Two reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #9 as part of a feature on the work of Tony Richards
OFF THE MAP WITH TONY RICHARDS
A case could be made for Tony Richards as one of the unsung heroes of genre fiction, somebody who is always there in the background, writing stories and honing his craft, building a career, but not one of the names that automatically spring to mind when discussing horror or dark fantasy or… The times they are a changing though, and with four collections in the last two years and now a new novel from a major publisher it seems that the moment has at last arrived when we can start thinking of Richards as an overnight success.
The latest collection, Shadows and Other Tales (Dark Regions Press trade paperback, 342pp, $19.95), is the most substantial yet, with twenty one stories that span nearly thirty years of Richards’ career and effortlessly straddle boundaries of genre and geography.
Title story ‘Shadows’ is also the earliest, having originally appeared in 1981, but does not look out of place alongside later and, possibly, more polished work, showing that from the first Richards had a strong sense of how to tell a story. A young boy discovers strange two dimensional beings in the basement, and fears that they are the first wave of an alien invasion, his intuition borne out by the behaviour of everyone else in town. There’s a hint of Bradbury to this, the faintest echo of ‘Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar’, but Richards is his own man, with a quiet, measured prose that gets under the reader’s skin and a sting in the tail that will raise the hair.
There’s also a strong hint of Bradbury to the wonderful ‘At the Circus of the Dead’ from 2005 (and, in the wake of Something Wicked This Way Comes is it possible to write about travelling circuses without referencing Bradbury?). A man takes his loved ones to a rundown circus that shows up in town, only to find that the acts are too disturbing for family viewing, only his son does not agree in this subtle and sinister story, which captures both the innocence and amorality of childhood, and the pangs of guilt that beset a father who loves too much, but not wisely. While not set in a circus as such, ‘Misdirection’ does involve an example of macabre and bloody performance art, and is one of the nastiest and cleverest stories in the book. The premise is simple: a party of friends attend a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and one of the group is led to wonder if what they are witnessing is a monster hiding in plain sight. It’s not a story with grand themes or prose fireworks, but rather a pitch perfect example of the kind of thing Roald Dahl produced in his heyday, a story where everything is laid out in front of the reader, who is left just as befuddled by it all as the protagonist and with a sense of watching a car crash in slow motion but unable to look away or change events. Fans of Dahl will also delight in ‘Hamadryad’, the collection’s big snake story. A cameraman and journalist go off in pursuit of the ophidian monstrosity that has been terrorising an area adjoining Hong Kong, but one of them has treachery in mind, and how this plays out involves a satisfying final twist for the reader.
While a storyteller first and foremost, Richards is not one to shirk from addressing serious themes in his work, though he never preaches, making the message very much part of the medium. ‘Discards’ brings to mind the Ellison of Deathbird Stories in the tale of a man who finds himself on the slippery economic slope and falls in with a group of tramps who sacrifice to a god of their own making. Resistant at first, the man’s eventual acquiescence is a foregone conclusion, with a subtext that affirms the negotiability of moral values and warns that those society casts out will owe it nothing. Deities and our need/will to believe in them is also central to the gory ‘At the Church of St. Jack The Ripper’. Richards takes the concept that God exists in direct proportion to our belief and turns it on its head, asking how the theory could be applied to the case of devils and demons, all the monsters from the Id, and coming up with the idea of a faith that is propagated and maintained through acts of atrocity. In the deceptively titled ‘The Waiters’ a man learns the true fate of the inmates of a retirement home for the elderly, and the story works well enough on that level, but woven through the warp and weft of the narrative like a thread of spun gold is a subtext about our disregard for the elderly, how they can become an inconvenience and burden that is shuffled aside, to be thought of only when duty calls.
‘Beyond the Western Walls’ is set in a near future in which the affluent western nations have built great walls to shut out all that is undesirable, and then use those territories as they choose, the tale is a skilful mix of science fiction and horror, thriller and political intrigue, and perhaps has a more contemporary feel than many of the other stories given our own world weary cynicism and suspicion where government and corporate interests are concerned. A journalist returns to the scene of a story he let go many years before, and finds what is in effect, despite attempts to dress it up as something else, a concentration camp in the jungle and a tribe facing extinction after many years as experimental guinea pigs for western interests. The natives however have their own solution to the problem, one which touches on their tribal culture and heritage, also bringing to mind Le Guin’s novel The Word for World is Forest. This is the longest piece in the collection and at forty eight pages more novella than short story, but beautifully paced and characterised, so that you never feel the narrative drag, with a detailed and convincing backdrop, and a comeuppance for the bad guys that is grimly satisfying.
Foreign settings are part and parcel of who Richards is as a writer, and many of these stories have a cosmopolitan feel to them.
‘The Cat, The Ladder and The Man Mo Shrine’ is set in the Far East and has a white man becoming the guardian of what may be the egg from which a god is to be born, and having to make decisions as to what to do about that. It’s an unusual and compelling story, one that lingers in the memory, almost as if one of Dunsany’s Pegana tales had been transposed into the modern world, and one can’t help but be drawn in by this laidback approach to religion and cosmology. ‘Hanako From Miyazaki’ is a Japanese ghost story, with a man haunted by a dead girl he meets in the rain, but there any resemblance to the best known face of J-Horror ends. Instead of being drawn into some nightmarish scenario of revenge, the protagonist finds love and a kind of happiness in a story with a quiet and understated ending that rings some appealing changes on the genre template. ‘Gone-Away Bay’ is a novel variation on the conceptual change story, with a very subtle codicil about toleration A tourist in Jamaica discovers an unspoilt bay, only to find his enjoyment somewhat curtailed by the presence of a monster, but to the live and let live locals he is every bit as much the outsider as the creature, which has just as much right to be there. Imagine the Malibu ad crossed with Cthulhu. In ‘Siafu’ a priest is sent to an outback hospital run by nuns in Tanzania, only to find that they have other uses for him beside the spiritual. This is another black comedy along the lines of Dahl, in which the authority of a patriarchal figure is challenged and found wanting by female logic.
The last story in the collection, ‘A Night in Tunisia’ celebrates the lifelong friendship of the narrator for jazz musician Robert Biko, and has him helping the man’s spirit move on when his life is over. It’s a thoroughly charming and amiable account, like taking a leisurely stroll through the constructs of a life and friendship, with an elegant twist on the idea of spirits the capping moment of a story that actually got me feeling charitably inclined toward jazz music, though I’m not going to throw that feeling away by committing the mistake of listening to some. It’s the perfect end to a collection that showcases Richards’ ability as a storyteller, one who takes in a wealth of ideas and settings to rework in his own image and which, along with work by Thomas Ligotti and Paul Meloy, was one of my favourite collections of 2008. Richards doesn’t have the prose chops and singular vision of those two, but for the sheer pleasure of reading a story by a master of the art, Shadows and Other Tales is hard to beat.
That same mastery is shown on a larger canvas in Dark Rain (Harper paperback, 400pp, $7.99) Richards’ first published novel in thirteen years, a book that should slip easily into the dark or urban fantasy subgenre, but comes with enough nasty tricks up its sleeve to keep the horror purists happy.
There’s a touch of Brigadoon about the Massachusetts’ town of Raine’s Landing. People who live there can’t leave; outsiders don’t come to Raine’s Landing unless they are meant to be there, such as delivery people, and they always leaves just as soon as their business is done. Raine’s Landing is a town where magic works and just about everybody uses it. A few centuries back, the town was colonised by witches who decamped from Salem just before certain troubles began, and their descendants have ruled over the town ever since, while Regan’s Curse has kept the town in limbo, despite the best efforts of the most powerful magicians to lift it.
Terror comes to Raine’s Landing on a quiet evening, with the massacre of an entire street, bodies gutted and left lying around for anyone to find. A new power has come to town and is announcing its presence: Saruak, a nature spirit in human form, has decided to settle down in the Landing for a time, accompanied by his familiar, the bestial Dralleg. As more atrocities take place and Saruak bests the town’s Adepts in a pitched battle, panic takes charge and all hope is pinned on the annual ceremony to lift Regan’s Curse, with the desperate belief that this time the town will be set free, but Saruak has his own agenda. The only people who have any success at opposing Saruak are Ross Devries and his friend Cassandra Mallory, both of whom are distinguished by the fact that, unlike the other townsfolk, they don’t use magic, and it’s up to them to save the day, if they can.
From a plot viewpoint, this is a familiar template: small town America in peril and all hands to the pumps. As far as that goes, it is very much business as usual, but the devil, as ever, is in the details and Richards brings plenty that is new to the table. Foremost among the things that make the book special is the unique setting, the idea of an isolated town where magic works, and the rigour with which Richards works out the implications of this, how Raine’s Landing would sit in our modern world, exactly what it would take for such a small, self contained community to survive and prosper, as for instance in the matter of trade, the acquisition of vital supplies. The difference is seen elsewhere: for one in the case of the police force, who have very little to do when all problems are solved by magic and find themselves almost completely at a loss in the face of a genuine crisis. Interestingly, there appears to be no conflict between magic and Christianity, with most people taking their charms and talismans with them to worship and the churches rallying round when the atrocities begin, and this outwardly amicable relationship between forces I would ordinarily expect to be diametrically opposed is something I wish Richards had expanded on.
Given such a backdrop, one would expect to find it populated by some extraordinary characters, and Richards does not disappoint, giving us a larger than life gallery of archetypal figures, with echoes in folklore and Hollywood flimflam, and each having the potential to generate back stories of their own to enrich the general design. There is the town’s ruling elite, the Adepts of Sycamore Hill, who have their own distinctive character traits and abilities, while out in his ruined mansion the powerful and deranged Woodard Raine lives alone with his butler/chauffeur Hampton, practising a magic that is beyond the comprehension of most. Dr Willets is an outsider who came to the town for reasons of his own and took to magic like a duck to water, only to give in to a messianic psychosis, and now he lives in seclusion, afraid to use his power, wanting nothing to do with the town’s affairs. Then there is the Little Girl, and nobody knows what she is, alone in a room, continually rotating in the air and surrounded by a blue glow.
Given such a dramatis personae, the hero has to be unique and Richards cleverly allocates that role to Ross Devries, who has turned his back on magic in a town where everyone else partakes. He is the book’s solid centre, the one against whom all these others act and react, the everyman in the mix and representative of the natural order, the man with one eye who, if not king exactly, has a better hold on things than most of the others. A former policeman, he is now a PI, dealing with problems that break the rules, both natural and supernatural. There is a tragedy in his past, the disappearance of his wife and children along with a magician who lost his way. A similar tragedy occurred in the life of his friend and helpmate, Cass Mallory, and the chemistry between these two is palpable, one of the things that drive the book, though you sense that, dogged by the past as they are and reluctant to give up hope, the relationship will never go beyond friendship and mutual respect, though I would be delighted to be proved wrong.
Which leaves us with the bad guys to consider, and Richards makes them memorable. Arch nemesis Saruak is part human and part tree, but completely malicious and with an irresistible power. What makes him so monstrous and alien is the way in which things such as death and mutilation are simply mischief to him, done because they entertain and to pass the time. He doesn’t have to act as he does: he chooses. His evil is rendered as a certain playfulness in destruction, and shown in the barbs with which he taunts his opponents. Add to the mix the brutal and sinister Dralleg, a bestial creature that acts as Saruak’s helpmate, and the lines are drawn for some edge of the seat combats, such as the three fights Ross has with the Dralleg, and the battle between Saruak and the Adepts, with its various swings and reversals of fortune, while the final fight between Ross and Saruak is another breathtaking battle royal. Richards doesn’t stint on either the action or the details of the various atrocities that punctuate the text, and the narrative is never less than compelling as it hurtles towards a resolution, with the feeling that for some of the individuals concerned things could go either way.
All that remains is to wait patiently for the sequel and find out what else Richards has in store for these people and us.