Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 2

Another one of the reviews I did for the old Whispers of Wickedness website, all of which are currently archived on The Future Fire website.

NB: I haven’t bothered to include any links, as it’s a) too time consuming and b) many of the sites referenced are now dead and/or missing, but if you want to check something out then visit The Future Fire archive where the links, if still live, are in place.

SPARE PARTS

Stuart Young

Rainfall Books pb, 99pp, £8

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

Spare Parts, like all the publications I’ve seen from Rainfall Books, is an impressive piece of kit, a slim and elegant volume that would grace the shelves of any Horror aficionado, with a striking cover image, a Janus plus one figure, the third visage that of a grinning skull. Inside we get six illustrations, three each from talented artists Bob Covington and Dave Bezzina, that in imagination and attention to the fine detail compliment perfectly the written contents. In addition there’s an introduction by Tim Lebbon, albeit for anyone familiar with the Small Press scene the work of Stuart Young surely needs no introduction and this volume showcases six of his finest stories.

“Boxes” is the longest of these, and also the most satisfying, the tale of a man whose great love has just come to an unhappy end and who takes an illicit drug that enhances memory. Gratified at first by the way in which it helps him get through a rough patch, he sees his friend fall victim to the hallucinations that accompany the pharmaceutical and is soon himself in a similar condition. Bottom line with this story is that it’s The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, only with memory in place of enhanced vision, but Young makes it special by the depth of characterisation he brings to the piece, making his hero a genuinely sympathetic guy, the quintessential loser in love who we can all identify with at one time or another in our lives, and giving us a series of events that seem perfectly ordinary, banal even, until the horror takes hold, culminating in a series of vivid and disturbing hallucinations that undermine him completely. This is a moving and powerful piece of writing. Shortest story, “Face at the Window”, is equally adept at playing with the reader’s emotion, giving us the case of an old lady who is haunted by a zombie standing outside her house, but as the story progresses it is revealed that she is a victim of Alzheimer’s, the contrast between the make-believe terrors of Horror fiction and the very real horrors attendant upon mortality giving the story depth and an emotional kick. Young’s descriptions of senile dementia bears the stamp of authenticity, with such touches as the dress put on backwards, forgetfulness and general lack of personal care sending a shiver up the spine. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the story though is the way in which Mary has been simply abandoned by those trusted with her care, presenting the reader with a savage and pertinent indictment of the way society treats its most vulnerable.

“Midnight in a Perfect World” brings to mind the film Groundhog Day, with a woman using a supernaturally charged clock to preserve the perfection of a love affair, only to have her self-contained reality break down as the clock itself falters, a story that wins the reader over with wonderful touches of character and a genuine feel for how relationships between people work, the doubts and uncertainties that beset us all, the process of getting to know each other, so that the fantastic elements of the story are built upon a solid foundation. “Swamp ‘Gator Blues” is perhaps the story that has the most to offer by way of pure entertainment, with no subtext or ‘message’ to convey, just a fast paced and hugely entertaining tale of a father, his son and best friend, wandering into the bayous and finding a whole lot more trouble than anyone has the right to expect. The plot doesn’t ease its grip on the reader for a second, with more overt terrors than in the other stories and a truly downbeat ending. The feeling that exists between the three characters (to call it male bonding would be to trivialise) is conveyed with real skill, making it all the harder when the shit hits the fan, and combined with the obvious gusto Young brings to the telling it enables us to overlook the slightly silly modus operandi driving all these events.

The last two stories are perhaps the least of what Young has to offer, though still excellent. The title piece, “Spare Parts”, is a relatively straightforward tale of revenge, with an ambitious newspaper reporter having her life dismantled by the son of the woman she done wrong. It’s eminently readable and Young doesn’t put a foot wrong as the events unfold, while the ending is as unexpected as it is gratifying, but I could have done with a bit more focus on the idea that reporters are morally culpable for their actions, always lurking in the background but never taking centre stage. Finally “Spirits of Dark and Light” is a Boy’s Own Ghost story set against the backdrop of WWI, with a fearless fighter ace goaded into action by the vengeful spirit of a fellow pilot. Young makes a sterling effort at getting the atmosphere right, with all those little touches of detail that add verisimilitude, and yet readable as the story undoubtedly is I couldn’t really identify with the characters; they were frozen in one particular moment of time rather than possessed of a universality of experience to which I could relate. The horrors of war seemed somehow distant, detached even, while the final twist in the plot had about it a whiff of the anticlimactic.

Young’s writing is never less than rewarding, while at his best he is thought provoking and capable of genuinely moving the reader. This is a strong first collection, demonstrating versatility, a real feel for the material and an enviable maturity of outlook. Recommended.

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