Filler content with small packages – Part 2

Following on from Monday’s post, the second part of a feature on novellas (mostly) that originally appeared in Black Static #56:-

IN SMALL PACKAGES (continued)

Literature, not film, is central to THE BOOKING (Dark Regions Press pb, 90pp, $15.95) by Ramsey Campbell. Desperate for gainful employment and locked out of girlfriend Cynthia’s flat while she is away looking after her aged parents, Kiefer accepts an offer of work and temporary lodging with bookseller Alfred Brookes. Brookes wants Kiefer to give his Books Are Life shop a web presence, but at the same time he seems highly distrustful of modern technology, adhering to various tin foil hat theories and not allowing Kiefer to use his laptop camera while on the premises. Those are just the tip of the iceberg where eccentricities are concerned, with Brookes seeming very reluctant to part with any of his stock, and books that Kiefer sells in his absence mysteriously reappearing on the shelves. The upstairs of the bookshop is a vast space, much more than the premises would seem to allow, with seemingly endless corridors all filled with books, a place that Kiefer finds claustrophobic and minatory, almost as if the books are closing ranks behind him. But with the arrival of the police at the end of the narrative we are gifted an entirely different interpretation of what takes place, one that raises questions about the reliability of our narrator.

This is a fascinating study of mental decay, showing how somebody can become displaced and disconnected in our modern world. While Kiefer might be the viewpoint character, the real subject of the novella is Brookes, whose whole life revolves around books, and in dealing with the idea that they may be marginalised in our present times he has to take drastic steps to cope. The reader will probably not guess what those steps are, but with the benefit of hindsight they seem entirely obvious. The journey to the final moment of revelation is road signed by innumerable tiny details, such as Brookes’ distrust of technology and the magnum opus that he claims to be writing, which is simply an account of all the books that he has read. It’s also seen in his financial dealings and reluctance to let go of loved volumes. Brookes is a person at odds with the modern world. His premises are a sort of palace of memory, one in which Kiefer becomes lost, his whole being eclipsed by the weight of all those assembled volumes and words. One could argue that literature here becomes a form of tyranny, an overshadowing of human existence, and the final reveal underlines this point. At first an eccentric and arbitrary taskmaster, ultimately Brookes is shown as a sympathetic figure, someone we can relate to even while considering him deranged.

From film and literature we move to art with THE DAMAGE MUSEUM (Short, Scary Tales Publications hc, 86pp, £21.95). Vincent Sammy’s work will be familiar to readers of Black Static and Interzone, and this volume showcases some of his finest paintings and drawings. Something Wicked publisher Joe Vaz, described by the artist himself as “the person who gave me my first big break into freelance illustration” (and for that we all owe Vaz a debt of gratitude), supplies an introduction, but really what follows needs no introduction at all; the work speaks for itself. The book is divided into two sections, titled ‘Trichromatika’ and ‘Achromatika’, or to you and me, Colour and Black & White. Each work of art is presented as a double page spread, sometimes with the main illustration stretching over both pages, but usually with the artwork on the right hand side and contextual details on the left, occasionally accompanied by a smaller preliminary sketch. For example, the piece titled STRIGOI comes with this information in white print on a black background – “Interior story illustration, Interzone magazine, issue 246, Story: “The Core” by Lavie Tidhar, Published by TTA Press – 2013”.

Women feature in the majority of the paintings, though they are assuredly not the exaggeratedly pneumatic and improbably costumed warrior ladies of a Chris Achilleos or Frazetta, but rather working women with an extra layer of badass, women whose clothes and faces bear the testimony of all they have lived through, with dirt in the fabric and blood garlanding the skin. These are not women you want to cross, and they are emphatically not there to provide fantasy fodder for the male gaze, or at least not that sort of fantasy. Men and monsters also feature, caught in moments that have a revealing snapshot quality to them, with twisted limbs and contorted facial expressions, the shadow of a rictus grin to each and every one of them, flesh and non-organic material melding in unholy fusion. Sammy works with a vibrant palette, with most of his coloured work focused on variations of the single shade, and vivid dashes of brighter paint for contrast, like splashes of blood on porcelain skin.

As well as illustrations from TTA publications there is artwork from other venues and several previously unpublished pieces, and every single one of them is beautiful, though you may need to expand your definition of that term to accommodate Sammy’s visionary work. I haven’t seen the actual book, only a PDF for review purposes, but my guess is that it’s a thing of beauty also, a fitting showcase for one of our most talented artists.

In his introduction to WHAT THEY FIND IN THE WOODS (Dark Minds Press pb, 154pp, £6.97) author Gary Fry explains that this novella is the text of a document found on the hard drive of a computer at the University of Leeds where he works. It details the relationship between academic Matt Cole and his student supervisee Chloe Linton. Chloe has decided to do her thesis on the psychological impact of a local legend concerning an entity known as Donald Deere. Legends dating back to the 16th century have it that Deere was a black magician who lives on in Pasturn woods, assuming a part plant form, a sticklike figure that preys on local girls with the help of his irresistible love potion, and served by a brood of deformed children. Chloe backs up her research with interviews, statistical analyses, screen captures from the blog of a young woman who claims Deere impregnated her, and has even discovered a photograph reputed to be of Deere. Matt is concerned that she is ignoring psychological impact and going down the academically dead end route of trying to discover the reality behind the legend, but as their relationship continues he starts to discover signs that there is actually more to Deere than he suspected. And there is also the suspicion that Chloe’s motives may not be simply academic in nature.

This is the best thing I have seen from Gary Fry, at least at novella length. It is a multi-layered story that engrosses the reader and can be interpreted in several ways. Matt recognises in his own behaviour with regard to his attractive young student aspects of the sexual predator, a resemblance to the methods of Deere himself, leading to the book’s final moment of self-awareness. On another level it is possible that everything he experiences, all the unsettling moments that culminate in his maddened flight through Pasturn woods, with odd creatures seeming to loom from every corner, are simply hallucinogenic, the result of some concoction he has unknowingly imbibed, or perhaps symptomatic of some mental breakdown on the part of our narrator. Finally, and most likely in my opinion, there is the possibility that this is all real, that Deere exists and is pursuing some mad agenda of his own, in which Chloe is either his ally or cat’s paw. And in the figure of Deere Fry creates an intriguing monster, a creature who superficially embodies many of the negative qualities associated with masculinity (a sexual predator and, as one elderly interviewee wryly observes, he doesn’t do his share of the housework), but is at the same time uniquely monstrous, with his sylvan pedigree, the warped nature of his very being, the hideous progeny that attend him and his unsettling method of getting around. All of which is executed with an admirable and convincing subtlety.

Another standout aspect of the novella is the depth of characterisation especially with regard to Matt Cole, who by his own admission is comfortably middle class. There is obviously dissatisfaction in his marriage to romantic novelist wife Rose, particularly given her desire for children rather late in the day, but though the passion has gone out of their relationship what we see is a convincing picture of a couple who have grown used to each other, who are comfortable with who they are, and this in turn leads to some gratifying moments at the end of the novella. As an aside there are also some fascinating aspects to Chloe’s research, with the various and cunningly crafted info dumps disguised as academic documents inserted into the text helping to enhance the credibility of the work, and the theory that Deere, whether real or not, might simply be a get out of gaol free card for local lasses who have found themselves pregnant. Overall What They Find in the Woods is a marvellous novella, reading like Candy Man as written by Machen and Blackwood, with a dash of Wheatleyesque Satanism added to flavour, but all of it uniquely Gary Fry. Great stuff.

TO BE CONTINUED

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