Three reviews that originally appeared as part of a feature on the work of Ray Cluley in Black Static #47:-
A THREE COURSE FEAST: THE RECENT FICTION OF RAY CLULEY
To state the obvious, Ray Cluley’s work will be familiar to readers of Black Static magazine. He first graced our pages in #6 with ‘Viva Las Vegas’, and then after a two year hiatus returned in #19 with ‘Beachcombing’, subsequently becoming our most regular contributor. The story that’s printed elsewhere in this issue will be his thirteenth appearance in the magazine and hopefully not unlucky, for either Cluley or the readers.
Ten of those stories are reprised in Cluley’s first collection, PROBABLY MONSTERS (ChiZine Publications pb, 352pp, $16.99), along with one apiece from Interzone and Crimewave, plus five from other venues and three tales that are previously unpublished, making twenty slices of top notch fiction in all. It’s a substantial volume, and as such should take the part of main course if I am to adopt the conceit of framing this feature as a three course meal, and it seems that I am.
For starter then we have THE CURSE OF THE ZOMBIE (Hersham Horror Books pb, 60pp, £5.99), which is the fourth volume in Hersham’s Cursed series of novellas celebrating the archetypal monsters of horror fiction, the creatures brought to life in the books and films we all read and watched in our formative years, that time when the monsters were simply fun. Subtitled ‘Bone Dry’ the novella opens with journalist Louisa in Algeria with her cameraman to cover a celebrity wedding. In a bar she meets up with blind oil man Johnny who tells her a strange story of his search for missing geologists in the Sahara desert and the discovery of their bodies, one barely alive. They had fallen victim to the desert men, which is what their Tuareg guides call a clan of zombies who thirst not for brains but for water. The story ends with Louisa determined to investigate further and send back a real story instead of the celebrity pap her employers are expecting. And if you can get your head round the idea of a celebrity hack having an attack of integrity, then I guess zombies are easy to swallow.
Aside from the lust for water in lieu of meatier cuisine, this is pretty much a straightforward zombie story, at least superficially, and in fact Cluley’s monsters could just as easily be vampire variants. It’s an exciting story, one that has the makings of an excellent horror film, with some skin of the teeth action scenes, as Johnny and comrade Pete fight the zombies. Cluley is superb at evoking the alien landscape of the Sahara, its inhospitality and the rigours of life in such a place. Equally he brings a sense of verisimilitude to the native guides, with their wisdom mistaken for superstition by the know it all westerners. But underlying all this surface wailing and gnashing of teeth is a subtext about the folly of the modern media, how they keep us breastfed with tales of bread and circuses while the real things in the world, the things we desperately need to be informed about, the events that matter, are reduced to the level of background noise, if we are ever allowed to become aware of them at all. And perhaps also a hint of some ecological catastrophe on the horizon, a time when the water we all take for granted will become a vital resource, to be fought over. In Cluley’s Sahara are sown the seeds of our tomorrow.
Curse is not quite on a par with Cluley’s best work, but it is grand entertainment and a fitting tribute to the monsters of yesteryear, while moving the narrative on slightly. I liked it very much, with the only wrong step I felt his naming of the characters after other authors, something that stuck out like a sore thumb and for me undercut some of the credibility of the tale.
Appetites whetted, we wait patiently for the serving staff to appear with our main course, the culinary treat that is Probably Monsters, containing twenty stories from one of the finest writers of horror fiction to emerge in recent years. And in discussing the book, there being room for only so much on the fine bone china plate, I shall push to the side those stories I have reviewed previously, including the British Fantasy Award winning ‘Shark! Shark!’ and ‘At Night, When the Demons Come’ which Ellen Datlow took for Best Horror of the Year, though I reserve the right when time permits to reprise those reviews on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com.
Robert, the hero of opening story ‘All Change’ is a man who fights against monsters, meeting them at the train station and killing them, but Robert is getting old (Buffy with a bus pass) and it appears he may have been lured into a trap by those he hunts. Cluley is canny enough to inject some ambiguity here, so that Robert may actually be a madman murdering innocent people, the story deftly touching on our fascination with monsters and turning the mirror on ourselves, asking who the real monsters are. Set in Nicaragua, ‘I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing’ is told from the viewpoint of an unnamed protagonist, a journalist asked by a friend to write an exposé of the dangers of the lobster fishing industry, particularly those consequent upon a scarcity of decompression chambers, but in investigating his subject our hero experiences what may be an encounter with a mermaid. Cluley’s evocation of his foreign setting is pitch perfect, giving us incidental details that convey a sense the author has done more than just dip a toe into the waters of National Geographic by way of research. And he is every bit as assured in providing a convincing account of lobster diving and the people involved in this perilous activity. Of course ambiguity is again very much part of the bill of sale here, so that the vision could simply be down to the bends, and the real thrust of this character driven piece has the protagonist dealing with the guilt and self-destructive impulses he has in the wake of the death of his mother. One suspects that his campaigning zeal may simply be a matter of working through personal issues, though Cluley is too wise to do more than suggest this, an inference to be caught by the reader.
Ruby in ‘The Festering’ is a rebellious teenager, just discovering her sexuality and the power that it grants her, constantly at odds with her alcoholic mother and thinking herself in love with an older man. But she tells all her secrets to a creature lurking in a drawer in her bedroom, an excrescence that is the externalisation of all the bitterness and resentment that she feels. At heart this is a coming of age drama, with Cluley’s painstaking and painful examination of all that has gone wrong in Ruby’s young life made all the more pertinent through the use of elements of the surreal. Told from the skewed perspective of a child, ‘Knock-Knock’ is a story in which the reader is the one who has a firmer grasp of what is going on, party to the things that J-J can only imagine, with the ghost in the machine of the narrative as an externalisation of the young boy’s anxiety. Hovering over events is the spirit of J-J’s abusive father, a genius loci whose unseen but strongly felt presence helps to shape his son’s reality, while the knock-knock jokes that punctuate the text provide an unsettling counterpoint to the sounds that the child hears when he lies in bed at night.
‘The Death Drive of Rita, nee Carina’ reminded me strongly of the Ellison of Deathbird Stories. The tale’s eponymous protagonist, having lost her family in a car accident, sets about causing more accidents as a way to deal with her pain, worshipping the god of road deaths and building a shrine to honour that deity. It’s a disturbing story, sucking the reader into the mind of somebody whose sanity has been completely overturned by tragedy, showing us how she develops a coping mechanism that is deadly to others. The protagonist of ‘The Man Who Was’ falls in love with Iraqi war veteran General John Smith, but that love turns to despair when he learns what happened to the general in Iraq and also has to deal with the spectre of a lost love, someone who is now dead and with whom he can never compete. Arching over the story is the green eyed monster that is jealousy, while there is also a subtext that touches on the true horror of war, as seen in the protagonist’s terrible dreams of the war torn land that he has seen only through the eyes of others.
In science fiction story ‘Bloodcloth’ we get a different sort of vampire tale, one in which the cloth is a sort of household deity and sacrifices of blood must be made to preserve the fortunes of the members of the community. The child Tanya doesn’t understand or accept the need for sacrifice and attempts to destroy the curtain. It’s a novel idea and compellingly rendered, while allusions to such things as towns with lotteries bring to mind the work of Shirley Jackson so that back of it all is the sense of a world in which arbitrary rules and regulations apply, but in such a way as to be unavoidable for those who live under their sway. Subtexts about political power and feminism are up for the taking, though the story works equally well if you pretend they’re not there. Two gay friends, Nicky and Luke, stay together in the town of Carcassonne in the story ‘The Tilt’, but while lesbian Nicky appears perfectly happy with her life, Luke has visions that undermine his sense of himself and seem to hint that he expects to be punished for his homosexuality. The claustrophobic nature of the medieval town is perfectly realised on the page, with every road and alley seeming to turn back on itself, Cluley making us feel almost as if we are walking these streets alongside his characters. While there are chilling visions of armoured knights and the inquisition, scenes of torture in times gone by, for Luke the real problems are rooted in his own psychology, the way in which he allows his sexuality to dominate his life instead of being just one aspect of who he is. It leaves him prey to the doubts that are externalised in this story, the fear that others will never accept him on his own terms. He cannot let go of his paranoia and instinct for self-destruction, driving away his best friend and attracting those who would destroy him.
The protagonist of ‘Bones of Crow’ is home carer Maggie, whose life is circumscribed by the needs of her ailing father. On the roof of their building she discovers evidence of a nest made by a giant bird, and in a surreal twist Maggie finds herself used as food for the creature’s young. Underlying all this is a subtext about wasted lives, how Maggie exists only to serve others, never taking care of her own wants, and so she ends up as somebody who is drained, the best in her given to feed others, a victim of her own lassitude. James uses ‘Pins and Needles’ to hurt other people, the only way that he believes he can cause them to feel anything, but then he strikes up a relationship with Angela, only it seems to be doomed to failure thanks to his sexual inadequacy and the horrific solution he comes up with completely undoes them. Beautifully written and with convincing characterisation, the story tells of a fraught relationship, one in which the horror is never far from the surface, though its roots run deep into the life of the protagonist. In some ways the story reminded me of the Ken Russell film Crimes of Passion, with James as a cross between the Turner and Perkins characters, an amalgam of the worst qualities of each. He is a man whose psychology is predicated on the misfortunes of his youth, the indifferent mother and the absent father who gave him this whole idea that sexuality was linked to concepts of space travel, that feelings were to do with pain.
Set in America’s Deep South, ‘Gator Moon’ is the story of Nate, who tries to atone for the death of a coloured man who got hit by his car, but his efforts go horrendously wrong and what happens as a result feeds into the guilt he feels. Plot wise the whole thing is rather contrived, with the driving device a belief in superstition that seems extravagant to modern sensibilities, but the joy of the story is in the writing, the use of dialect and the vivid, sweaty feel of the bayou setting, the way in which guilt can drive a man to do silly things. Ana returns to the Kamchatka region of Russia ‘Where the Salmon Run’. An environmentalist who previously worked at protecting the fish from poachers, she now has to deal with emotional baggage left over from her past. A story that is less genre slanted than most of the others, the tale wins the reader over with the richness of the characterisation, the ways in which tiny gestures can convey more than words and circumvent the restrictions imposed by language, and the way in which Cluley describes the scenery, the wildness and beauty of the setting, with additional material relating to the plight of the endangered salmon.
Set in the Old West, ‘Indian Giver’ tells of an atrocity committed against an Indian family and the spectral vengeance that followed. Told in a style that has something of the raconteur about it, one officer relating events to his superior, it’s a story that starts bad and just keeps getting worse, as one bloodstained act inevitably leads to another, the whole cycle seeming like its set in stone and all we can do is bear witness as it unfolds, fighting to not look away, while woven into the narrative is a subtext relating to the theft of land from the Indians. The shortest story in the book, ‘A Mother’s Blood’ offers a harrowing picture of depression, as a woman who simply cannot cope with her child learns that the thing she dreads most has occurred. Written in a way that borders on stream of consciousness, the story feels raw and is heartfelt in the anger that boils off the page.
A dysfunctional family check into the motel called ‘The Travellers Stay’, the story reading like Hotel California as reimagined by Franz Kafka. For Matt it is a chance to break away from the future that so unnerves him and get in touch with the man he used to be, but he misses the opportunity and at the end it feels like the act of metamorphosis that takes place is simply a metaphor for his own inability to grab life by the horns, to be a man who acts rather than simply somebody who is acted upon. There’s sadness here for lost opportunities, as in so many of these stories, for wasted lives and easy surrenders, for taking the path of least resistance. ‘No More West’ is one of the most oblique stories in the collection, detailing a desert encounter between a cowboy and a woman with a wagon, who gives him a compass in exchange for sexual favours, but in the morning she appears to have become a man. I’m not really sure what the story is about, but there’s a feel to it of things lost, that not only is the Old West going away in this story but that the cowboy needs to adjust to new ideas regarding his sexuality, and there’s also a suggestion of a satanic encounter, one in which more than the soul is bargained away. But I’m clutching at straws here, with a wind like the breath of David Lynch blowing through the gaps in the narrative.
Finally we have ‘Beachcombing’, told from the perspective of child Tommy, who experiences the sensations felt by the previous owners of whatever flotsam he picks up on the beach, and whose existence is mediated through this means even though he often doesn’t understand or misinterprets what is being conveyed (e.g. when he picks up a condom). Having set out the premise, Cluley moves on to Tommy’s discovery of things left by a man with suicide on his mind, then detailing the boy’s response. It is a sad story, but one in which the reader feels the true sadness of it all while the protagonist is blissfully ignorant, filtering it all through his unique sensibilities. Tommy’s tragedy is to have a gift that he really cannot use to full advantage, and in some ways he is a portrait of the child prodigy. And we could, at a push, compare what Tommy does to the act of reading, with stories themselves as objects discovered on a beach, treasure trove that we must interpret, things that induce in us feelings and sensations with which we are not familiar, or are asked to regard in some new way. ‘Beachcombing’ is a superb story, like so much of what is on offer here, and it makes for a fascinating end to the fictional content of this book, though by way of a bonus Cluley gives us some notes on each of the stories, insights into his creative process and the things that fascinate and inspire him.
So now it’s time to push back in our seats, to loosen our belts a little and ponder as to whether we have room for dessert, or if consumption of one of the first essential short story collections of the year has left us well and truly stuffed.
For those tempted, there is WITHIN THE WIND, BENEATH THE SNOW (Spectral Press pb, 77pp, £15), the first entry in Spectral’s Theatrum Mundi series of standalone novelettes. The title story is that of Gjerta Jørgensen, the first and only female member of Slædepatruljen Sirius, an elite unit charged with patrolling the coastline of Greenland. With her partner Søren Olsen and their dogsled team, she is travelling through a frozen landscape, with darkness on every side, the ordeal exhausting both physically and mentally. But Gjerta has far more going on, with scenes that flip flop between her present and the past in which she bore witness to the suicide of her mother and the maiming of a beloved dog by a mantrap. These memories torment her and slowly, as the wilderness works on her psyche, Gjerta retreats into some internal landscape where there are darkteeth on every side and the monster is coming to get her.
Cluley is excellent here at delineating the night land in which his drama takes place, the feelings of bitter cold and arctic bleakness brought to compelling life on the page. However these are as nothing compared to what is going on inside Gjerta’s head, with memories of an idyllic Christmas and family traditions giving way to the horror of finding her mother hanging from a tree like some obscene Christmas decoration. A surreal element creeps in, as the monsters of the Id are externalised as the darkteeth and the trapper who comes for her at the end. It’s a powerful drama, one in which the setting is almost another character, and a study of a damaged psyche, one that finally breaks under the stress of past events recurring and the intolerable landscape through which she moves.
As well as this lead story, the booklet contains an amount of bonus material, flash fiction and longer, that make it almost a mini-collection. In ‘It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like…’ tourists in London for the seasonal festivities find themselves turned into victims when they ask the wrong person to take their photograph, the story told in an almost abstract and detached manner that makes the reader complicit in what is happening, a voyeur of sorts, and the final denouement all the more effective and shocking. Leah, the protagonist of ‘The Rain Deer’, is driving in her car at night, when she has an encounter with a man skinning road kill and a vision of phantom reindeers, the whole hinting that Leah herself may have been the victim of her husband, in a subtle and evocative story, but one with some rather grim imagery. Tina in ‘Mistletoe Wine’ seeks revenge on the married man who trifled with her affections, presenting him and his wife with two bottles of poisoned wine, though there is also the suggestion that she herself is a victim of some toxin, the story a bit clichéd in places, as with the scorned woman scenario at its heart, but overall reading like something Roald Dahl might have produced with added surrealism. ‘Turtledove’ explains a weird family tradition of throwing one present into the river each year, the story told from the perspective of a young girl whose twin sister was lost to the water and showing how she manages to exploit the situation. It’s a clever story that draws the reader in with a mystery, engages our sympathy with its portrait of loss, and then abruptly pulls the rug out from under our feet.
Last and longest, there is the story of ‘Hans’, returned to the orphanage by his adoptive father, escaping into the forest late at night and experiencing a strange encounter. Again Cluley engages our sympathies for this cruelly abandoned boy, so much so that we can almost accept his right to lie about the man who has ditched him so callously, implicating him in something far worse. And then there is what happens beyond the orphanage walls, the tricks that he employs to escape, the meeting with another escapee, the clearing in which the snowmen stand and a vision of deer racing through the forest to save the children. It’s a weird and offbeat piece, one that offers us only the vision of tragedy as an antidote to the oppression of everyday lives.
Overall this book, like the two preceding volumes, is an impressive assemblage of fine fictional fare, providing ample testament to Cluley’s mastery of the short form. But then if you’ve been reading Black Static, you already know that Ray Cluley is the real deal, and if you’re like me you can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
And with that our repast is done. Even the cheeseboard is empty, and off in the distance we can hear the clatter of chinaware being shoved into a dish washer. Somebody just broke a plate, I believe (this is a horror magazine – misfortunes will occur). It’s time to retire to the library for brandy and cigars, followed by intelligent conversation.
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