A review of Stephen Volk’s The Parts We Play that originally appeared in Black Static #56:-
SEEKING TO SUBVERT: STEPHEN VOLK
Regular readers of Black Static will know Stephen Volk from his Coffinmaker’s Blues column, which pulled down the shutters for the final time in #55 after a run of sixty issues (and for those of you who are trying to get their heads round those numbers, the first five columns appeared under the title Electric Darkness in the pages of The Third Alternative, the magazine which preceded Black Static). To the world at large though, Volk is known primarily for his scriptwriting on television shows such as Afterlife and the (in)famous Ghostwatch, films like Gothic and The Awakening, if he is known at all that is, most scriptwriters occupying a blind spot in the vision of cinemagoers obsessed with the work of directors and actors, but all too often taking for granted the efforts of those who put the words into their mouths.
Less familiar to that world at large, though hopefully not to readers of Black Static, is his work as a writer of prose, one of the premier exponents of the short form in the horror genre, which neatly brings us to a consideration of THE PARTS WE PLAY (PS Publishing jhc, 368pp, £20), Volk’s third collection following on from Monsters in the Heart (2013) and Dark Corners (2006).
After an effusive introduction by American writer Nathan Ballingrud, in which he refers to Volk as one of three best short story writers in the genre, we get off to a flying start with the aptly titled ‘Celebrity Frankenstein’. In Volk’s skilled hands Mary Shelley’s classic story is reinvented as a reality TV show, with the first person narrator assembled from assorted body parts and going on to have a celebrity career, with hit records, film deals, and copious photo opportunities, developing a lifestyle where success hinges on how many YouTube hits your last video had and who is following you on Twitter. Even the search for a bride is launched along reality TV show lines. But of course the joins will show, in an existence every bit as randomly stitched together as the bodily form of its protagonist, and soon the narrator’s life is turning sour and then falling apart. With corrupt doctors prescribing the wrong drugs in the wrong amounts, accusations of murder and child endangerment, Volk effortlessly taps into the zeitgeist of our celebrity obsessed culture, seamlessly incorporating elements from the end games of O. J. Simpson, Elvis, Michael Jackson and others into his story. It is a fun piece, something that Kim Newman at his ebullient best might have produced, but at the same time a cutting satire on aspects of modern life that have become far too prominent in recent times, the vacuity of a milieu in which to be famous has become an end in itself, with no regard for any actual ability, and where everything has to be acted out in the glare of the media and for an insatiable public, as if to be unobserved is to not exist.
Again told in the first person, ‘Bless’ is both a horror story and heartrending in the way that it exposes the soul of the protagonist, a woman who is unable to cope with the grief of losing her young daughter, and so takes another child believing that it is her Kerys returned to her through some miracle of God. With the plight of the mother painstakingly laid out, it’s a story that wrenches at the heartstrings and kindles our sympathy, even though we realise that she has done something terrible, and fear that worse is to follow. The woman is not a monster, or even mad by her own standards, but her view of the world, the perspective she has, means that her pain is transfigured into something terrible in a story with no easy answers, no condemnation to speak though we cannot doubt that the author disapproves of what his protagonist does. Volk’s true achievement here is to give us a fully rounded character, one who is fatally flawed thanks to an overly literal approach to her faith but not a nasty person per se.
In the third story ‘A Whisper to a Grey’ Volk returns to a character he has used before, psychic investigator Venables. Set in the time around WWI it tells of his encounter with a gypsy horse whisperer and an arrogant blue blood who just won’t take no for an answer when the man refuses his offer of employment. With more than a hint of D. H. Lawrence in what follows, there is a sense of inevitability about the way in which the plot evolves, with first the gypsy framed for murder and then a supernatural vengeance wreaked on the lying baronet. It doesn’t quite have the oomph of the preceding tales, being more properly regarded as a spectral tale in the Jamesian mould, but it more than adequately demonstrates the author’s range, and with concerns for social justice woven into the text and criticism of the class system and attendant bigotry undercutting much of the action it is far from being a simple entertainment, for all that it works splendidly when approached on that level.
Undoubtedly the most explicit story in the book and not for the faint hearted, ‘The Arse-Licker’ is the first person narration of a man who got where he is by brown nosing. Here he goes too far and causes another executive to lose his job, with the result that he is the subject of some extreme and poetic revenge with echoes of The Human Centipede in what happens. A pointed and pitch black comedy along the lines of Bad Taste, this is very much a case of making the punishment fit the crime, and the punishment is described in terms that are almost akin to relish. However the curious thing for me is that the character somehow gains a kind of nobility by virtue of the ordeal that he undergoes. At the end of the story he seems surer of himself, more capable, with the act of analingus transformed into his sexual peccadillo of choice, perhaps as a way to validate what has happened to him, an embracing of what has proved unavoidable, humiliation transmuted into something that empowers. I’m not sure if this was what the author intended, and I am certain that Volk disapproves of the underlying sycophancy, and yet right or wrong it was what I took away from the story.
Set in Hitler’s Germany and written in the form of a dialogue between two old friends, one of them now a prominent Nazi and the other the head of ‘The Peter Lorre Fan Club’, our next story takes a close look at the arguments attendant on censorship and the way in which art can shape the individual (and national) psyche, the demands of patriotism and how to reconcile those with artistic integrity and truthfulness, an ends justifying the means pragmatism versus a more idealistic approach. While there is no doubt as to which side of the divide Volk stands, kudos to him for attempting to see the viewpoint of the Nazi, to make his arguments credible rather than presented as simply straw men, though ultimately the fascist argument is undermined by the inevitable descent into violence and brutality. It is a debate come drawing of battle lines that possibly has gained a hideous relevance for those of us who fear the course that may be set for the future in our post-Brexit, post-Trump world.
The artist narrator of the next story is attracted to ‘Certain Faces’, and the plot revolves round her rejection of a young woman as a possible model, and the guilt she feels for not mentioning this when the girl subsequently goes missing. It’s a strange piece, one in which mood and the character’s feelings are everything. Volk captures perfectly the artistic sensibility, the way in which Stella negotiates a path through the pitfalls of her life as a painter. At the heart of the story is a rather intense dialogue scene in which Stella talks to three potential models, and is repelled by their philistine attitudes, and perhaps it is this dislike that grounds her failure to act when the girl goes missing, a sense of detachment from events, an inability to see the young woman as an actual person, which in turn causes problems in her marriage and personal life. In a way it reminded me strongly of Raymond Carver’s story ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ in which fishermen ignore the corpse of a woman washed up near the site of their activities – there’s a similar sense of failing to do the right thing for no good reason, or no reason that will be understood by normal, rational people, and Volk’s achievement here is to craft such a gripping, engrossing story from material that is almost gossamer thin.
‘With All My Love Always Always Forever xxx’ is a flash fiction in which thieves steal what turns out to be a murderous device and suffer the consequences. It’s a short, pithy piece, entertaining in a rather grim manner, and I’d classify it as a “just desserts” style story, though I’m not quite sure that the characters deserved what happened to them, the punishment seeming way out of proportion to the crime, but perhaps that’s just a sad reflection of these interesting times in which we live.
‘Matilda of the Night’ is the story of academic and folklorist Ivan Rees, who is presented with an opportunity to record a first-hand account of a visit by a spirit that presages death. So absorbed is he in this quest that Rees neglects his personal relationship with his boyfriend to the point of extinction, while his intrusive presence in a nursing home and hospital results in a horrific discovery, as there is more than a smattering of truth behind the story he thinks is only legend. I previously reviewed this story when it appeared in the Terror Tales of Wales anthology, and on that occasion I expressed some doubts about Rees’ attitude to his work, his willingness to chase after this chimera with such zeal, but on a second reading those doubts have disappeared and everything that takes place on the human level felt perfectly plausible. Again there are elements of the Jamesian tale in this piece, a gradually mounting sense of unease, one where the spectral intrudes in the most elusive of ways until its presence becomes undeniable, though even here Volk is canny enough to allow a note of ambiguity. Ultimately the story belongs to Rees, and it is a story of redemption, showing how his career ambitions and the carelessness with which he conducts his personal life are eclipsed by a moment of sacrifice, an altruistic act.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger is the protagonist of ‘The Shug Monkey’, off in the English country to capture an elusive creature that may help to substantiate his Lost World stories. There’s an old fashioned feel to this story, a variation on the legend of devil dog Black Shuck, and it is one of the weaker ones in the collection, but cleverly constructed and beautifully written with an end twist that more than rewards the effort of reading. Even at his least, Volk is still streets ahead of most other short story writers in the genre.
Like ‘Bless’, ‘Wrong’ is another story that tugs on our heart strings even as it presents us with a horrific situation. It’s told from the viewpoint of a student at university lodging with an elderly couple, and relates what happens when the wife inexplicably absents herself. Based on a true story, it is the tale of a love and desperation that dare not speak its name, and while lesser writers might have played it for the shock value Volk writes with sensitivity and a genuine desire to understand how such a situation could come about. Like his protagonist he refrains from being judgemental, though of course he knows that social mores have been hideously violated. What happens is wrong, but also in a strange sense an act of love, and while abhorring his actions, the reader is hard pressed not to feel sorry for poor old Percy, with Volk’s compassion for the character shining through.
Set in a clapped out seaside town during the off season, ‘The Magician Kelso Dennett’ is the story of a Derren Brown style performer who intends to stay buried on the town beach for forty days and nights. The story is told from the perspective of local boy Nick who is hired by the TV crew to help with security and related matters, and who ends up having an affair with the magician’s wife while he is beneath the ground. Again it’s a story that develops at a beautiful, relaxed pace, with everything that happens seeming entirely credible, giving us characters that we can believe in and as a side issue exploring the matter of celebrity, how there is the constant need to delight the public with ever more shocking tricks. And at the finale Volk pulls the rug out from under our feet with an end twist that is as unexpected as it is entirely obvious with the benefit of hindsight. It was a masterly entertainment, rich in atmosphere and with a beguiling sleight of hand on the part of both the eponymous magician and the writer himself.
Finally there’s the 2015 British Fantasy Award winning novella ‘Newspaper Heart’, told from the viewpoint of Iris Gadney, the wife and mother in a dysfunctional family. To help her shy, retiring son come out of himself, she assists him in building a guy for Bonfire Night, over the objections of the boy’s father who thinks all his son needs is to toughen up a bit, not be molly coddled by his mother. But Kelvin becomes obsessed with the guy, treating it as real, an imaginary friend, and his actions disturb the other members of the family, eventually culminating in a terrible tragedy. This story really is a master class in how to write horror fiction, with a compelling plot, beautifully drawn characters, spectral grace notes, and a genuinely disturbing subtext. The figure of the guy dominates the narrative, a brooding and minatory presence that insinuates itself into the lives of these people and threatens their sanity. And while the father could so easily have been made into the villain of the piece, Volk shows him as fully rounded, a man capable of compassion and wanting the best for his child and his wife, even if at times he is not able to express this in any meaningful way. It was the perfect end to what is probably going to be the best collection of the year.
I’m not sure that I’d go along with Nathan Ballingrud in placing Volk in the top three of the genre, but certainly I’d rate him the best writer of short stories in the UK horror scene at the moment, with only a handful of people such as Nina Allan and Ray Cluley coming close. There’s a simplicity to his storytelling that put me in mind of Stephen King, but without the tendency to bloat and attempts at folksy narration. Volk has the range, voice, and compassion of a true master of the short horror form, and he isn’t afraid to experiment, so that we can never be sure what to expect from him, while at his best he always brings something extra to the table, real world concerns of a social and philosophical nature that add gravitas, make him a writer of substance as well as show. Volk holds up a mirror in which we all too often find ourselves looking at our own reflection and not entirely happy with what we see. He is the best that we have and The Parts We Play provides the ideal showcase for his exceptional talent.
And before we move on to the author interview, I should mention that the book is also available in a signed slip cased jacketed hardcover edition limited to 200 copies, with a bonus chapbook Supporting Roles featuring two additional stories. For those who like their horror with all the bells and whistles.