Following on from last Friday’s post, this is the second part of a feature on work by Black Static columnists that originally appeared in #57 of the magazine:-
OUR GANG (continued)
Gary Couzens took over from Tony Lee as our resident film buff in #51 and prior to that his story ‘Served Cold’ appeared in #11. OUT STACK AND OTHER PLACES (Midnight Street Press pb, 293pp, £9.90) is his second collection and opens with an introduction by Andrew Hook who, with his Elastic Press hat on, published Couzens’ first. The book contains eighteen stories, five of which are previously unpublished.
The eponymous ‘Out Stack’ is the story of two young people, a man and a woman, who have both been in love with the bisexual Patrick, and search for him when he goes missing, their quest taking them to the rocky outcrop of the title, the most northerly point of the British Isles. Told from the viewpoint of Adrian, it juxtaposes the search for Patrick with his own efforts to uncover his sexual identity, and the ways in which people use each other, offering a gripping exploration of character. ‘Electricity’ tells of the troubled relationship between Melissa and Charles, who as a child believed that there were ghosts in the television. The story is thoroughly engrossing for the dynamics of the relationship and the sense of something outré bubbling away beneath the surface, culminating in an ending that is sudden and yet ambiguous. Revenge is at the heart of ‘Splinters’ but Couzens has the nous to turn it into a tale of sexual assault and the damage, both physical and emotional, that such acts involve, taking us beneath the surface of the tale, exploring motivation and the nature of power.
Set in the jungles of Brazil, ‘The Missing Man’ is an entrepreneur who has gone AWOL, but the mystery of his disappearance only provides the bones on which Couzens pastes the flesh of his story, looking at the relationship between Roger’s wife and his accountant Greg, the interplay between the two characters the focus of the tale. It is a strange piece, one in which plot almost seems to be a side issue, and yet for the complexity of the emotional responses to the catalytic act it holds the attention from beginning to end. Idiosyncratically written, with each sentence beginning with the word ‘Because’, the next story is also a tale of abuse and revenge, but the terrible act to which every single word points is only the culmination of a gripping account of the victim’s psychology, Couzens emphasising reasons over actions. It is a compelling and riveting rendition. A trip to Poland to visit her boyfriend’s family, throws their relationship into a new light for the protagonist of ‘Noon in Krakow’, the story a case of travelling not so much broadening the mind as highlighting the differences between people who initially thought they had so much in common. Subtly written, with each event seeming to codify a flaw in the characters’ relationship, it is an absorbing story, one that will no doubt resonate with many readers.
In ‘After the Party’ a Hollywood fixer who cleans up the messes made by movie stars finds that he has finally had enough of his charges’ antics. There are echoes of James Ellroy’s work in the situation and Couzens writes with a real feel for the material. It is a story that has about it the reek of authenticity, informed by a feeling of disgust at what the rich and powerful and famous think they are able to get away with. Thea returns to her old stamping grounds for a work course, but it brings back memories of the ‘Jubilee Summer’, her punk past and the strange boy Luke. There’s a bittersweet feel to this story, a sense of sadness and loss, of promises made but not kept and the chance for happiness cruelly snatched away, but underlying all that there are still echoes of hope. There’s another trip into the past in ‘Daddy’s Girls’, as Nick goes to empty the flat of his dead sister Mary, but it’s a road to Damascus moment of sorts as he finally realises what was going on in his family many years ago. Themes of bullying and abuse, and identification with the outsider come to the fore in this heartfelt and moving story.
While staying in a hotel with his family ‘Beside the Sea’ Paul is beguiled by Elizabeth, the daughter of another guest, but he cannot suspect how truly different she is. Told from the viewpoint of a child, this is another delightful story, one in which sibling rivalry and family passions are simply the backdrop to something far more intriguing, a relationship in which compromises have to be made and where toleration becomes the underlying plank without which the whole house of cards would crumble. I loved it. Set in Russia, ‘Cold’ tells of a stranger who comes to a remote village and shares with the child Masha his out of body experiences, but as so often with these stories the paranormal element serves simply as a catalyst to other concerns, Couzens concentrating on relationships and loneliness, the things we will do to find common ground with another and a place we can call our own. ‘Meetings with Leo’ is an account of a young woman’s encounter with the famous writer she had an affair with when she was sixteen, though we don’t know if she is an unreliable narrator, the story giving us both Anne’s version of what happened and Leo’s fictional interpretation. Central to the story is the way in which people use each other for gratification and validation, with the possibility that both versions of what happened are true, events simply seen from different perspectives.
‘The Girl on the Station Platform’ appears to be fleeing some men, but for the protagonist who helps her it brings back associations from his past, with a strand of sexuality and love underlying everything that happens. At the heart of the story is the theme of misogyny and abuse of women, whether it is the implied violence of the three men on the platform or the abusive language used by character Mitch, and for the reader the question is at what point one segues into the other. Co-written with Martin Owton, ‘Essential Chemistry’ tells of student Neil who thinks to solve his money problems by cooking drugs for a dealer, only to find that he is in much deeper than he intended. With threads of love and jealousy woven into the main narrative, it’s an engrossing story, one in which the characters are never less than alive and the vibrant music scene that serves as backdrop adds real depth to the story.
Bullied all her life, Donna is abducted by a couple and forced into a ‘Dog’s Life’. While not a horror story by any of the usual standards, this is a harrowing piece of work, detailing a young woman’s abuse and degradation, but also showing the life history that made her so vulnerable to such things, complicit in her own victimisation. It was an unsettling work, one that had about it the ring of truth told through art, and to my mind the best piece in the book. ‘Treffpunkt’ feels like a ghost story of sorts, with a young student backpacking round Europe encountering a couple trying to escape from East Germany against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sensitively written, it’s a piece that asks more questions than it provides answers, with the feelings engendered more important than what actually happens, the yearning for freedom and hope for the future. Set in Australia, ‘Spinning Fast’ is a tale of adolescence, a rite of passage, with the young Clytie learning to stand on her own two feet, pursuing her musical obsessions and falling in love with a young man, accepting that no matter how much she wishes it, nothing will ever stay the same. Again, it’s a gripping and very real account of human relationships, Couzens bringing the character and her concerns to vibrant life on the page and keeping you reading to the very end.
Finally we have the novella ‘Mourning Becomes Me’, which picks up on the character of Clytie, now a mother and living in Britain. The story is told from the viewpoint of daughter Martha who, after Clytie’s death, gradually takes on her identity. What we have here is essentially a tale of possession as mental illness, and yet Couzens is not judgemental, simply giving us the details, showing how Martha’s decision to take on the persona of her mother brings both happiness and sorrow. Ultimately it is the actions of other people that cause her apple cart to tumble over. It is a thoroughly absorbing account of unusual relationships, one that grippingly brings home the reality that we have no idea what goes on behind closed doors, that our morals and social codes are simply things of convenience, and possibly to be flouted when happiness hangs in the balance. How can this be wrong when it feels so right, would be Martha’s plaintive cry when confronted with the consequences of her actions. But at the same time we wonder to what degree she is herself disturbed that she should be so willing to subsume her own identity and, quite literally, become her mother. It was a wonderful story and the perfect end to a very strong collection, one that touches on themes of horror and the weird, but only by way of emphasising the very human problems we have to confront each and every day.
(TO BE CONTINUED)