OR: The Exaggerated Man & Other Stories

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at the TTA Press website on 26/1/22:-

On the 7th of January I gave my opinion of a 2017 story collection by Terry Grimwood, There Is a Way to Live Forever (link here). For the double I thought I’d review an even earlier collection, The Exaggerated Man & Other Stories (Exaggerated Press pb, 238pp). A note of caution – I believe that publisher Exaggerated Press is Terry Grimwood, so in effect the book is self-published, but most of the individual stories have previously appeared in other publications, so nobody should come to this fearing they’ll get a selection of trunk stories the author couldn’t place anywhere else.

After an introduction by Gary McMahon, proceedings proper open with “Coffin Dream” in which dreams and reality bleed into each other in the tale of a former police officer buried alive when he fails to pay off a debt to loan sharks. The story is a clever one, Grimwood’s prose capturing the claustrophobic feel of the situation and showing how easy it is for life to go wrong, with the dream within a dream a nice touch. “The Friends of Mike Santini” gives us a variation on the story of Sinatra’s Rat Pack, here known as the Wolf Pack and with a supernatural twist, as a singer conquers the world, only his close friends knowing that he has links with an entirely different form of mob to the one rumoured to ‘own’ the Chairman of the Board. It’s a fascinating alternative slice of life, but with a compelling story as one member of the pack tries to break free with dire consequences. In “What the Dead Are For” a pastor learns that the afterlife is something entirely unexpected, and through experience comes to reject his former beliefs, the story offering us an interesting examination of faith and at its root the idea that not all religions can be right in their surmising, with some unsettling imagery to accompany this tale of death and what comes after.

A grown man confronts the terrors of his childhood in “The Lowestoft Monster”, returning to the scene of the crime, only to discover that you can never really conquer the monsters of the past, the story a subtle and understated attempt to address the evil of paedophilia and the way in which it shatters young lives irreparably. (In parenthesis, in The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley biographer Phil Baker records an encounter the young Wheatley had with an unsavoury character while staying in Lowestoft.) Next up we have a foray into the realm of science fiction with “Breathe”, whose protagonist wants to upgrade his body so that he doesn’t have to breathe in that filthy oxygen. In many ways this is a satire on the post-human theme, with some lovely touches of invention, and a human side with the ‘keep up with the Jones’ wife whose actions drive the narrative forward. In “Soul Money” a man acquires a cornucopia wallet to make all his dreams come true, but at a terrible cost. The story is an intriguing variation on the “Casting of the Runes” scenario, with a gripping development and satisfying payoff in the form of a remarkable monster.

“Mikki” is a tale of unrequited love, the story of a man who has gone back to his wife but isn’t quite convinced he has made the right decision. Grimwood is excellent at portraying infatuation, how affairs can develop whether we intend them to or not, and the dangers of being unable to let go of the past, with a grisly discovery to top the story off. Flatliners is revisited in title piece “The Exaggerated Man”, with a surgeon attempting to find out what happens after death and matters not going entirely to plan. The situation is a bit over familiar, but Grimwood gives us a neat depiction of the afterlife and the story’s denouement, albeit a tad predictable, is satisfying and compelling. An abused wife’s wish is granted in “John” when she finds herself married to a certain  gentleman of taste and distinction. It’s a twist story, one that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the oeuvre of Fredric Brown or Saki, and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The human dimension is to the fore in “Melissa and the Singer”, whose outsider protagonist finds fame and acceptance of a sort at the office Christmas party when she does karaoke, but the goodwill and Christmas spirit doesn’t last. Engrossing and thoroughly believable in its depiction of an all too familiar situation, the story is one that tugs at the heart strings. Anybody who heard Susan Boyle sing for the first time on The X-Factor will get where this is coming from. “Deadside” presents us with one of the most original takes on the zombie trope that I can recall reading. Thanks to political correctness taken to an extreme, zombies have not only been accepted but have become the dominant part of society, with the live regarded as scum and depraved, their only purpose to supply zombie parents with children of their own. It’s a fascinating take on one of the genre’s most cherished monsters, a foray into that area of the speculative fiction landscape where standards are reversed and the previously unthinkable becomes the accepted norm, the shoe most decidedly on the other foot.

In a world bedevilled by plague, a father takes to the “Coffin Road” in an attempt to give his daughter a decent burial. There’s an almost surreal quality to this story, a danse macabre of sorts, as we travel through a landscape in which death has come to shape the course of life, and with some fine characterisation in the form of father Doug and his hopes and fears of the future. People who can’t be liberated often enough are the subject of “Freedom”, a canny riff on the theme of ‘meet the new boss’, the story long enough to make its point, but not so long as to labour it. The most original story in the collection, “Nobody Walks in London” has farmer Jonathon visit the capital to appeal the loss of his wife’s soul in payment of an outstanding tax bill. And if you’re thinking WTF, things only get weirder still with our hero’s encounters with various groups and interested parties. This is science fiction somewhat in the mould of Monty Python, with a thick strand of absurdity running through the work, and only the twist ending to disappoint through seeming a little too pat.

More science fiction with “Atoner”, whose criminal protagonist gets the chance to redeem himself through making a deal with aliens for an extremely wealthy man, and of course he gets double crossed. Much as we might expect that final betrayal and familiar as some of the elements are in setting up the alien scenario, the depiction of an alien environment, its inhabitants, and the methods by which Lloyd is supposed to win them over are all effective in securing reader interest. Two pager “Dirty Stop-Out” has a man concerned because his partner is out late when a serial killer is on the prowl, but there is a not entirely unexpected sting in the tail here, one delivered with considerable panache and gratifying despite its obviousness. One of the strongest stories in the book, “Chemo” juxtaposes a man’s thoughts regarding chemotherapy treatment for his cancer ridden wife and the expectations of his family, with the reality of how he feels trapped in a loveless marriage, an abusive relationship. It’s a story where it is hard to know which character to sympathise with, one in which the reality of illness is the monster in the room and the ways in which it can crystallise feelings we are unwilling to share for fear that we would be thought a monster.

Guilt is at the root of “Red Hands”, with an unhappy marriage, repressed homosexuality, a deal with the Devil, and murder to sweeten the deal. Again, there is little here that is original, but Grimwood juggles the various elements with aplomb, with convincing characterisation and impeccable timing, setting us up for the bitter end note. Finally we have “The Fairest” in which the evil stepmother Queen seeks revenge on Snow White only to have things blow up in her face. It’s an absorbing read, which some lovely touches of fantasy magic and an interpretation of the fairy tale that injects a note or two of originality, albeit I thought the end twist was a bit mawkish, a case of a story with a moral or platitude in lieu of a gripping denouement. Having allowed for that, I liked the story somewhat more this time round than when I first read it in Legend #3. It’s improved with age, or I’ve mellowed.

This is a collection that does the business. Terry Grimwood knows how to tell a story, so that you enjoy reading him even when at his most derivative, and when his knack for taking an idea and pushing it in an unexpected direction comes into play his work is a delight. The Exaggerated Man & Other Stories won’t disappoint, and that’s no exaggeration.

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