Filler content with satanic satellite

This review was published back in Black Static #2, exactly as it appears here except for any editorial changes/corrections.

(Serpent’s Tail paperback, 296pp, £7.99)

In the introduction to his first collection of short stories in nearly five years, Christopher Fowler catalogues a miscellany of recent news stories that show how reality has far outstripped ‘dark’ fiction in its ability to deliver shocks to the system, while by way of afterword there’s an interview in which he sets out his own thoughts on writing in general and crafting short stories in particular. Between these two book ends we get twenty two short stories which show that the master has lost none of his old magic, a collection that is as diverse as it is substantial, with quality the only common denominator.

Opening story ‘The Threads’ is one of several which deals with the English abroad, assuming the airs and graces of empire lost and inevitably coming a cropper. The villain of the story, the male half of an English couple in North Africa, steals a valuable carpet from a local dealer only to find himself on the receiving end of some particularly nasty just desserts. It’s a satisfying twist in the tail piece, but the real strength of the story lies in the contrast between the disdain and aloof selfishness of the European and the native sense of community, with everyone looking out for each other. ‘Cupped Hands’ covers similar territory, its amoral Englishman leaving his native lover to her fate and falling in with a mercenary’s plan to blackmail a town by withholding its water supply, but in this instance Fowler allows his protagonist a change of heart and he is able to redeem himself. One of the best stories in the book, ‘Identity Crisis’ concerns a man who exploits modern technology to take on the identity of others, finding himself stranded in a sinister Spanish town, as if Highsmith’s Ripley had wandered into Tryon’s Harvest Home. Beautifully told, its twists and turns a delight, deftly setting us up for the shock ending in which identity becomes even more problematic, with something very dark and menacing at the narrative’s heart, this is quintessential Fowler.

Several stories come with a Victorian setting, as with ‘The Lady Downstairs’, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in which it’s Mrs Hudson who solves a crime, simply through being more in tune with the lower classes than the Great Detective, the story tapping into the reader’s natural joy in seeing a clever clogs brought low. There’s something of melodrama about ‘Heredity’, another slice of Victoriana, in which a plot by childless aristocrats to steal their maidservant’s son is foiled. It’s a feel good and unabashedly sentimental tale, and doesn’t quite fit with the rest of this collection, except in the sense of demonstrating how wide Fowler’s range is. Further proof of that, if needed, comes in the anarchic, knockabout comedy of a visit to ‘The Night Museum’, which houses exhibits celebrating the exploits of some of the lesser known explorers of the Victorian age, the author’s imagination in overdrive and tongue firmly in cheek as he throws up oddity after oddity, as if to ask the reader, “how much more of this are you prepared to swallow?”

The same mocking sense of humour, albeit in a more modern and media savvy vein, informs ‘That’s Undertainment’, a catalogue of films “intended to provide entertainment and pleasure”, but which do “the exact opposite, to the point of horror”. Fowler’s satirical broadsides seldom miss their mark, and one can only regret that their intended targets will, almost certainly, never read this story. Hollywood itself is the setting for ‘The Uninvited’, another highlight of the collection and reminiscent of Bradbury classic The Crowd, with a party going actor seeing the same, sinister group of people at each function, and a similar tragic aftermath on each occasion. The ending will be transparent to anyone who was alive during the 60s, but Fowler’s build up is assured and the story is far more than its sting in the tail denouement.

There are some weak stories. ‘The Spider Kiss’ doesn’t have much going for it other than the surprise ending, and this is a premise so out of left field even Fowler can’t make it convincing. In ‘Forcibly Bewitched’ a magician attempts revenge on the woman who spurned his advances, only to have the tables turned on him in a particularly nasty manner. The story comes with a little too much freight for what is essentially nothing more than a comeuppance story, and seems unable to decide if it is seriously intended or comedic, albeit leaning heavily towards the latter.

Fowler isn’t all about clever plotting and black comedy though. Some of his best stories show a rare sensitivity, an understanding of human failings and why we do the strangest things. In the brief but insightful ‘The Luxury of Harm’ a man is reunited with the idol of his schooldays at a horror convention, only to see how far he has departed from the once cherished aesthetic of rebellion. The story carries a powerful subtext, that for some to become ordinary is to become a victim. ‘Starless’ is another story about identity, with two very different men using the King’s Cross bombs as the pretext to embark on new lives, the protagonist’s sense of alienation in his own life conveyed with genuine empathy, so that what should be a terrible disaster to him instead becomes a window of opportunity. The short ‘Red Torch’ has a young boy gaining his first sexual experience with the usherette at his local cinema, only to find that the dark can hide many things, the boy’s adolescent lust portrayed convincingly, and also the sense of betrayal, that reality all too seldom lives up to what’s on the packet, and in this case falls further away than most. ‘All Packed’ finds Fowler in a quiet and reflective mood, with a moving account of a man dying of AIDS and letting go of his life.

There are seven more stories of varying merit in this collection, but let’s end this review with consideration of one of the very best. ‘Invulnerable’, almost certainly an allusion to M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, has a young woman returning to the ruined corner shop which was the scene of a traumatic incident in her childhood. And as she remembers the past she also reflects on her fascination with superhero comics and the realisation that as role models they don’t really work, even Bruce Willis sans vest has feet of clay, and the only realistic option is to bid goodbye to the past and become the hero of your own life. It’s powerful stuff, the story one of both horror and redemption. It’s Fowler, doing what he does best, telling the stories we need to hear.

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2 Responses to Filler content with satanic satellite

  1. Thanks for this – actually I haven’t seen ‘Unbreakable’ as I don’t care for the director’s work, but I’ll check it out now…

    • petertennant says:

      Cheers Christopher, and glad I gave myself the wriggle room of an “almost” with that comment.

      With Shyamalan I found it diminishing returns with each film, and haven’t bothered to watch anything of his since the execrable ‘Lady in the Water’.

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