A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #34:-
WHITE & OTHER TALES OF RUIN
Night Shade Books pb, 342pp, $15
This new collection brings together six novellas by Lebbon, a writer who cut his teeth in the UK independent press, complete with an introduction by Jack Ketchum and story notes by the author himself, explaining how these grim fables came into being.
British Fantasy Award winning ‘White’ is probably the best known of the fictions on offer and arguably the most accomplished. It takes us forward to a time when Britain freezes in the grip of a new Ice Age and a party of friends are stranded in Cornwall in an isolated manor house, totally cut off from whatever is left of civilisation, the story painstakingly dissecting the group’s disintegration as they are hunted down by the whites of the title, a ruthless new life form able to manipulate human desire to its own ends. Conceptually there is little that is new here, but Lebbon’s grasp of the material is assured, capturing perfectly the bleakness of both the external landscape and the inner emotional topography of the characters while deftly creating an atmosphere of dread anticipation.
‘From Bad Flesh’ has a similar dystopian setting, a world where the political and social order has broken down and its protagonist, Gabe, travels to a remote Greek island in search of the man String and a cure for the illness that is slowly stealing his life. While the story certainly doesn’t lack for invention or incident, and Lebbon gives us just enough detail about the evocatively named Ruin to intrigue and make this scenario convincing, at its core is the interaction of the people, Gabe’s attraction to two very different women acting as a catalyst for much of what takes place, culminating in a powerful reaffirmation of belief.
Newly published in this collection, ‘Hell’ is not so successful. Laura, the narrator’s daughter, runs off to join a cult and distraught he ends up on a coach trip through Hell, the rationale for this never satisfactorily explained or even seriously questioned. Looking out of the coach window he sees Laura impaled on barbed wire and abandons ship to rescue her, after which we get an almost interminable series of fires and frying pans before the hero and his daughter get back to reality. There’s an attempt to justify all this frantic activity as demonstrating that no matter how bad things get there are always others worse off than you, but any sense is swept away in the relentless action so that wonder on the part of the reader is replaced with a plaintive cry of ‘Now what?’ ‘Hell’ is a story that would have benefited from more reflection and less action. Far better is ‘The First Law’, like ‘From Bad Flesh’ previously published in the Razor Blade Press volume Faith in the Flesh. This reads somewhat like Solaris written by William Hope Hodgson, as the survivors of a ship sunk in wartime are stranded on a desert island where Nature has been twisted into strange shapes. The interaction between the finely drawn characters and the understated perils of the island is powerfully conveyed, with interesting ideas about the nature of faith and evolution dropped into the text, though not explored to any significant degree.
The shortest story here, ‘The Origin of Truth’, is another disappointment. Nanos are consuming the world and a family journey to northern Scotland to escape, though of course there is no escape, only delay of the inevitable. As they wait patiently for the end their little girl is gifted with an influx of knowledge, as if she has tapped into some form of collective consciousness. The story is excellent at depicting human beings confronting the end of life as we know it, with scenes of graphic violence offset by the quite moving affection of the family members for each other, but there seemed to be little point to it all and the fuzzy mysticism of the end undercut much of Lebbon’s good work in preparing us for some awesome revelation. Lastly we have another new story, ‘Mannequin Man and the Plastic Bitch’, which brings to mind Data and Dr Soong from Star Trek, set in world where Spielberg’s A. I. has been given an S&M twist. Tom is an artificial who has been programmed by his creator, a scientist known simply as The Baker, with the ability to love. Unfortunately the emotion kicks in when he’s in bed with Honey, an android hooker, and the two have to go on the run from her pimp. Lebbon provides a lot in the way of incidental detail, with plenty of high tech action and moments of eroticism, but engaging as these things are they tend to distract from the story’s heart, the emotional changes Tom is undergoing, and he doesn’t seem rigorous enough in revealing the implications of what is taking place, while the backdrop is a bit thinly sketched, with convenience all too often winning out over consistency and credibility.
It is too early to make any definitive pronouncements on the significance of Lebbon’s expanding oeuvre. There is little in this volume that is conceptually new and at times he seems a bit too beguiled by shoot ’em up strategies rather than more directly addressing the serious concerns that his fictions touch on, but when he gets the balance right, in stories such as ‘White’ and ‘From Bad Flesh’, this collection presents compelling evidence that a substantial new talent just may have taken up residence in the horror genre.