Filler content with room to grow

A review that originally appeared in Interzone #270:-

Malcolm Devlin
Unsung Stories pb, 344pp, £9.99

Five of his stories have appeared in the magazine, so the odds are that Malcolm Devlin will be a familiar name to Interzone readers, and three of those stories appear in his first collection, along with two that previously appeared in Black Static.

It was in January 2014 in the pages of BS that Devlin was first published with ‘Passion Play’, and it is fitting his collection leads off with that story. The spine of the story concerns a police reconstruction of the last known movements of disappeared girl Cathy McCullough, with her never named friend taking the lead role and also that of our narrator. Intercut with this are cameos of various people and what they were doing on the day Cathy went missing, and flashbacks to the past relationship of the two girls. Prompted by the story’s title we draw comparisons between this reconstruction and the last walk of Christ, commemorated by a series of stained glass panels in a local church that fascinated Cathy and where she discovered images of the cross-hatched man that came to obsess her. There’s a lot going on in this story. On the surface it has all the trappings of a Jamesian ghost story set in the modern world of social media and police reconstructions, with hints of the outré deftly inserted into the text. Bubbling away beneath all this are unspoken tensions between the two girls and also suggestions of something wrong in the McCullough family, so that while the supernatural elements are dominant there are also more mundane options open for the reader. Further enhancing the story and making it credible, is Devlin’s carefully phrased prose that brings to life the mentality of the young girl who is his protagonist. It is an impressive first outing, for what is not said as much as for what the author reveals.

‘Two Brothers’ has an Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe going on, with William expecting to resume their old camaraderie and games when Stephen returns from his first term away at Greyhurst private school. The brother who comes back though is a stranger in all but name. It’s possible to take the story at face value, but at the same time what happens could be a metaphor for childhood anxiety and the process of change, the disconnect between the boy and the man. At the heart of the story is the idea of maturation, of how those we know and love can come to seem alien to us. Ellie makes up stories about her life in ‘Breadcrumbs’, but when the city is overgrown by vegetation she finds herself living in a fairy story and transformed into an archetypal character. It’s a story that is lush with invention and wit, with scintillating dialogue and lovingly crafted imagery. Central to the piece is the idea that fictions control our reality, our dreams shaping the everyday world. For Ellie her transformation is a form of liberation, though to others it seems like the ultimate imprisonment. She is as free as her mind will allow her to wander.

Nina in ‘Her First Harvest’ is a debutante of sorts on an alien world where people’s bodies are used to grow fungus to supplement the food supply. It reads rather like something out of Jane Austen given a fantastical twist, the whole totally absorbing and the strange central conceit adhered to rigorously and developed with a compelling logic. ‘Dogsbody’ reinvents the werewolf archetype as a victim of Lunar Proximity Syndrome. On a day in 2010 large numbers of people were briefly transformed into werewolves. Told from the viewpoint of survivor Gil, whose life was shattered by the event and who has been trying to pick up the pieces ever since, it offers a fascinating view of outsider perception. Gil thinks that employers are prejudiced against him because of LPS, while those like him form their own groups, so that there is an LPS community with its own social gatherings and codes of behaviour. At a push you can use the story as a metaphor for the ways in which society is splintering into various special interest groups, with emphasis placed on our differences rather than the things we have in common. Written with keen insight into what it feels like to be different, some cracking dialogue and a protagonist who is rather too prone to feeling sorry for himself, this was a splendidly entertaining story, taking an old idea and dragging it off in a new and unexpected direction.

There’s a similar feel to ‘We All Need Somewhere To Hide’ which presents us with a world where a secret agency battles against supernatural incursions, but for exorcist Alce the real danger lies at home, with an attack on her sense of self, one that makes Alce question her mission and the things she has been told by others. Beautifully written and with some lurid invention woven into the plot, this is a story about what it means to be the one who has to slay the monsters, who takes on that responsibility and needs to live with doing the right thing when she is not really sure exactly what that is. Tom Kavanagh, the protagonist of ‘Songs Like They Used To Play’, is the former child star of a reality TV show in which his family lived in different decades of the twentieth century. It’s a clever story, one that asks about the effects on impressionable minds of such programmes, but at the same time captures the media circus that surrounds them, so that every act takes place in the public eye. Tom’s chance for happiness was sacrificed to the all-seeing eye of the camera, and in trying to get back some of that he falls into yet another time warp, and in doing so “dooming” somebody he cares about. At the same time there is a subtext about how people cling on to their glory days, even though it leaves them stranded in a past that was probably never as good as they remember it.

In ‘The Last Meal He Ate Before She Killed Him’ the widow who murdered the General is sentenced to re-enact the events leading up to the act several times a day for the benefit of a public needing to feel good about itself. With its air of political will made manifest and suggestions of a populace conditioned to respond as its masters’ wish, this is a story that focuses very clearly on the human damage done by such systematisation. At the same time the story gives us, in the figure of conniving Dominik, a low level apparatchik looking to milk the situation for advancement, someone who initially seems appealing but soon shows his true colours and in doing so reveals the type of people who will flourish in such a climate of fear and correctness. ‘The Bridge’ has a couple moving into a new house and finding a model of their town in the attic, but the differences between the model and reality provide clues as to the fate of the previous owner. It’s a bittersweet piece, at times very moving and with a feel for human frailty.

Finally we have ‘The End of Hope Street’, which originally appeared in Interzone #266 and is currently shortlisted for a British Science Fiction Association Award, and to my mind is the best story in this collection. It painstakingly details the process by which a community falls apart, each of the houses on the street becoming unliveable, the people driven from their homes or dying inside them. You can, if so inclined, take this as a metaphor for the way in which many people are being driven out of the housing market through spiralling prices, and if you do take that approach then the personality of the last man standing on Hope Street is especially revealing. Regardless, this is a story that, while it shows us the end of hope, also gives us reason to hope by emphasising the idea that a community is more than bricks and mortar, that it is the people who live there and how they act with regard to each other. With a large cast of characters, each of whom is deftly drawn, this is a quiet and carefully calibrated version of the apocalypse, the sort of story Ballard would have been proud of.

You Will Grow Into Them is a compendium of strange tales that reveal much about our own world through a form of osmosis, stories in which psychological and spiritual states are made physically manifest. It marks the arrival of a potentially major new talent.

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