Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 6

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.

DEEP TEN

Edited by Gary Couzens and Sara-Jayne Townsend

T Party Books pb, 128pp, £5

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

Attractively packaged, with a beguiling cover illustration by Hilary Wade, the only sour note struck by a Contents page that seems to have been out to lunch when the proof-reader called, this anthology commemorates the tenth anniversary of the T Party Writers’ Group, and contains fiction from ten of the group’s members, three of the stories previously unpublished, while the remainder have appeared in outlets as diverse as Interzone and Peeping Tom.

David Gullen’s “The BDM” is one of the best pieces on offer, a dazzling satire of Hollywood excess, cataloguing the making of a movie whose sole criteria for success is that the budget be over a billion dollars. Well written and never less than amusing, it deftly bursts the bubble of kitsch masquerading as culture and our obsession with all things celebrity, working so well because no matter how over the top the action rises we never get the feeling that it couldn’t actually happen. “A Pool of Ants” by Christine Goody is far weaker, the portrait of a woman losing her mind that never really engaged my interest, with a half-hearted attempt at ambiguity that doesn’t quite come off. “Jimi Hendrix Eyes” by founder member Sara-Jayne Townsend, who also writes an introduction to the anthology, gets things back on track, meticulously dissecting a ménage a trois fated to end in tragedy, with convincing characterisation and a horrible feeling of inevitability about what is happening, so that reading it becomes like watching a traffic accident and being unable to look away. There’s a similar feel to “Be Positive, Be Very Positive” by Rosanne Rabinowitz, in which a young woman who was abused as a child engineers a sexual relationship with a man by using her psychic ability to invade the bodies of other people. The motives and pain of those involved are conveyed with an enviable sensitivity and never seem less than real, making us feel for the protagonist and providing a telling counterpoint to the fantastical nature of the situation in which she is trapped. Far more routine is “Closer to God” by Jon Jones, a by the numbers schlocker in which a man’s dreams of bloody murder lead to a conclusion most Horror readers will see coming about halfway through the second page, with little rhyme or reason to most of it.

Gaie Sebold’s “Wet Work” has a killer for hire getting his much deserved comeuppance when he takes on an assignment he shouldn’t, and is pretty good for most of its length, with suitably nasty characters and an intriguing storyline, only to disappoint with a rather fanciful final twist, one that perhaps owes more to Hammer House of Horror style hokum than the modern, streetwise pitch it seems to be aiming for. “Ask ASE” by Martin Owton has a family acquiring the perfect automated house and gets off to an intriguing start with its picture of how such a device might be a boon to busy parents with children to look after, only to then take the well trod path of machines developing awareness and taking control, with a hint of Demon Seed lurking in the background. It’s an engaging enough read, but nothing more substantial than that. In contrast Nigel G. Johnson’s “Zenotech and the Cryptic Visage”, in which a secret agent infiltrates a future cult and learns its dark secret, has far more depth and invention, developing into a rather engaging slice of SF noir. It gives us a credible future setting, believable characters, good pacing and a strong sense of drama, all of which makes for an entertaining and enjoyable read. “Rachael” by Gary Couzens is also SF, taking his usual theme of sexual identity and transplanting it forward in time, with a seven foot tall diplomat from Triton beguiled by a witchy Earthling woman, the story enhanced by a casual inventiveness that gives the future setting and its mores extra depth, plus a fine understanding of the masculine ego’s insecurity. The resolution is perhaps a tad too predictable, but the quality of Couzens’ prose and the poignancy with which he invests the narrative help it rise above any hint of superficiality. Finally there’s “Drowning Her Sorrows” by Sarah Ellender, in which a space pilot and smuggler agrees, for reasons of his own, to transport a woman intent on committing suicide by drowning herself in an otherworldly lake, another piece that gets beneath the skin of the characters and delivers a plot full of surprise twists and turns, all combining to make for an enjoyable read, one that will challenge the reader’s expectations.

One or two pieces strike a bum note, but on balance Deep Ten is a solid collection, with fiction by writers who’ve taken the time to learn their craft and know how to tell a good story, and, while it’s unlikely to change anybody’s life or ideas about literature, most readers should find this book worthy of their attention.

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