Filler content with five collections – Part 2

Following on from yesterday’s post, the remaining two reviews from the ‘Five Collections’ feature that originally appeared in Black Static #35:-


A traditional thirteen stories go to make up SOUL SCREAMS (Stumar Press pb, 123pp, £6.99), a first collection from small press stalwart Sara Jayne Townsend. There’s also a foreword by Sally Spedding, plus an author introduction and story notes explaining how some of these tales came into being.

Kicking off is ‘The Thirteenth Floor’, a rather grim ditty in which the new tenant in a block of flats and his mate witness a psychic recreation of past crime, the story well written and characterised, sending a tiny shiver up the spine. In ‘Jimi Hendrix Eyes’ we get a three way love affair, with an obsession with Hendrix mutating into bloody murder, the author particularly good at capturing the feel of people in love who wish to deny that this is happening to them. The death of one member of the ‘Trio’ plunges the other two into despair and possible suicide, the story excellent at portraying the unquenchable grief of those left behind. ‘To Dream of an Angel’ concerns a woman who has a dream of the death of her lover and is convinced that this is a premonition, the story engaging but not really going anywhere.

‘Kay’s Blues’ presents us with a woman whose period pains are so intense that if she isn’t left alone she gives over to homicidal rage, but while the story was entertaining enough, with a minatory subtext for male readers, it did seem slightly over the top, with no explanation of how the bodies of butchered boyfriends are disposed of. ‘The Wedding Hat’ causes Alex to have vivid visions of how people are going to die, and her inability to change any of this leads her to kill herself, rather than continue allowing these nightmares to rule her life. ‘Morgan’s Father’ is a routine piece about a revenant determined to protect his daughter from harm even in death, a story where whatever gratification there is for the reader comes from seeing a nasty piece of work get his deserved comeuppance. We get a vision of hell in ‘Train to Maladomini’, with a young man realising that he has died and is to travel on a train for all eternity, his personal hell, the story achieving its ends with a similar ‘just desserts’ strategy to its predecessor.

A woman becomes obsessed with ‘The Boy with Blue Eyes’ and his irresistible sex appeal, her whole life falling apart and ending in madness as she attempts to pursue the unattainable. There’s a surreal flavour to ‘Just Don’t Scream’ as a young man agrees to place his head in a magician’s guillotine to win a bet, with dire consequences, the WTF moment arriving when you least expect it. In ‘Cigarette Burns’ Kelly and Scott murder her abusive father, but although she thinks that she has escaped an impossible situation in a final twist it is revealed that things are not going to get any better, the story hinging on the surprise element, but the meat of the narrative residing in the convincing depiction of bullying. The emotive depiction of Kelly’s plight made it the best story in the collection. A woman who picks up a musician in a bar finds that she has a deadly rival for his affections in the shape of ‘The Guitar’, the story an engaging read, but entirely predicatble.

And finally we have ‘Someone to Watch Over You’ in which a dead woman relates how she acts as a guardian angel for those she loved in life, with the hint that other such entities may be looking out for the rest of us. It’s an uplifting end to a solid collection. Townsend is an assured writer, somebody who knows how to tell a story well, and these are all straightforward pieces with nothing that is particularly demanding or, by the same yardstick, unrewarding. Essentially, what we have here is good, old fashioned meat and two veg fiction, each story complete with the expected desiderata of beginning, middle and end.

Staying with the food analogy, if Soul Screams is meat and two veg fiction, then the stories between the covers of BUSY BLOOD (Exaggerated Press pb, 106pp, £5) are the literary equivalent of one of those blazing hot curries where the restaurant owner lets you have the meal free if you manage to clear the plate without having a coronary, and they certainly won’t suit every palate.

Billed as ‘Combo stories by Stuart Hughes and D. F. Lewis’, this slim volume contains eleven collaborations. Title story ‘Busy Blood’ is initially set in a hospital where strange things take place, and then these overlap into the city, or something like that. ‘Combing the Brain’ is something to do with playing computer games in prison, with reality shifting. ‘Queer Tumours’ concerns a man who is having trouble relating to his children in the wake of their mother’s death and his acquisition of a new partner. In ‘Beyond the Comfort Zone’ Ella visits a strange hospital to get rid of the symbiont inside of her. ‘The Mansion with Two Bedsits’ is something to do with the demise of the welfare state, possibly. ‘Meticulously Prepared for Madness’ was even more abstract than the others, and looking back I have little or no idea what it was about. ‘Bad Moon Visions’ was my favourite piece, a tale of inhuman warriors and their women, plotting and fighting with each other. ‘The Sirocco-Scarred City’ is another slice of WTF. In ‘Hide and Sleek’ somebody with their house on the market has to deal with a rather ugly customer, and there’s something about a werewolf too. ‘Ambulance Chasers’ is about Tom swallowing a marble. Finally we have another goody with ‘Free Sex’, which involves a number of disparate people getting together in a room for some very unusual adventures, or something like that.

I wanted to like this collection.

I expected to like it.

But I didn’t.

In trying to put a finger on why, I wonder if it’s because these are such disparate writers that their styles just don’t gel (though obviously they feel otherwise). Lewis flying solo is a writer whose work bubbles over with ideas and exuberant, wild prose. He’s not an easy writer, and often you read his work for the sheer joy of the language and the imagery it projects rather than for any sense. Hughes isn’t as prolific, and what I’ve seen of his fiction places it squarely in the meat and two veg category alongside the likes of Sara Jayne Townsend (and, with his Stumar Press hat on, he’s the publisher of Soul Screams). Hughes is the straight man to Lewis’ wild talent, a will to clarity colliding with the nebulous, but the virtues of both writers seem to be downgraded as a result of their collaboration; Hughes’ plotting isn’t as steady, Lewis’ language not as fluid. And so we get what I’d call ‘fuzzy fiction’, like watching a David Lynch film backwards, with the sound off and a gossamer veil in front of the screen, so that you have the feeling something slightly marvellous might be taking place but can’t quite grasp what it is – it’s too vague, too quick, too slippery to ever get a handle on – or maybe, just maybe, nothing marvellous is taking place at all, just the emperor trying out some new clothes.

Bottom line, it’s all highly subjective with this type of work, and today Busy Blood failed me or possibly I failed it, but either way the failure is a done deal.

I don’t like those blazing hot curries either, no matter how many pints of lager you get to chuck down your neck afterwards.

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