The first part of a feature on short story collections by new(ish) writers that originally appeared in Black Static #2:-
YOUNG GUNS: HORROR’S GENERATION X
The short story is in decline we are told, though half an hour on the Internet should convince anyone with an interest that it’s not the form itself which has fallen out of favour so much as a case of radical changes in the method of delivery. Regardless, the short story remains the first point of entry into the world of publication for many writers, the place where they learn their craft and grow, and when they first see their name on the spine of a book that book is often a collection of short stories. With the relaunch of short story review magazine The Fix as an online publication (www.thefix-online.com), I thought it would be timely to take a look at some recent releases.
World Wide Web and Other Lovecraftian Upgrades (Humdrumming paperback, 163pp, £7.99) is Gary Fry’s second collection and a third is available from P S Publishing as I write. It is, as the title implies, a series of stories inspired by the work of H P Lovecraft, pastiches, homages and parodies, what you will. I’m not as familiar with Fry’s work as I would like, but all the same I don’t think WWW is representative of where he’s currently at as a writer. There’s a sense about the book of a writer who has found his own voice and now wants to pay his dues, at the same time bidding a fond farewell to the influences of his formative years, and in this he echoes his mentor Ramsey Campbell, who also published a collection of work inspired by Lovecraft at the start of his career.
As well as being the longest, the title novella is the most substantial of what’s on offer, the place where Fry gets to stretch himself and show off his ability. World Wide Web is the story of Adam, a young boy who relocates to a cottage in an isolated seaside community when his parents split up. While his mum, a former film star and fading beauty, drinks herself to death Adam ventures out and meets Howard Philip, a writer of weird tales, who gives the boy a sample of his work. Adam is resistant at first, but then finds himself gripped by the tale and wondering if there is any truth to it, grounding for the story in local legends. He finds strange roots rising up out of the earth and down on the seashore locates a hidden cave on the walls of which are monstrous drawings. And there seems to be a connection to his media mogul father too, with echoes of the outré in the corporate logo of his company. All of which is by way of setting the scene for the novella’s resolution, in which Adam’s fears are given form in a total collapse of the world order.
This is a bravura performance and worth the price of admission alone, with subtle hints of the numinous in the text, Fry seeding the story with signs and portents, but at the same time leaving the reader room to manoeuvre, to ask just how reliable our narrator is. Adam’s character is drawn with an enviable skill, his sense of alienation, from both a familiar environment and those he loves, coming over well, and also the feeling that he has been betrayed, badly let down by the adults in the story, with scenes in which the boy tries to connect with both his mother and father among the most telling. There is a clever overlapping of effects here, various ideas and plot strands bouncing off of each other, highlighting the opposition between fiction and reality, Adam’s inner torment and the external landscape of his world. It is particularly revealing that the story’s resolution reflects the boy’s personal phobia, is simply his fear writ large, and also ties in to his father’s media empire, allowing a Freudian interpretation of what transpires. Fry is equally adept at capturing the atmosphere of the small seaside town in which the action is located, the very isolation of the place, and the secrets that lie beneath its soil, so that the reader can share in Adam’s loneliness and feeling of abandonment.
The remaining six tales that make up this collection wear their Lovecraftian roots a bit more obviously, and are more hit and miss, though none is without its rewards. The academic protagonist of ‘Unnaturally Selected’ is facing disgrace at the hands of a rival who has discovered a way to mutate human flesh. The academic is convincingly portrayed, a man caught up in concerns that would leave most of us disinterested, and the atmosphere of menace, with hints of some great horror creeping into the world, is palpable when he goes to visit his rival. The ending however was predictable and the extra twist Fry gives the narrative, with the white powder of transformation released as a social equaliser, doesn’t convince at all. I suspect, rather than society overturned, all that would happen is we would see one set of bullies replaced by another or, alternatively, those in power monopolising the powder. In ‘Servant of the Order’ an unsuspecting bookseller agrees to provide a client with a copy of the Necronomicon and ends up in considerable trouble, the story a tongue in cheek pastiche with a wealth of ‘in’ jokes and passing the time more than adequately. The protagonist of ‘Three is One Too Many or Too Few’ uses a Dictaphone to record what is happening to him, in the grand tradition of Robert Blake, accidentally stumbling on a new order of reality, though the actual story is slightly too confusing for the reader to get a clear sense of what is going on, perhaps deliberately so, but if so it doesn’t quite come off. Similarly the ‘hero’ of ‘In the World’ is pitched into another reality, one where things have changed in many subtle ways; he’s having an affair with his work colleague, is a lot harder boss and Princess Diana is still alive, the prompt for all this an interest in a ‘cursed’ house. There are some fine effects here, but ultimately it’s stuff we’ve all seen done before. ‘Out of Body, Out of Mind’ has another academic, this time going off to live in an isolated cottage where he can write a paper, but finding his reality falling apart. A longer story than the others, there is a strong atmosphere to this piece with excellent build up to the shocking denouement, and the novel suggestion that James Myreside’s plight is in some ways self-inflicted, a consequence of his inability to connect with other people. Finally, in ‘Bodying Forth’ a cleaner discovers an academic’s notes, and the tale they tell is of the professor being transformed into some strange plant life form. Again there is a sense to this story of been there, done that before, with Fry bringing nothing new to the table except smidgens of jargon and a slight shift of perspective. Overall though, whatever the bumps in the road, this is a fine collection from a writer whose star seems to be on the rise and worth a few hours of anyone’s time.
Michael Boatman had already staked his claim to fame as an actor (his best known role is as Carter in Spin City) before adding another string to his bow with the publication of God Laughs When You Die (Dybbuk Press paperback, 147pp, $12.75), and 2008 should see his first novel hit print. Boatman’s work seems informed by a splatter punk sensibility, with the gore laid on thick and an unforgiving savagery that brings to mind not only the early fiction of a writer he admires, Joe R. Lansdale, but also the black comedy of such cinematic delights as Evil Dead and Return of the Living Dead. Psychology is thin on the ground, as Boatman’s characters are too busy running for their lives or, more likely, screaming as they die horribly, to spend much time reflecting on what is happening to them. God Laughs When You Die is a RSVP card for those who thought Richard Laymon was a big girl’s blouse, and it’s also a rather nice thing in its own right, with a cover ‘adapted’ from Hieronymus Bosch and a fine selection of interior illustrations that capture the mood of these ‘mean little stories from the wrong side of the tracks.’
While nearly everything here has a touch of the horrific about it, it would be incorrect to say that all of these tales are horror stories. Boatman casts his net wider, taking in television, comics, SF and fantasy, placing the whole gamut of the modern media landscape and entertainment industry on his rack, and stretching it until new forms emerge. Take ‘The Tarantula Memoirs’ for example, a superhero story that brings to mind Martin’s Wild Cards series, but casts a sardonic and world weary eye over the old stereotypes, as an ailing mystery man is given the opportunity to die in combat, fighting against an evil nemesis, and along the way the story asks questions about how such vigilantes would really fit into our society and what is evil anyway. ‘Bloodbath at Landsdale Towers’ poses these questions more directly, getting right in the reader’s face and rubbing his nose in the reality of vigilantism. Two super powered beings take on a drug dealer and his gang, showing no restraint at all, with bodies pulled apart and blood spraying everywhere, as if Boatman’s intent is to challenge the ingenuity of some film company’s sfx department. The scene is set, a question is asked, the answer is refused and mayhem ensues, and that’s all there is to it as far as plot goes, though we do get the suggestion that this incident is part of a bigger picture. It’s in our own response that the shit really hits the fan. Initially we are repulsed by the criminals and look forward to seeing them get their comeuppance, but the response is so over the top, so heavy handed, that we are again repelled, perhaps even come to sympathise with the criminals, fighting a battle they can’t hope to win and being slaughtered indiscriminately.
Alien invasion is another recurring theme, with ‘Dormant’ the shortest tale in the book at only three pages and also the weakest. The protagonist is infected with an alien parasite, one that explodes out of the body if treatment is not forthcoming in time, and the man cannot afford treatment. The story is well written and there’s a gory scene in which a parasite does ‘explode’, but the story has no real raison d’etre, is simply shock for shock’s sake, as if somebody had filmed John Hurt’s death scene in Alien and decided to not bother with the rest of the movie. The aliens in ‘The Last American President’ are much more substantial, reminiscent in their otherworldliness of the Iad Uroboros from Barker’s canon, creatures who have turned our world into their personal playpen. The story is told from the viewpoint of a certain politician, who records their antics in his self serving memoirs, Boatman pulling out all the stops with a rich vein of invention and satire, while underlying the narrative is a righteous anger at what we had done to our world before ever the aliens set foot on it and the hypocrisy of our leaders. In the mould breaking ‘The Ugly Truth’ Boatman presents a story that’s part high fantasy, part martial arts spectacle, part romance, part gorefest and all fun. A lowly stable hand wins the heart of the princess when he saves her from a monstrous zombie, something beyond all the royal champions regardless of their bone crunching prowess. So far, so fairy story, but in this instance there’s a considerable amount of take no prisoners style mayhem to be got through before we reach the happy ever after, as if Tarantino had decided to remake The Princess Bride.
‘Folds’ is set in the world of daytime TV reality shows, as an assistant producer comes to suspect that there is something not right about the incredibly fat boy who appears on the show. Further revelation leads him to a horrific discovery about the child’s abilities, one that brings to mind an old episode of The Twilight Zone, but Boatman has grounded his story in the present day media world, satirising its worst excesses and asking who really are the monsters here, the fat boy, who has an agenda of his own, or the millions watching who do so simply to feel good about themselves. Generally though it’s the horror stories in this collection that are the most conventional, as with ‘The Drop’, in which a jealous husband plans to kill his rival in a boating ‘accident’ and vice versa, but both their plans are cast awry by the intervention of an unexpected third party, the story well written but not really going anywhere interesting, with the outré element too intrusive and arbitrary to work. ‘Katchina’ is another story that addresses old tropes, but does little more than that, with a wife discovering that her bullying husband is a serial killer when his victims return to claim what is rightfully theirs. More substantial is ‘The Long Lost Life of Rufus Bleak’ in which a black preacher is brought back from the dead to serve an otherworldly power, reflecting on his past and questioning his reason to be, realising that he has become every bit as monstrous as the Klansmen who murdered him.
God Laughs When You Die is an impressive collection. While some stories may seem a little lacking in substance, and the level of violence may deter some readers (not so much X as Generations X/S), there is no doubting the prose skills of the writer, his flare for a telling line or metaphor, the anger that informs his work and willingness to push at boundaries.
(TO BE CONTINUED)