Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 16

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.

SO FAR, SO NEAR

By Mat Coward

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

This latest volume from Elastic Press brings together sixteen stories by Mat Coward, author of the essential handbook for those with a literary bent, Success… And How to Avoid It, and a writer whose own oeuvre seems to be all over the literary landscape, with credits that range from Interzone to Radio 4, TTA to The Mammoth Book of On the Road, and all points in-between, with quality and a certain off-the-wall sensibility the only commonality.

The Interzone connection is telling, though you wouldn’t get a Star Wars fan within light years of a Mat Coward story. His personal brand of Science Fiction has a more home front feel to it, not space opera on the grand scale but stories packed with observation of human nature, using the other to tell us about ourselves, mundane when reduced to plot synopsis, and in reality anything but. Take as an example Time Spent in Reconnaissance which delivers a novel twist on the theme of the alien among us and plugs into all those conspiracy theories. Yes, the aliens have landed and the government are keeping things from us, but the reality is far more ordinary than anything dreamt of by the ufologists, as Captain Trowbridge tries to arrange care in the community and rehabilitation for the aptly named Mr Eastern, released after nearly forty years as a guest of HM’s Government. It’s a bittersweet tale that shows how the extraordinary can be neutralised when confronted by the deadening power of bureaucracy gone crazy. In Little Green Card, a tale that is almost a complete reversal of the preceding story, its reflection seen in a funfair mirror, the aliens are indeed among us, and it doesn’t seem to be that big a deal. Their ambassador lives in a semi-terraced house in some nondescript seaside town and has to deal with the red tape attendant on a human wishing to emigrate, Coward using the very ordinariness of these events to undercut the outré backdrop. In the cleverly characterised We All Saw It the existence of a UFO becomes of secondary concern to the effect it has on the lives of those who claim to have seen it, each of whom is changed, not necessarily in a positive way. The subtext to all three stories is not that the universe fails to deliver its quota of sense of wonder, but that our imaginations are lacking, we take the miraculous and shoehorn it into our familiar scheme of things as the only way to preserve our own sanity.

Horror is another genre where Coward seems at home, though he insists on his own colour scheme instead of the matt black and blood red that’s too often the default setting. The unsettling By Hand or By Brain has a modern day witch getting involved in industrial relations, the story touching on the dark side of the modern workaday world and with a socialist tendency that gives it an edge compared to the more general apolitical fare found in the genre, with a subtext that raises questions about the means and the end. Those Things has one of the best ideas in the book, that of a dead ghost, which the story’s hero has to remove from his lavatory. Humour comes to the fore as the consequences of this concept are worked out with an admirable rigour, the supernatural reduced to nothing more than an inconvenience, a problem for the plumber rather than an exorcist, which is perhaps an allusion to all those gurgling pipes that are a staple of haunted house movies. There’s a more visceral approach in the aptly named Early Retirement as a company’s team building exercise degenerates into a demonstration of how far desperate people will go to hang on to their jobs, devolving into cannibalism and murder along almost Jacobean lines, the story sending a chill of recognition down the spine and, like By Hand Or By Brain, coming complete with its own political subtext that makes it more interesting than the run of the mill people going crazy with power tools shtick. Socialist concerns or perhaps, more properly, humane considerations, inform Jilly’s Fault which is certainly the most downbeat story in the book, the tale of a hapless, accident prone young woman (or maybe she has a poltergeist) who ends up as a down and out on the streets after she is abandoned by her housemates. Coward uses the story to ask if we as a society are culpable, somehow responsible for the plight of those who are rejected and ostracised by our lack of compassion, and that is where real horror lies.

Perhaps though, the most typical Mat Coward stories are those where he takes a simple idea, something that would never strike most of us as anything out of the ordinary, and then, like a jazz musician playing riffs on a theme or an artist with an eye for the surreal, transforms it into something unique and wonderful. Case in point, One Box of Books, which takes the common or garden occurrence of a box of books always disappearing when you move house, and then hints at mysterious cosmic forces by way of an explanation for this phenomenon, the whole redolent of something very sinister in the woodwork. Or Clean and Bright with its grandmother who insists she can wash the air in her house, grabbing up great, invisible handfuls and dousing them in the washbasin. Coward seems perfectly aware of how ridiculous this situation is, but his narrator tells it deadpan, the story ending with the revelation that he has a similar obsession, as if to say that it is our quirks and eccentricities that define who we are, that all the things we do, sensible or not, are simply the rituals that render our lives tolerable. In the equally off the wall Room to Move a burglar decides to steal a rich man’s space, a gonzo idea that is handled with appropriate panache, Coward taking this concept and simply running with it, unlikelihood and all, tongue fixed firmly in his cheek.

The final story in the book is Remote Viewing in which a man at the fag end of life remembers happier days, time spent in the army when he was ordered to escort an American woman about the country, while she dowsed for secret communist weapons’ caches, and how the two ended up having an affair. The playfulness that informs many of these stories is no more evident than here, with the paranormal fading into insignificance beside young love and the joys of sex. It’s a happy story and a suitable end to a collection that I was happy to have read. Coward may never write a bestseller or be in line for any of the glittering prizes, but his is a very real and substantial talent all the same, and So Far, So Near is the ideal gateway to his work.

Succinctly, Elastic Press have another winner on their hands.

CODA: Each story comes with its own coda, a footnote giving background information about where it was published and the circumstances that attended the writing, something I haven’t seen in any previous collections from this publisher, but an excellent idea and providing useful context.

So Far, So Near by Mat Coward. Tpb, 212pp, £5.99

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