NR: terrible things

I read fifty short story collections in 2021. Written by David Surface and published by Black Shuck Books in 2020, terrible things was my favourite. Surface is a master of misdirection and juggling disparate plot strands, often strands that don’t obviously tie into the main narrative arc, and yet reinforce the weird sensibility of the piece, while never losing sight of the human dimension.

After an introduction by Lynda E. Rucker, in title story “terrible things” we learn how a famous anthropologist has put his theories on evolution into practice, with disturbing results, the story related against the backdrop of a bar by an academic to a woman considering an affair with him. It is indeed a terrible thing, while the conflation of this with Sheila’s thoughts on her marriage and how to deal with it add yet another dimension, the idea that all such betrayals are relative and underlying that a subtext about the value of judgements. A powerful opening shot by the author. Initially “intruders” seems to be about the American plague of school shootings, with emergency drills unnerving a teacher and his class, but then it goes even deeper touching on those who have been let down by the education system and society. It’s a painful story, a moving story, a story in which the sense of loss of innocence is keenly felt and the trauma of the teaching profession put over strongly courtesy of protagonist Greg, who wants to do well by those in his care but can’t help but feel he is failing them.

“writings found in a red notebook” is the account of a couple who take a road trip across Nebraska and get lost in some surreal, nightmarish landscape, one that owes as much to their dreams as it does to reality. This was a truly strange story, one that captured perfectly the feel of the numinous, of humanity existing in the cracks between other terrible dimensions that sometimes overlap with our own, building surely and tightening the noose around the two protagonists before unleashing a terrible ending. In “faces of the missing” artist Chris is involved with conspiracy theorist Carter, who knows perhaps a bit too much about why children are disappearing, though the story’s end leaves everything up in the air. At heart this is a story about far more than renegade art, though that is at its centre; it concerns the ways in which we remember each other and make each other real, and how those with no earthly connection can so easily disappear, fade out of existence.

“something you leave behind” has a couple on a road trip realising how much they have changed, that they are no longer the same people who fell in love all those years ago, but these changes are somehow given an outré dimension with a sense of unmooring from reality. Jeff works at the film unit of a university and is given “the truth about what happens after death: a short film in one reel” to repair, but this is just the start of a series of events that see his life falling apart and everyone he cares about moving away from him. The obliqueness of the narrative enhances the feeling of things collapsing, that the film is emblematic of the nature of life itself, or rather the fact that it isn’t working, as the characters repeatedly pronounce, is the truth.

“the sea in darkness calls” previously appeared in the anthology Darker Minds, which I reviewed in Black Static #53 when I had this to say about Surface’s story – ‘”The Sea in Darkness Calls”’ by David Surface is the story of Jack, estranged from his wife and children, a guest who has overstayed his welcome in the house of his brother, and woven into the plot are images and memories from the past, focused on the death by drowning of a child, an act that haunts Jack. There are hints that everything is not quite as Jack wants us to think, that he bears more than a slice of the blame for his marital breakup and that something even more terrible is hidden in the past, with the story moving inexorably to a denouement that is tragic and haunting’. Set in the old West, “the last testament of jacob tyler” is the confession of a man running from his past who ends up fighting an unnatural foe when he joins a group of enforcers in a range war. Perhaps the most traditional and straightforward work the collection has to offer, this is a lush, sprawling epic of a story, one that throws lashings of action and splatter at the page, but is still focused on the crime of one man and how it comes back to haunt him. I loved it.

A young boy attends a Halloween party hosted by “the professor of history” and then returns later in the night to bear witness to a haunting, but the real crux of the story lies in what has happened to the boy’s mother, whose fate we suspect but can never know for certain. There’s a true feeling of unearthliness to this series of stories within stories, the way that it plays with time and realities, to leave both us and the character uncertain as to the truth, knowing only that there is more to it all than meets the eye. Next story “ the smell of red clay” is a Russian doll of stories within stories, as the members of a group tell ghost stories, but for the protagonist they prove to have an eerie significance. I loved the way this continually wrong footed the reader, with fact and fiction merging to the point where you can no longer tell where the boundary lies and with an ending that satisfied.

Foreign aid worker Alma loses her daughter while abroad, returning to see “a face in the trees”. There is of course much more to this tale of ghosts and grief, a fierce stew of myth and folklore in which the dead influence the world of the living in uncountable ways. In “the sound that the world makes” three friends travel to an isolated spot at night to witness an unusual religious ceremony, but find that what they see is beyond their understanding. The story has a minatory feel to it that grows steadily as it progresses, the ordinariness of the opening stages of the story giving way to something truly unsettling, with the subtext that it reveals far more about the true nature of reality than our minds can contain. A group of friends visit an amusement park that played an important role in their childhood for “last ride of the night”, but as well as spectral effects there is tension rife in the group and sins of the past come back into play, with a chance at redemption for two of them. This was a beautifully written story, atmospheric and moving, weaving together the personal and the paranormal, allowing us to read between the lines and confront what is really going on. Both this and the earlier “the professor of history” put me in mind of the work of Glen Hirshberg, which is a very good thing indeed, though Surface is undeniably his own man.

Did I already mention that I read fifty short story collections in 2021 and “terrible things” was my favourite?

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