A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #33:-
THE VIRTUAL MENAGERIE & OTHER STORIES
Elastic Press pr, 161pp, £5
Andrew Hook is a writer whose work should be familiar to readers of TTA and this volume, the first from a new publisher established by Hook to produce collections from writers who have made a name for themselves in the independent press, contains nineteen of his stories, demonstrating the whole range of Hook’s talents. The book is competently produced and attractively packaged, but I could have done with slightly clearer print, though against that has to be set the low cost.
The author’s prose doesn’t always hit the spot, occasionally seeming inelegant or awkward, but he has a nice line in invention and a gift for the telling descriptive phrase, combined with a talent for memorable titles and final twists that pull the rug out from under the reader’s feet without destroying credibility. In the atmospheric title story a scientist tries to save endangered species against a backdrop of the new Ice Age, playing at Noah with his cyberspace ark and never realizing how he is sacrificing his own most precious relationship through pursuit of a chimera. ‘Slender Lois, Slow Doris’ has another, arboreal race co-existing with mankind, reminiscent of The X-Files in its overtly sinister handling of the idea, and expertly poising the question of who the real menace is. ‘The Illusion of Life’, my personal favourite, has a man who believes that the secret of existence is revealed by cartoons and sets to work to build a zoetrope to demonstrate the true nature of reality, but loses faith when the woman he loves falls victim to his paranoia, a zestful story that effectively combines a convincing and original portrait of obsession with the vibrancy of cartoons. In the bizarre and perhaps unfortunately titled ‘Split Beaver’ the skeleton of a giant rodent is used as a church by the people of a small town, while in ‘Monochrome Tiger’ a renegade artist pursues his own unique career path, two stories that play games with the reader’s mind by shifting perspective. In ‘Awkward Scenes With Girls’ Hook takes the old horror trope of the casual pick-up with minatory undertones and breathes new life into the cliché, while ‘The Release’ offers an almost surreal and disturbing take on child abuse, the dreamlike quality of the imagery at pleasing odds with the matter of fact narration, culminating in the most chilling last line in the whole book.
‘The In-Between Days’, at first irritating by the way it piles up seemingly random events in a man’s life, redeems itself with an ending that revises reality to accommodate the narrator’s new status. Dystopian snapshot ‘One Day, All This Will Be Fields’ convincingly depicts a savage, racist future, but ultimately holds out a message of hope, as suggested by the title. ‘The Wreckage’ offers an unusual slant on vampirism, with teens licking their lips at the scene of a car accident, though as a story it seems somewhat insubstantial. Also on the downside ‘The Honey Badger’s Child’, about an African were-creature’s encounter with a young American, has a strong sense of place and some evocative language, but doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. ‘Baby’ is the most technically ambitious of these stories, juxtaposing images of eroticism and an automobile accident in a manner reminiscent of Crash, but the attempt at a dual stream of consciousness doesn’t entirely come off, is a little too raw, almost as if a first draft. The strangely titled ‘The Girl Who Ran and Ran and Ended Up in Bed in a Strange Inn’ is a curiously effective piece of surrealism, with the girl’s pursuer never named and no explanation given for the odd behaviour of the people she meets. ‘Cats Teeth’ looks at a unusual relationship, the old boy meets girl shtick given a new twist, while ‘The Chair’, in memory of Ionescan absurdity, has a man turned into an article of furniture and given a whole new slant on life. ‘Delight in Living Things’ sees a man return from the dead, while ‘Man Was in the Forest’ offers a meticulously detailed and ultimately moving examination of grief. Grief, guilt and the need for forgiveness are also central to the effective ‘April Syrup’, with a man taking on responsibility for the death of a loved one. The last story in the book is also the worst, ‘Pussycat’, the tale of a woman called Christine who is variously a prostitute with blood in the bath water, a young woman out on a blind date, and a feral creature in the forest feeding on dead birds, with little demarcation between the various phases. I read it twice and still have no idea what it was all about.
It’s sad that the collection has to end on such a low point, but with nineteen stories there are almost certainly going to be some that don’t agree with every reader. The general quality is what counts, and on that score the best stories here are among the finest that the independent press has to offer, while overall there’s more than enough to reward careful reading and hopefully ensure that this project gets the support it richly deserves.