Reviews of two books that originally appeared in Black Static #48 as part of a feature on the work of Simon Kurt Unsworth:-
HELL AND BACK WITH SIMON KURT UNSWORTH
STRANGE GATEWAYS (PS Publishing jhc, 149pp, £16) is the third collection to appear from the pen of Simon Kurt Unsworth, a writer who will be familiar to Black Static readers of long standing from the three stories he has had appear in the magazine, two of which are reprised in this collection.
The book opens with ‘Morris Expedition, Days Nine and Ten’, the first in a series of three connected tales with a creature feature theme. If it was a Hollywood franchise, this would probably be pitched as the prequel of the three, with scientist Morris encountering signs that a truly dangerous creature is on the loose in the forest – nervous guides, expedition members slaughtered – but subordinating all of that to his own scientific curiosity and raw ambition, our protagonist emerging as the epitome of “ends justify means” style thinking, sweeping aside all objections, whether rational or not. It’s a taster for what’s to come, the story piquing our interest and then ending on an anticipatory cliffhanger.
Next up is ‘F Bomb’ in which people start using the “fuck” word in unsuitable situations, the story playing out like a plague of Tourettes. Various experts are drafted in to theorise as to why this is happening, with one hypothesis taking precedent, the idea that possibly this is an evolutionary ploy, one aimed at the extinction of the human race through hindering our ability to communicate effectively. It’s a fascinating concept, one that could so easily have gone pear shaped in less skilled hands, but Unsworth plays it out with an admirably straight face, while the end note is laugh out loud funny. ‘The Hotel Guest’ is more the sort of thing readers familiar with Unsworth’s previous work will expect from the writer, with the obnoxious Parnell finding himself trapped in a hotel that is slowly warping out of true as an accelerated process of decay takes over. It’s an unsettling vision of dislocation, one worthy of a Cronenberg, while underlying the surface barrage of effects is the suspicion that this is a fate Parnell has brought on himself through past actions, that the external landscape reflects his bitter psyche.
‘The Knitted Child’ is produced by a grandmother to console her granddaughter for the loss of a baby, but it is something to which the young woman becomes too attached, a hindrance to her moving on emotionally. Having sucked us in to this scenario, Unsworth then turns it all around in the final section, told from the viewpoint of the knitted child, showing us its feelings of abandonment when its owner and her partner are empowered to move on with their lives. It’s a keenly felt story, one in which heartbreak and sense of loss are brought to painful life on the page, and also the desperation that leads people to resort to such unusual methods of finding closure, offering as a grace note commentary on how we can use both things and people with no real thought to any needs they may have. Out on his morning run Fuchs encounters ‘The Drunks’ Totem’, which he at first thinks is a sculpture made by drunks, but eventually falling victim to some horrendous monster summoned by the totem. Again it’s a piece in which, as with ‘The Hotel Guest’, reality is thrown off kilter, the story combining the outer and inner landscapes of this man’s psyche and using them to play off of each other.
We get back to the creature feature in ‘Implementing the Least Desirable Solution’, with scientist Morris told to terminate the monster he is holding prisoner, but the never named creature is not so easily disposed of, playing dead simply to further its own ends. This is a fast paced, action oriented piece, with plenty of gore splashed about as the creature kills everyone who stands in its way, and by way of context and contrast we get the ruthlessness of scientific research, the money men pulling the plug when Morris’ project doesn’t deliver the necessary returns on their investment, and Morris himself thinking only of his career, of missed chances, none of them actually concerned or possibly even aware that they have a living, highly intelligent being as their captive. In some ways the story put me very much in mind of the Company’s plans for an alien in a certain movie franchise, how cupidity eventually turns round and bites them on the arse. The weakest story in the collection, ‘Traffic Stream’ is a rather simple piece, with the self-centred and manipulative Samuels becoming the victim in a real life variation of PacMan, his car chased along endless roads by carnivorous lorries, while the phlegmatic Bird listens in on the other end of the phone line. It’s an idea that, to my mind, doesn’t have enough substance to justify its inclusion in a collection of this quality.
‘A Man of Ice and Sorrow’ is the tale of Mains, who is estranged not only from his wife but most of humanity after the tragic death of their child in a car accident. He finds consolation in the strange snow sculptures – happy, smiling family groups – that he finds out in the forest, origins unknown, but while recognising the wrongness of his own situation in one such placing, Mains is too far gone to learn the lesson. Again it’s a story in which the bitterly cold and bleak landscape mirrors the emotional state of the protagonist, and the sense of loss and grief hangs over every sentence until we reach the terrible resolution. Set in Zambia, mine inspector Thorley has an encounter with the entity ‘Mami Wata’ when he seeks answers for a mine’s reduced profitability. Unsworth is superb here at creating the local backdrop and writing a convincing picture of mining activity, with the heroism of a native who won’t allow him to fall victim to the siren allowing the story to end on an almost upbeat note. Central to the narrative is the sense of a culture that exists much closer to the natural (and paranormal) world than we do in the west, and Unsworth is excellent at conveying that.
Probably my favourite story, ‘The Seven People You Don’t Meet Today’ is the tale of Channing, who believes that his career success is linked to encounters with the people he sees regularly on his morning walk to catch the train and to whom he gives names that embody their defining characteristic – Smiling Girl, The Gimp, Grumpy Bike Lady, and so on. If he sees them all he has a good day, but everything goes various shapes of pear if not all of them are present and accounted for. Naturally his whole career gets flushed down the sewer, and he blames this on the absence of various members of the human charm bracelet he has created, with a final revelation, one that the reader has to infer for himself, adding insult to injury. Central to this story are the various good luck rituals whose observance by Channing borders on OCD and something akin to the fetishism of human beings, the narrative delightfully tongue in cheek and with a wonderful end twist that casts everything in a new perspective for the story’s protagonist.
Finally we have ‘Peek A Boo’, the last creature feature tale, with the monster running riot in a village, the story told from the viewpoint of young Ellie, who tries to save her brother after the death of their parents, only to be herself devoured. It’s a grim end to this collection, contrasting the bravery of a young girl with both the monstrous nature of the creature and also the uncaring nature of those who had previously interacted with the beast and seen it only as an opportunity for wealth and personal advancement. Unsworth takes no prisoners.
By way of an added extra we have ‘Afterword and Notes’, in which the author explains the inspiration behind the stories and how he feels about certain aspects of them. And I should also mention that the publishers have a signed jacketed hardcover edition limited to 100 copies available for £30.
And so we come to Unsworth’s first novel, THE DEVIL’S DETECTIVE (Del Rey hc, 359pp, £12.99). It’s eponymous protagonist is Thomas Fool, an inhabitant of Hell, and like all the other denizens of that place Fool has no idea of the sins he has committed to deserve such a punishment or what action he need take to atone. Aside from the fact that humans live side by side with demons and often fall prey to their malice, Hell has a lot in common with our own world, but we’ll come back to that later. Thomas is an Information Man, the senior of three, one of those charged with investigating whatever happens to pass for crime in Hell and reporting back to the demons who ostensibly rule there. Most crimes are simply filed away, but occasionally one is earmarked by Thomas’ superior Elderflower as needing a closer look. The first in a series of murders is one such occasion, with the fact that the bodies have had their souls stripped away serving to mark the killings as exceptional, the work of an especially powerful demon. Concurrent with his duties in cracking the case, Fool is also helping babysit a visiting delegation from Heaven, the angel Adam and his assistants who have come to negotiate for certain souls to be taken from Hell and transferred to Heaven.
The investigation takes Thomas into many dark corners, including a meeting with the strange entity known as The Man of Flowers, and encounters with several demons, some of whom, in an unprecedented act for Hell, he is obliged to kill. Finally the identity of the killer and his agenda are revealed, but in many ways that is just the start of Thomas Fool’s troubles as arresting the culprit and bringing him to justice may just be beyond the Information Man’s capabilities, even with angelic help. Further complicating matters, in the course of his investigation Fool has fostered a new feeling of resistance among the humans of Hell, but this too may be part of a larger plan formulated by beings who are using him as cat’s paw to attain their diabolic ends.
For those used to Unsworth’s restrained, disturbing short stories this book will come as a revelation, with only the “creature feature” stories mentioned above and some of the more sfx slanted pieces in Quiet Houses, a collection of linked stories chronicling the adventures of a paranormal investigator, giving us a foretaste of what to expect. It’s as if the extra length provided by the novel format has given Unsworth’s imagination wings and he has fully spread them to deliver a large scale, epic story with a wealth of supporting detail and throwaway invention. The mystery of who is doing the killings is simply the skeleton on which the story takes place (I guessed the killer’s identity early on and I suspect most readers will do the same), though it does provide us with the infernal equivalent of a police procedural story.
Told from the viewpoint of Fool, a good man who is trying to do the best that he can in difficult circumstances, who is slowly coming to the realisation that what he does matters, that he has a duty to perform, it’s a tale that could be construed as a journey of personal discovery and development. The changes in Fool are central to the story, with the mystery and everything else simply the catalysts that drive the transformation, so that in a sense, however unlikely that may be given the setting, this is a novel of character. One such catalyst is the love affair between Fool’s assistants, Gordie and Summer, which adds a particular zest to the mix, showing him that even in Hell a kind of purity is attainable and worth the candle although inevitably it can only lead to tragedy. And underlying all this is a streak of pure manipulation, as Elderflower pulls Fool’s strings, but with the suspicion that at some point our hero will exceed expectations.
It is also a very visual novel, with sights to challenge the ingenuity of any Hollywood studio’s sfx department, and a relentless invention that never oversteps the mark, so that you can see how each detail fits into Unsworth’s overarching vision of Hell, one with enough internal (infernal) consistency to rival the creations of Edward Lee and others who have written in this vein. Unsworth conjures up visions of demons with long arms who fish for human souls in the sea of Limbo; he shows us the Aruhlians who eat dust and earth only to fertilise the ground with their own shit; he tells us of the Genevieves, a class of prostitutes who cater to the needs of the demons that torment them; we bear witness to the forensic procedures by which the dead are questioned. In Fool’s company we visit the inhuman Man of Flowers, whose being has infiltrated the very fabric of Hell and who has an agenda of his own, a deadly friend and worse enemy, with a power that may even rival that of the demons; we venture inside the Orphanage, where hideously grotesque babies await their next victims; we tour the strongholds of Hell where the greatest of the demons preside, an area usually forbidden to the humans; and we see the council chamber where negotiations take place with the Heavenly entourage while outside the Sorrowful wait to find out who has been chosen for Elevation. And as the story progresses we observe the way in which power shifts, with the humans finding in Fool’s example a prompt to fight the demons instead of just being victims, resulting in bloody riots in which humans and demons clash while Fool himself tries to find a moral centre, solid ground on which to stand, becoming the upholder of a concept of justice that is equal for all, be they human or demon. And in the final sections Unsworth’s imagination seems to go into overdrive, with Fool and his angelic helpmate taking on the killer in a battle royal which could go either way, as protean flesh and immense power collide with a stubborn determination to do the right thing no matter the cost.
Underlying it all is a subtext which bears on our own reality, Unsworth depicting a world in which the great majority of people are victims of the system, doomed to lives of unending toil and misery through no fault of their own, or at least none that they are aware of, and the only escape offered to them is that of being chosen to ascend to Heaven, the end result of a process that seems as random and arbitrary as picking the winners of the National Lottery. But Hell, like our own world, is a work in progress, and the two are entwined in a macrocosm/microcosm style relationship in which changes in one are mirrored in the other. Under the carefully calculated manipulation of Hell’s ruling elite there is a shift of emphasis, one that leaves the human populace crying out for protection from the demons, and in turn this leads to a new form of totalitarianism, one that reflects the manoeuvres presently taking place in our own world in the name of the war on terror, with a loss of individual freedoms and an ever more intrusive state to bolster our supposed security. Reading this story, one cannot help but find such comparisons.
Unsworth has written a book that is both a thrilling detective story and an examination of the nature of evil, a horror tale of the first water and an epic fantasy, one that is strongly visual, but with something genuine and heartfelt to say about the state of the world in which we live grounding the story in reality, real world concerns. It’s also a heck of a lot of fun and I can’t wait for the sequel, to find out what happens next with Thomas Fool and his supporting cast of demons and monsters.