A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #39:-
SOMNAMBULISTS: ALLEN ASHLEY
Elastic Press pb, 190pp, £5.00
The latest collection from Elastic Press showcases the work of one of the most respected and widely published writers in the UK independent press, which is not to say that everything here is a pearl beyond price. In particular, regardless of the fact that it was first published in TTA itself and is an important part of the author’s oeuvre, lead story ‘Somme-Nambula’ is a tale of hell in the WWI trenches that for me didn’t quite work. The author’s trademark collage style is put to use, with incidents of life during wartime intercut with scenes of civvy street, in particular reminiscences about a vaudeville mesmerist and magician, the narrative gaining an everything but the kitchen sink quality as it develops, with snatches of rhyme, songs, wartime propaganda and even a naff hands across time encounter with American troops fighting in the first Gulf War thrown into the mix. While most of the episodes are well written and on occasion genuinely moving there are also moments, such as a superior officer asking the hero’s advice on dealing with homosexuals in the ranks, when the arch campness of the Carry On films rather than All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind and ultimately, the metaphor of troops as sleepwalkers in no-man’s land aside, all we get is the banality of war is hell and universality of suffering for which, from a narrative perspective, something conventional would have worked just as well or better. Elsewhere we get the tediously brief and briefly tedious ‘Oh Four’ which appears to be included simply to bump the page count and has nothing to offer except love as a four letter word, while ‘The Locust People’ is a fusion of Carpenter’s Them and David Icke, with crazy cults and monsters masquerading as humans and right wing politics, the quality of the writing distracting from the fact that the writer really doesn’t seem to know where to go with it or, at the least, has gone somewhere this reviewer can’t follow.
But enough negativity. There are sixteen stories here, and generally speaking they’re of a quality to reward the reader and justify the laurels placed on Ashley’s head by past reviewers, including myself. As an example take the droll and witty ‘Sequence’, with its protagonist sucked into the reality of a B movie and getting to see what happens to the hero and his girlfriend after the alien invaders have been sent packing, a feat of audacity and invention worthy of the great Howard Waldrop, blending real life and artifice to the betterment of both. Satire, another of Ashley’s strong suits, comes to the fore in ‘Pumpkin Coach’, an irreverent and highly amusing retelling of the Princess Diana story in the form of a fairy story filtered through the media, which throws into sharp relief both the mythic qualities of those events and our own obsession with celebrity. Equally satirical, but of a more savage and Swiftian bent, ‘Downsize’ gives us an entirely literal interpretation of this euphemism from the world of business, with dedicated company men and women submitting to a shrinking process to keep their jobs in a harsh economic climate. Unhappy and failed relationships are another Ashley staple and there’s plenty of those to be found in the pages of this book, such as the protagonist of ‘Saurian’, who manages to revive the flames of a love gone cold through the expedient of wearing a dinosaur costume, a story about serious matters that benefits from not taking itself seriously, in fact embraces absurdity with the author showing enviable skill in delineating the character of his engaging loser in love and providing a heart-warming resolution. Similarly in “Life Under Water” we get Pete (ahem) another young guy who’s screwed up in the romance stakes, flying solo at a party and desperately trying to connect with some very unusual women, a blend of Sex and the City pizzazz with something distinctly weird, and all of it good. For ‘In Search of Guy Fawkes’, a marvellously inventive confection in which the hero must pursue his quest for true love in a modern world affianced to the Elizabethan Age, imagine Shakespeare in Love as filmed by the director of Jubilee. And then there’s ‘Siberia’, probably my favourite Ashley story to date, classily overlapping personal emotion with speculation about spirituality and our place in some greater scheme of things, as a man who is part of an expedition in search of God’s tomb must also confront the reality of his own shortcomings in reaching out to another human being, the two strands combining and playing off of each other to offer a compelling picture of human nullity.
Ashley is a writer who takes risks, but with Somnambulists I suspect Elastic Press are on to a sure thing.