Filler content with returns

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #1:-

GOING BACK by TONY RICHARDS
Elastic Press paperback, 168pp, £5.99

This latest collection from Elastic Press brings together fourteen stories by the talented and much underrated Richards, a writer who seems equally at home in Science Fiction and Horror, even dips a toe into the mainstream, but brings his own distinctive slant and voice to whatever he attempts.

Richards’ heroes are men and women who have become displaced in their own lives, as with the protagonist of the title story, Going Back, whose very existence is undermined by a terrible accident in which his daughter was killed, and who yearns for a way back, a chance to put things right. Eventually whatever powers answer prayers allow this, but there is a terrible price to be paid, one that leaves the protagonist with no purpose to his being any more. This is a moving story, the plain, understated prose capturing perfectly the overwhelming pain and sadness of the character, and the heartrending poignancy of the ending. A similar concern with the effects of time pervade What Malcolm Did the Day Before Tomorrow, its eponymous hero becoming caught up in a Groundhog Day variation, able to live the same period of time over and over again, doing whatever he wishes, but then the realisation that he can never move on, and even this does not last forever, Richards gradually revealing to the reader and Malcolm alike the horror of his situation, addressing concerns about our actions and the consequences. The protagonist of A Matter of Avoiding Crowds is inordinately proud of his knowledge of London’s backstreets and byways, but also someone who cannot connect with people, giving the title an extra dash of irony, and so finds himself lost when he strays from the familiar paths, cast adrift in some faux reality. This is a powerful tale of self-alienation, of someone obsessed by the minutiae of life, but completely losing any sense of what is actually important. A similar fate befalls the hero of Yesterday, Upon the Stair, a ghost who can only bear witness to unfolding events, is helpless to affect them in any way, much to his chagrin. These characters are dispossessed, ineffectual, but there is always the suggestion that the fault lies not in circumstance or others, but with some fatal flaw in their own nature.

Richards invites us to look beyond the surface of things. In A Place in the Country a woman stuck in the city fosters the illusion of countryside living in her city flat, pasting pictures over the windows, pretending that she can hear rustic sounds, and the illusion becomes a reality she can enter with an ending that brought to mind Bradbury’s tale The Veldt, but Richards has another trick up his sleeve and deftly pulls the rug out from beneath the feet of our foregone conclusions. Skin Two is another story about surfaces, a series of vignettes that cleverly explore the implications of synthetic skin that can be made to cover the whole body, hiding the wrinkles of age. In a world where everybody is beautiful, what price beauty? Does it matter how old the person we are about to get intimate with is, if they present the appearance of a twenty year old? Richards deals with the morals, social etiquette and emotional fallout of this discovery with an enviable lightness of touch and invention.

Too Good To Be True, one of my favourites in the collection, has a man becoming involved with a beautiful and sexually precocious woman, only to discover that he is the unwitting star of a porn movie, involved in an R rated version of The Truman Show. This is a story that does so many things right, with a subtext about the chasm between reality and the expectations shaped by the adult industry, and touching on the vulnerabilities of sad, lonely people. Sexuality plays an important role too in Alsiso, which explores the shifting balance of power in the relationship between two lesbians when one of them sleeps with a man, the characterisation spot on and totally convincing, the keen bite of desire echoed in the exotic surroundings, and with an ending that is as chilling as it is ambiguous.

Not everything here works, as with the unfortunately titled Man You Gotta See This! which seems rather slight compared to the other stories, a one trick pony of a tale in which the human race is endangered by a virus that takes the form of paintings, reminiscent of Ballard’s Now: Zero, only not as clever. But even when he’s operating below par Richards is worth reading, his simple and uncluttered prose, and gift for creating damaged characters we can believe in, serving him well and making you willing to forgive any slight shortcoming.

In conclusion, another excellent collection from Elastic Press, demonstrating yet again that the short story is in good hands.

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