Following on from yesterday’s blog post, here is the second part of a feature on short story collections by new(ish) writers that first appeared in Black Static #2:-
YOUNG GUNS: HORROR’S GENERATION X (c0ntinued)
James Cooper is the exception that proves the rule, having first seen publication with a novel. His debut short story collection, You Are The Fly (Humdrumming paperback, 179pp, £8.99), contains sixteen stories, four of them co-written with his friend Andrew Jury. It comes with the subtitle Tales of Redemption & Distress, but madness and metamorphosis might offer a more appropriate tagline. In tone he reminds me very much of Poe, the same obsessive quality and attention to minutiae, with the ghost of Roderick Usher breathing down the reader’s neck as we pour over the words on the page.
Opening story ‘The Other Son’ is a fine example of what Cooper does best, with echoes of Poe’s Valdemar in the son of the title who suffers from a rare mental condition, believing that he is a corpse. The story of his deterioration and eventual death is told through the eyes of his brother (who is also the ‘other’ son – Cooper is nothing if not ambiguous), each event minutely detailed, with a subtext that hints at abuse in the family unit. It’s a story that takes an impossible situation and makes it believable through the simple trick of regarding what happens as mundane, everyday, so that ultimately we cannot help but be moved by the characters’ plight, however far outside our own experience it falls. In title story ‘You Are the Fly’ Jud finds distraction from his unhappy relationship with Shelley in studying a housefly, but this displacement activity develops into an obsession that further alienates his lover. Cooper piles on the details, each step of Jud’s descent carefully mapped out and closing with an image of transformation every bit as shocking and macabre as that Cronenberg gave us in The Fly, flesh conforming to psychology, the outward reflecting the inner.
Insects play a pivotal role in several of these stories, as with the protagonist of ‘Shortly Comes the Harvest’, who tries to save a friend wracked by grief, his feelings of loss manifesting as an interest in culinary excesses, specifically the consumption of what we in the west regard as vermin, including insects and rats. Reading this story it’s impossible to say when exactly the line is crossed, at what point an eccentricity blossoms into madness; we can only join with the narrator in wondering what could have been done differently. ‘A Frailty of Moths’ takes a surreal, Kafkaesque slant, as a man stands in a queue, no revelation as to why, then gets ushered off to a rich man’s abode, an insect collector whose guests are transformed into moths. It’s a strange story and doesn’t quite fit with the rest of this collection, one which holds the interest but doesn’t deliver on the expectations raised by the scenario, with the sense of an elusive something going on in the background, always tantalisingly out of reach.
Some stories are even more problematic, as with ‘The Marriage Feast Begun’, a convincing account of a marriage falling apart and one partner’s tenuous hold on sanity, but with no real point to the story beyond that. The desperation of the grief stricken husband trying to resurrect his wife in ‘Hollow Heart’ comes over well, but at the end all we have is an unnecessary reprise on the themes of The Monkey’s Paw and Pet Sematary. King’s back catalogue is touched on in several of these stories, as with ‘In Fetu’ which reprises a core concept of The Dark Half, that of twins with one foetus absorbed by the other, but Cooper gives the idea an interesting twist and produces something sharper and more poignant than the King novel, detailing the mother’s abnormal response to this situation. In ‘All He Wrote’, co-written with Jury, the whole King canon of the writer as protagonist is touched on, with a famous horror author who cannibalises the life of his greatest fan for his next masterwork, only for the fan to wreak a terrible revenge, the story deftly questioning our criteria for greatness and how writers use what is given them.
Of the other collaborations with Jury ‘And So Departs’ is the best. It opens with a man discovering a body hanging from a tree in his garden, the story cleverly switching direction over and over again, so that by the end the reader is not exactly clear who is dead and who is alive, and with the worm of guilt consuming the central character.
‘Earth Mother Grotesque’ is a tale of Munchausen’s with the mother hating her own child, but developing coping mechanisms that prevent her family and neighbours realising what is going on, the story shocking in its depiction of casual brutality inflicted on an innocent. For my money the best story in the book, ‘The Constant Eye’ is told from the viewpoint of a man looking back on a period in his childhood, when he ended up befriending Mattie, the school’s designated victim, only to discover that the boy has a terrible gift, something even more frightening than the bullies who prey on him. Again, comparisons with King are apposite, especially Carrie and The Body, but Cooper owns the material. Insightful about the world of children and the mentality of the bully, beautifully written and convincingly characterised, this is a compelling and moving story of power and responsibility, the revenge of the pariah.
The narrator of ‘The Skin I’m In’ is a self-harmer who lives with his mother, who herself has mental problems in that she is on occasion taken over by another personality, the tension between the two a sure recipe for disaster, and disaster is what we get, though the real appeal of the story lies in the matter of fact and thoroughly credible depiction of the characters. It’s a high note with which to end a collection by a young writer with a real gift for portraying off the wall mental states, making us believe in them and care for the people involved regardless of the damage they inflict on others and, more often, themselves.
James Burr is the odd man out in this group of writers. His Ugly Stories for Beautiful People (Corsega Press paperback, 271pp, £11.99) steadfastly refuses to be shoehorned into any genre niche, though those who enjoy horror will assuredly find much of what they like within its pages. If you pinned me down and asked for a writer Burr is similar to, my answer would be Russell Hoban, though even that may be stretching a point. While he comes with some substantial credits, Burr doesn’t have the publishing history of these other writers either, and my suspicion is that Ugly Stories is self-published (I can find no website for Corsega Press, or evidence for its existence independent of Burr), but while often a sign of poor quality that isn’t the case here. These stories deserve to reach a wider audience.
Curiously Ugly Stories is the only one of these collections to conform to a venerable genre cliché in offering us thirteen stories, though perhaps that’s not strictly true as the two ‘Bob and Jane’ episodes which book end the collection (tales of a couple whose love is so intense they end up melding) might be seen as only one story. ‘Foetal Attraction’ is a story told from the viewpoint of a pregnancy testing kit, the mute witness to the breakdown of a troubled marriage. The story is a bittersweet and elegiac account of two people, a competitive wife and put upon husband, gradually driving each other away, the whole redolent with sitcom clichés, but managing to rise above the material to deliver something of genuine humanity. Kate, the protagonist of ‘Blue’, one of the stories that should appeal most to horror aficionados, is abandoned by her boyfriend. On her own in Barcelona she makes strange friends and finds herself drawn into the activities of a tattooed gang who are seeking to address the world’s inequalities in a manner she finds frightening and repulsive. Kate’s nemesis, the fearsome Ash, with his philosophy of violence in the service of good, is an intriguing creation, a modern day Robin Hood with a touch of Pinhead in the mix, but the crux of the story is Kate’s own struggle to find a moral centre, to resist the allure of the gang, even though it offers an end to her angst and loneliness, the hope of a place where she will belong. Humour is never far away in these stories, Burr constantly changing the mood to keep the reader off balance, which leads me to the deliciously tongue in cheek ‘It’. The story comes with an audacious premise, that the nation is gripped by a condition which sees pseudo-intellectuals and all who spout gibberish in the name of criticism (ahem!) disappearing up their own backsides. It’s up to plain speaking Tom Paulin to save the day. And yet, delightful as the humour is, there is something serious going on here, as Burr asks questions about the nature and necessity of criticism.
‘Life’s What You Make It’ put me in mind of the film Sliding Doors, only the protagonist Amanda is aware of the two lives which she flits between, one in which she is rich, successful and happy, and the other in which her life has turned out entirely differently. The sense of dislocation in one’s life comes over well here, as Amanda slowly gets a grip on what is happening to her, Burr skilfully jumping from one reality to another, and at the story’s heart is an awareness of how arbitrary some of the choices we make are and that there is often nothing more than luck to credit for the way our lives turn out. John, the lover of Kate from ‘Blue’, gets to tell his own story in ‘Ménage a Beaucoup’. A chance encounter has him revealing his situation to a complete stranger, that he has become obsessed with his old lover, seeing her everywhere, every woman turning into her, even the woman who arrives to meet the stranger. Ironically it is this very omnipresence of Kate in his life that undermines any chance of actually getting back with her. The story can be seen as a metaphor for the way in which a loved one comes to dominate our existence, but Burr seems to want to stretch the implications a bit further than that, with the impact on the stranger pivotal, his realisation that perhaps we are all trying to recapture that first, perfect love. And so to the black comedy of ‘Mutton Pie’, with a young man being hit on by an elderly woman in a pub, at first experiencing repulsion and a wish that she act her age, but then finding compassion and a commonality of experience, a willingness to indulge the delusions about ourselves that we all hold dear.
‘The Dada Relationship Police’ send a man notes telling him that his relationship is over, and thus contribute to the very situation they predict as he gives in to feelings of paranoia and insecurity. Despite the playfulness suggested by the title there is a serious side to this story, a riff on the frailty of emotional alliances, that they can be so easily undermined. In ‘Blot’ a violent criminal sees innocuous images in a set of Rorschach cards, while the psychiatrist administering the tests gives them a much darker interpretation, eventually becoming infected with the other’s perverse sexuality in a story that casts a weary eye over the blurred line between sanity and madness, the effect enhanced by some clever typographical tricks in the text. ‘Bernie Does Camberwell’ has the eponymous hero becoming the star of his very own porn movie, while a porn star with no qualms finds that she is now disgusted with her former self, the story veering madly between the two with hilarious results, explicit and amusing but also addressing the dichotomy of love and sex, as poor Bernie finds himself on the receiving end of the ultimate male fantasy and curiously unfulfilled.
With a host of short stories and two novellas to his credit, Gary McMahon has the most significant track record of any of these writers, and that’s reflected in Dirty Prayers (Gary Friar Press paperback, 287pp, £7.99), which is the most substantial of these books, containing twenty five stories within its covers. Harlan Ellison is an obvious influence, with echoes of Deathbird Stories in the religious imagery that recurs throughout the book, and the various Psalms that appear as interludes between each grouping of stories. He may lack Ellison’s technical dash, but there is the same feeling of anger barely held in check, of raw emotion about to explode on the page. More than any of these writers, even Boatman, McMahon writes from the gut, with each story a body blow to the reader. However fantastic, his stories are rooted in the material and emotional squalor of our everyday world, tales of the displaced and dispossessed, fuelled by rage and disgust at the simple lack of common humanity that breeds these conditions.
Opening story ‘Do Not Be Alarmed’ sets the tone with Brent, a man who feels the world around him is going to hell in a hand basket, this social malaise given form by the alarms that constantly disturb his nights, like the plaintive cry of some beast off in the urban jungle. When his wife inexplicably goes missing Brent abandons his life to the search for her, following the alarms wherever they lead until he learns the terrible truth of what has become of the woman he loves. It is a story without pity, in which the modern world swallows up the innocent and betrays the rest, with the constant wail of the alarms as background music in a dystopia of our own making, one that has now assumed an identity and energy of its own.
‘The Bungalow People’ is a sad, bitter story, with an elderly couple left alone to die by their family and society, clinging on to the hope that somebody actually cares, but of course all in vain, McMahon’s words an indictment of a world which allows such indifference. ‘The Dead Kid’ has a man haunted by a corpse, that of a boy murdered by his former partner, who has now moved on to somebody else, as if it is their love which is left corpselike on the front lawn, the outward manifestation of feelings turned sour, of all the things lost to time and circumstance. A calculating and disrespectful insurance salesman is lured to a rundown tower block in ‘Estate of the Nation’ where he meets a pleasingly grotesque end in a tale of modern day witchcraft. ‘The Man in the Chimney’ is a figment of the imagination of a lonely woman who begins to obsess about him and what he may be doing while she is out of the house, this obsession coming to both dominate her life and give it meaning. McMahon’s assured prose and measured plotting elevate the story above the absurdity inherent in this situation to give us something that is both sinister and, in its coming full circle ending, strangely comforting.
Abusive fathers, cheating husbands and lovers are characters who recur over and over again in McMahon’s fiction, as if he is trying to grapple with masculine roles in the noughties against a backdrop of outmoded machismo. Clay, the protagonist of ‘A Grown Woman’, is unable to control his temper and as a result all of his past relationships have ended badly. He is finally brought to heel by an archetypal female who cannot be tamed, his masculinity completely undermined, but also with the sense that his suffering is deserved, something he has brought on himself by refusing to confront his own failings. In another story the hero becomes ‘Incommunicado’, bereft of his ability to communicate with other people, who only hear swearing and obscenity from his lips. He is a man disenfranchised from his own life through being inarticulate, the concept a powerful metaphor for our inability to converse meaningfully with each other. In ‘My Name Is’ a young girl is picked up by men in cars, who take her home and she forces them to admit that they abused her as a child. Though none of them are the actual offender they all find catharsis by admitting their crimes, as if culpability is a by product of the male condition, with guilt an inevitable side effect.
‘Smother’, is a ghost story, the tale of a malignant spirit, but the heart of the story lies in McMahon’s depiction of a couple who have lost a child to cot death and undergone the ordeal of being suspected of his murder, their pain almost unbearable, a black gaping hole at the centre of their existence. In ‘New Science’ a man has ‘pity’ sex with an old girlfriend dying of an incurable disease, each detail of their encounter heartrendingly plausible, from the disdainful waiter at the restaurant where they meet to the tenderness of their coupling, so that the reader is moved by the tragedy and unfairness of the situation, with the supernatural coda to the story, as with ‘Smother’, almost an afterthought.
The protagonist of ‘Borrowed Times’ is a man who discovers that he is simply a ghost in his own life, incapable of affecting anything, only having borrowed all the things he thought constituted his happiness, with McMahon’s use of the second person reinforcing the sense of ineffectuality, that the protagonist is only a spectator, incapable of affecting events. There’s a similar feel to ‘My Burglar’, the story of a professional thief who believes that by breaking into people’s homes he somehow manages to experience their lives, but when he is interrupted in his work feels that he himself has been robbed. ‘Comeback’ opens with the return of wayward Sasha and her reception by her brother, but as the story progresses it is revealed that she is still carrying the baby she had aborted many years ago, and more family secrets are laid bare in a powerful tale of guilt echoing down through the years.
‘Pray Dirty’, which opens the third section of this book, is the story most reminiscent of Ellison’s Deathbird Stories and one of the finest in the collection. The tenants of a rundown housing estate summon a god to settle scores with their grasping landlord, the story told from the viewpoint of an outsider and the details externalised more than in most of the other stories, but with a concern for the downtrodden at its core, along with the realisation that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. In the short ‘To Invocate His Aid’ a grief stricken father employs a black magician to raise the spirit of his dead daughter with mixed results, the action as gruesome as the end result is gratifying. ‘Like A Stone’, the tale of a man returning to the town of his childhood and confronting the sins of his past, I praised highly on its original appearance in the anthology Bernie Herrmann’s Manic Sextet (for details refer to www.ttapress.com). It’s a story that tackles timeless themes of guilt and loss, one of the most keenly felt and moving pieces in the book.
In ‘Raise Your Hands’ the entire world seems to turn against a man, inflicting violence on him for no reason, though there is the suggestion that actually this is what he desires, payback for some past, never specified transgression. ‘Day of the Mask’ has a young boy taking steps to stop the constant arguing between his parents, forcing them to wear a mysterious mask that he finds, one that alters their personalities, McMahon bringing the child’s pain and quiet desperation to the page with skill, and seeding the plot with outré elements. Finally in ‘Face the Strange’, a story inspired by the work of Arthur Machen, a man haunted by the memory of his girlfriend returns to the place where she died and is granted a vision of nature that helps him come to terms with his loss. It is a beautifully written and evocative story, the fitting end for a very strong collection that provides yet more proof, if needed, that the short story is in capable hands.