The first part of a feature on the work of Christopher Fowler that originally appeared in Black Static #28:-
BRING ON THE JUBILEE: CHRISTOPHER FOWLER
Just in case anybody reading this hasn’t been paying attention, you need to know that Christopher Fowler who pens the ‘Interference’ column for this very magazine is also a noted purveyor of speculative fiction, with several awards tucked away in his old kit bag.
2011 was his twenty fifth year as a published writer of short fiction, and in lieu of a national holiday complete with street parties and special commemorative coins for the little children, PS Publishing decided to mark the occasion with the collection RED GLOVES (PS Publishing hardback, 422pp, £19.99), a double volume consisting of, aptly enough, twenty five stories. In the first volume, titled ‘Devilry’, we get what are referred to as London Horrors, stories set in the great metropolis for which Fowler feels such an obvious affection even as he subjects its citizens to the most terrible of fates, while in ‘Infernal’ he lays the table with World Horrors, tales of a more cosmopolitan complexion.
Before getting to the fictional nitty gritty we are confronted with Fowler’s introduction, ‘Zygomaticus’, in which he chronicles some of the events that were making the news during the writing of the book and so possibly influenced him, with a subtext that truth really is stranger than fiction.
First story out of the traps, ‘The Rulebook’ starts with various sets of rules that the boy protagonist must adhere to, before venturing into the story proper, which concerns careless talk and taxidermy, the narrative always keeping reader and character off balance, so that you never really know how much is down to Paul’s imagination and what to credit as fact, but shot through it all is a strand of the sinister feeding into a revelation that in reality there are no rules, anything can happen and probably will.
Next up is ‘Dead Ground Zero’, Fowler’s contribution to the Stephen Jones created Zombie Apocalypse!, which I reviewed in a previous issue, and I’m not going to repeat the exercise here. In fact several of these stories have been previously published – ‘The Adventure Of Lucifer’s Footprints’, ‘Down’, ‘The Stretch’, ‘Oh I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside’ – and are tales I’ve already reviewed before, so for the purposes of this feature I’m going to ignore them and concentrate on the ‘fresh’ material.
‘Locked’ sells the reader a few dummies about hauntings and the like, before revealing the true nature of the intrusions that disturb Tam’s sleep in her new flat. The story deftly mixes menace and mystery with black comedy, the ambiguous ending the perfect final note, and underlying it all a sobering subtext about how we are never truly safe, not even in the confines of our own home, with all the windows locked and the doors bolted. In the short but effective ‘Lantern Jack’ the resident pub ‘bore’ tells a patron about the watering hole’s chequered history, the various episodes of violence and madness totally absorbing, and with a cumulative effect of mounting unease so that though the end twist isn’t entirely unexpected it nonetheless satisfies and appeals to our sense of what is right. ‘An Injustice’ is the tale of a trio of ghost hunting students that seems rather contrived in retrospect, even though you suspend disbelief while reading, but the heart of the story lies in the narrator’s attitude, the guilt that haunts him because he did nothing to rectify an intolerable situation and the double-edged realisation that not all the things that haunt us are dead.
‘The Deceivers’ is a cleverly wrought tale of madness, as two young men out to impress a girl create a local legend, only in a manner somewhat akin to the tulpa or thoughtform of Tibetan religion the legend becomes accepted fact and turns round to bite them on the arse. At the end the reader has no more idea of what is fact and what is fantasy than the poor, bemused narrator, with the two inextricably entwined and showing how we can so easily become the victims of our own ‘propaganda’. In the gleefully over the top ‘Killing the Cook’, a housewife with delusions of inadequacy decides to settle things once and for all with her off the telly, and turns up with murder in her heart and a knife in her handbag at a Nigella Lawson signing, the story delighting with its sheer audacity and the prevailing mood of urbane insanity that Fowler does so well, restrained at first but constantly waxing stronger until it overwhelms everything else.
There’s a whole After Hours vibe going on with ‘Enjoy’ as a chinless wonder trying to impress his work colleagues goes out in search of cocaine and has adventures far weirder and more surreal than anything that happened to Griffin Dunne. Undercutting the story is a subtext about the dangers of status and valuing ourselves through the eyes of others, with the character only achieving happiness once he has accepted his own level. The last stop on this whistle stop tour of Fowler’s imagination takes us back to 1952 and a London beset by the worst fog in its history. The story is titled ‘Bryant & May In The Soup’, aptly enough, and introduces us to the detecting duo when they were young men, here charged with solving a seemingly impossible murder, one where only Bryant seems to think that there’s a crime to investigate, the story as amiable, good natured and ingenious as any of their other outings. And if you don’t know who Bryant and May are, then patience gentle reader and all will be revealed further on in the feature.
And so to the second volume, ‘Infernal’, but before Fowler’s Horror Show hits the road to Greece, Russia and places beyond, we are gifted an introductory moment of ‘Unheimlich’, in which the author writes about his love of travel and also the abiding sense of the uncanny, neatly tying the two things together.
No stories that I’ve previously reviewed in this half, but all the same I’m going to give the opening two stories – ‘The Eleventh Day’ and ‘Piano Man’ – a miss as they’ve previously appeared in Black Static and also one from later in the collection, ‘The Conspirators’, which was previously published in Crimewave, as the chances are good that regular readers will already have seen these gems.
Two tributary streams run down to the same sea in the third story, ‘The Girl On Mount Olympus’. In one a young woman goes to the Greek Islands with her lover and is betrayed, while in the other a young couple prepare to spend their lives together, the man reassuring the woman that there is nothing to fear at the Aquapark. The point where these separate and very different strands collide brings both horror and a threnody on the emptiness of love and bitterness in the human heart. Flash fiction ‘Halloween Dog’ is all trick and no treat, with a spirit returned into the body of a dog on the night of All Hallows when the walls between the worlds are thin, and thinking that it is going to get some sexual action but instead something else entirely takes place. There’s a neat idea here, though the story is somewhat insubstantial compared to what else is on offer, a sting in the tail offering. Hard on the heels of that comes ‘Poison Pen’, one of the few stories that didn’t quite work for me, outstaying its welcome with the whole enterprise drifting into the tediously formulaic as the various beneficiaries of a will meet horrific ends, and the real purpose of the legal document is exposed in a contrived and not especially convincing resolution. This is one of those stories that probably sounds great in theory but all too often falls flat in the execution.
In Western tale ‘The Boy Thug’ Fowler creates one of his least appealing characters in the form of the outlaw Giddens, the story Sade-lite but never less than compelling as it moves to its inevitable conclusion. Underlying the surface violence is a bitter irony, with the amoral and ruthless outlaw undone only when he finally forms an emotional bond with another. ‘The Velocity of Blame’ concerns two Americans on extended holiday in South East Asia and a misunderstanding with the locals that results in tragedy, the story informed by a light subtext that implies this is payback for deeds in the past of the politician narrator, an aide of Kissinger. What goes around comes around would seem to be the message at this story’s heart, or perhaps it’s more a case of perspective informed by guilt.
‘Arkangel’ is an alternative telling of the central conceit in Fowler’s novel Hell Train (see later), with a couple of English boys out to exploit an Eastern European girl, and the intervention of a spectral steam train that was originally built to take Jewish prisoners to the extermination camps. The story holds the interest all the way, giving us a fine juxtaposition of eternal verities and a desperate fight for survival with the modern sensibility that values everything in hedonistic, self-indulgent terms. Similar concerns inform ‘The Mistake at The Monsoon Palace’, a keenly felt reversal of values story set in India and with a muted supernatural element. An American tourist abandons her old life to become the guardian of a local shrine, but at the same time the young boy who benefited from her largesse grows up to be the developer who wishes to tear it all down. This clever story poses questions about the mutability of identity and how things of value are being lost to the modernising urge.
Though I can’t pin down a particular point of reference there’s something very Bradburyesque about the story ‘Beautiful Men’, with its eponymous males who are otherworldly beings here on a fact finding mission. As the protagonist’s attraction to these ethereal creatures blossoms, the story offers both a muted eroticism and terrible sadness in its conclusion, making it one of the most effective and affecting pieces in the collection. Finally we have ‘Bryant & May’s Mystery Tour’, which is set in the present time, with the detectives boarding a London sightseeing bus to arrest a murderer, the story dialogue driven as May addresses clues to unravel the mystery while Bryant passes acerbic judgement on the tour guide’s shortcomings, a fine and entertaining way to end this excellent collection.
Here’s looking forward to the next twenty five years, and I do hope somebody thought to give the Queen a copy of this collection to mark her Jubilee. (Before moving on, I should mention that, for the benefit of those who like theirs’ with bells and whistles on – and that probably includes ERII – PS also do a slipcased jacketed hardcover of the book, signed by the author and in a limited edition of 100 copies, retailing at £49.99.)
TO BE CONTINUED
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