Further to Friday’s post, two more reviews and the final part of the feature on The Alchemy Press that originally appeared in Black Static #50:-
THE ALCHEMY PRESS (continued)
Marion Pitman also goes without an introduction for her collection MUSIC IN THE BONE AND OTHER STORIES (Alchemy Press pb, 200pp, £7.99), opening with ‘Cave Arborem’, a gentle, elegiac poem about a tree that defies attempts to cut it down and the wisdom the narrator feels it has to impart. After that we have title story ‘Music in the Bone’, the story of Lena’s relationship with musician Ed, whose harp seems to have a magical quality to it, with the revelation of the material from which the instrument is fashioned and Lena discovering that she has avoided a terrible fate. It’s an engrossing tale, and refreshingly the author makes the slant of the story human relationships and values, rather than sacrificing these to the supernatural, with a deft and lovely end note to the narrative, one that rejects the idea magic and creativity are somehow outside of morality.
‘The Seal Songs’ is about a man who rejects the fae heritage of his bloodline and the troubled relationship that causes with his son, the story sad and wistful, Pitman bringing to life the bleak, windswept island where it is set and the sense of the numinous clawing at the edges of reality, the story ending on a shocking but triumphal note. There’s an almost surreal feel to the brief ‘Amenities’, with Miss Debenture explaining the family history of country bluebloods, her matter of fact tone in direct contrast to the weirdness of what is being described. ‘Sunlight in Spelling’ is set in a world where there is no sunlight, where some people think there never has been, but all men seek it, including Kovacs, and he finds it in the eyes of the woman he loves, making me think that in this case sunlight is being used as a metaphor for the ways in which love can enrich and illuminate our existence. A family go to attend a funeral, but there’s an unusual method for the ‘Disposal of the Body’, and then we get a reality shift that completely upsets the apple cart of this narrative, making us see that we are definitely no longer in Kansas.
In ‘Out of Season’ two elderly sisters, one of them with a fatal illness, return to the town where they used to holiday more than fifty years ago, and become embroiled in one of the local customs, but for Mabel it’s a way back to the past, a chance to capture all the things she lost. It’s a story with strangeness at its heart, but not in a threatening way, rather saying that hanging on to traditions can provide us with consolation of a kind. In ‘Washing of the Waters’ quite ordinary, everyday events are intertwined with minatory gestures and bad dreams to create something that is greater than the sum of the parts and all the more disturbing for being so oblique and unfocused. A woman meets a musician who she remembers but can’t place in ‘Saxophony’ and as their relationship plays out it appears they are part of a ritual to restore summer, in a story that has about it the feel of the mythic, with far more going on behind the scenes and the slow build before pitching us headfirst into the fantastic.
‘Looking Glass’ is a slight piece, but well done, with a man terrified by the face he sees in a mirror, but the real thrust of the story lies in the mistaken assumptions being made by the sister of a dead woman. A family gathering is the setting for ‘Christmas Present’, and the backdrop to a most unusual ghost story, with Pitman leaving the door open for us to consider dementia as an explanation of what the elderly woman is experiencing. Two thugs indulge in a spot of queer bashing in ‘Indecent Behaviour’, but their elderly victim dies and comes back to haunt them. It’s a story that satisfies with its well-deserved comeuppance for the two young men, but has a bit more to offer in the insights it gives into their sexuality and the ways in which it defines them, so that what happens completely unmans them, with violence all that is left to them as a way to affirm their concept of masculinity. Paul, the protagonist of ‘Forward and Back, Change Places’, is enchanted by a woman he sees at a dance hall, but cannot bring himself to approach her, and then somebody tells him that she is a ghost, the story written in a gentle, amiable style that gratifyingly builds to the final reveal.
There’s not much to ‘District to Upminster’ beyond the idea that technology has outstripped our ability to control it, and expecting a train to arrive at its destination is an act of faith. More ambitious and satisfying is ‘The Cupboard of Winds’ in which a woman gets involved in a feud between Aeolus, the God of Winds, and Aura, the Goddess of the Breeze, who is imprisoned in her upstairs cupboard. It’s a fun and feisty concoction, one that is essentially rather silly but so engaging that you don’t really care. I could easily imagine it as an episode of Charmed. Flash fiction ‘Contamination’ offers us a different slant on the cycle of life, and it fills the space, but does little more than that.
‘Eyes of God’ presents us with a society in which people coexist and talk with their gods, and Gan the potato god gifts a poet with an environmental message, but the people would rather practise blood sacrifice than control their appetites to avert a famine. It’s a gonzo piece of storytelling, with an obvious but welcome subtext. In ‘Dead Men’s Company’ has two scoundrels who wish to be the playthings of a rich woman end up in cohorts with a crew of female pirates and dead men. It’s a rich romp of a story, one in which the plot seems nonsensical but so much fun that you don’t really care all that much, with plenty of invention along the way and some larger than life characters. And finally a young man who wants to be a gunfighter encounters his hero in ‘Meeting at the Silver Dollar’ and has his attitude readjusted, the story a little too preachy for my liking, and with a surprise ending that didn’t quite ring true in the boy’s conversion, but it was still fun anyway and didn’t detract from the overall quality of this excellent collection.
Our final collection, EVOCATIONS (Alchemy Press pb, 266pp, £10.99) by James Brogden, opens with short, sharp shocker ‘The Phantom Limb’ in which a man who has lost a limb believes that somebody is holding the hand he doesn’t have, with dire consequences, the story entertaining enough in its limited way and not outstaying its welcome. An ex-pat with the power to summon up Yule, the true spirit of Christmas, suffers a terrible fate in ‘The Evoked’ when his desire for an Australian style Christmas on the beach gets the better of him, the story incidentally touching on the perils of celebrity in the information age, when one wrong move will be tweeted halfway round the world before you even realise you’ve made it. Sadness flows through ‘The Last Dance of Humphrey Bear’ as tormented Simon tries desperate measures to recapture the spirit of his dead daughter, a quest that brings him into contact with supernatural beings and the mother of an abused child. It’s a clever story, with enough elbow room for the reader to quantify Simon’s methods as madness, though in the end reality will out. Underlying it all is a concern for the innocent victims of love turned sour, and a taste of the early Clive Barker but without the gore effects.
There’s another fascinating idea at work in ‘How to Get Ahead in Avatising’, with celebrity figures possessed by mythic archetypes, and their whole future mapped out for them, though there is still the option to change course. Kerys’ desire to be famous drives her to this extraordinary measure, but she finds that there are higher causes, though even here it seems that she cannot escape her fate. In ‘Junk Male’ two students come up with a novel way to deal with junk mail, inventing somebody to accept all the offers that come in, but they make one fatal mistake and it turns round to bite them on the arse, in a story that is not much more than an extended joke leading into a gratifying punchline. ‘The Gestalt Princess’ reads like a steampunk version of the plot in which an AI builds its own body, with a professor creating a substitute daughter for the one he never had. It’s a lively piece, one in which the course of true love doesn’t always run smooth, but with engaging and exuberant characters.
In ‘The Smith of Hockley’ Wayland becomes embroiled in the fight between the Old Guard and the Danaan, but aligns himself with humankind, the story a clever one of revenge and treachery, and informed by a sense of the magic at work in the world, of elder beings that coexist with mankind. ‘If Street’ is an isolated spot where the skin of the world wears thin and two boys can sit and watch as Roman legionnaires march past, but for one of them who is abused at home the chance of escape is too great a lure. There’s a great sense of sadness about this story, the feeling that all the good times are past and now there is nothing to look forward to except the long journey down into the grave. A man using the ancient magic of the Golden Fleece for his own ends suffers at the hands of ‘Mob Rule’ in a clever story that mocks machismo and drags the mythic elements into the mud, Brogden making the ideas his own.
As with several of these stories, there’s a punchline ending to ‘The Gas Street Octopus’, but it’s delivered almost as a codicil to some squirm inducing octopus action that might be classified as payback for Oldboy. A man is trying to get a bubble out from under wallpaper at the start of ‘DIYary of the Dead’ but as the story progresses we realise that something far more terrible is taking place and our protagonist is stark raving bonkers. It’s a story that has an almost Poesque feel to it, with madness very much to the fore. Attempts to make a railway line safe through blood sacrifice go horribly wrong in ‘The Curzon Street Horror’, with the men responsible consigned to a terrible but deserved fate in a story that entertains and has a touch of the truly macabre about it. A more modern spin on the same theme can be found in ‘The Remover of Obstacles’, with an attempt at blood ritual to ensure the roads will run well. It’s a gripping story, one in which Terry’s bemusement slowly turns to terror as he realises what fate has in store for him, with echoes of The Wicker Man in the run-around he is given.
‘Made from Locally Sourced Ingredients’ has the novel idea of a restaurant that serves up road kill for its customers, but then a creature from another reality finds itself on the menu. It’s a wonderful concept and Brogden has a lot of fun with it, before landing another blackly comedic end line. A young woman kept prisoner by her abusive uncle manages to escape by transforming into ‘The Pigeon Bride’, though the possibility exists that she has actually jumped out of her thirteenth floor window and the pigeon metamorphosis is simply a comforting death fantasy. It’s a powerful story, one where you hate what is being done to this woman and long for her abuser to receive his comeuppance. Last up we have ‘Tourmaline’, the opening chapter of Brogden’s novel of the same title, with an art gallery attendant becoming obsessed with a mysterious woman who constantly visits an on loan painting at the gallery, the sample intriguing but to my mind not really working as a standalone piece.
There are several stories that I haven’t mentioned – three from Sutton and one apiece from Pitman and Brogden – as I’ve reviewed them on previous publication, but I’ll post those reviews to the Case Notes blog later this month. I should also mention that all of these collections are available as eBooks.