off the wall as it is icky.

In the next story the ‘Black Dog’ of depression takes concrete form for Scarlet, a young girl who cuts herself and is away from her family on a trip to London. In a downbeat ending she finds that she can only control the dog, prevent it from harming others, by taking it into herself, the story working extremely well as a study of depression, with hallucinatory overtones, and also informative about the practices of American teens abroad, like an angst ridden and sensitively written version of some Road Trip nonsense. Animals are disappearing from the neighbourhood in ‘A Blue Story’ and it’s up to feisty teen Katherine, who is at odds with her mother post-marriage break up, to sort things out, discovering that the new neighbour has some unsavoury personal habits. For all practical purposes this is Fright Night but with something else in lieu of vampirism, a competent female protagonist instead of a klutzy male, and no ‘helpful’ horror host, so nothing like at all really, but it works marvellously well and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

A trip to Germany and a visit to the house of her deceased grandparents brings teenager Chris into an encounter with the secrets of the past in ‘Dust Bunnies’. She has to cope not only with seeing the boy she left behind but also deal with the monster in the cellar and fix the troubled relationship she has with her older sister. Fortunately Chris is up to it, and what develops is a fascinating and inventive tale, one in which first judgements are found to be wanting, with believable human dilemmas in counterpoint to the monstrous and an underlying current of compassion. Last story ‘We Left at Night’ is the most obviously horror tale and also the grimmest, with a family unit struggling to survive and reach safety against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, one which is all the more effective through being so obliquely drawn. As the preponderance of young protagonists might suggest, this book is being ‘sold’ as Young Adult material, but that needn’t concern anybody here – I’m an old git and I loved all of these stories.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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