Mindful of Phantoms – by Gary Fry

Mindful of Phantoms

My 19th real-time review
posted Monday, 20 April 2009


Mindful of Phantoms by Gary Fry

Not sure this book actually exists in more than this copy of it. I found it today in a bookshop in an area of town I rarely visit. In fact, I didn’t know there was a bookshop there at all.  It was full of ghost story collections I’d never seen before, but I didn’t have enough money on me to buy more than this book. They didn’t take cheques or cards.  I shall go back there tomorrow with some more cash that I’ve managed to scrape together.  I haven’t started reading it yet. (20 April 09)


Well, I read the first six stories of this book when on holiday and below are the barely decipherable aide-memoire notes I wrote on each one at the time – without further comment now or alteration or reconcilng by hindsight today:

School of Fought
Head — strait-jacket
Contents of Skull
Freedom of Expression
King Lear?

Man’s Best Friend
Dogs – Master
Kay – Kelly
Old man next door
Dogs = heads?

Black Dogs
Two brothers (one a writer)
Two Black Dogs – life?

Figure of Fun
Work & Play implications
Builders –
Academia vs. Working
King Lear
Humour / Tragedy

Going Back
Duplicate House
“Bleak nostalgia”
Larger mother. Sister. Father.
Re-enactment of abuse
“My head hurts….” P.76

– Me + I
Girl narrator
– screwing with ghosts.

Since coming back from holiday, not had much time for more DFLish ‘real-time’ reviewing of other writers’ books. But I read the next story in this book today:

Index of an Enigma
And I thought this was a good story with which to resume…
“…some of us read what isn’t there.”
“…human beings project personal readings onto an ambiguous reality.”
A creepy meta-philosophy of real ghosts.

I’m looking forward to reading the next story and sharpening my Reality-Tv antennae because, according to the contents page, it is called:
Big Brother (5 May 09)

Big Brother
A neat hilarious tale of subterfuge and subterfuge’s come-uppance by another subterfuge via an axolotl. With Fritz-Leiberesque distancing by image – crossed with Picasso. Loved it.
But where was Davina? (And it wasn’t a ghost story either!)
PS: The head-cases, dog-muzzles etc. have here become cars with their sense of invulnerability as a metal exterior. (5 May 09 – 6 hours later)

In Nature’s Arms
This is a ghost story. Atmospheric and original, but a bit contrived for my taste. A bit too logical in wringing a story gestalt forom its own knots and crannies of illogicality, if you see what I mean. I love the ‘Ex-Emma’ conceit and many other descriptive aspects – including the head in the tree bark. A bit like a strait-jacket outer-casing for a brazil nut?
But one would need peer-judgements to make a final evaluation of this homeopathic story. (6 May 09)

The Price To Pay
I thought this was heading into a standard supernatural retribution story (well, we all want to get back at Estate Agents!) – but then I was transfused into a vacuum by a smiling zombie…
Not sure if this one works. If it does work, it is as a Tate Modern or Dada exhibit of High Description – which somehow reminded me of the description and theme of one of my top favourite Fry stories (Bodying Forth) …. so, yes, it did work on a certain level. Fry can often be completely off-the-wall despite the steely intelligence and sensible outlook and philosophical logic that his work often displays. His head certainly chews the pen good and proper, when it wants to (or doesn’t want to)…
[Btw – ‘latts’? I thought that is what my Mother drinks when I take her to the Marks & Spencer’s cafe.] (6 May 09 – 6 hours later)

It Sounds A Bit Like…
A brilliantly haunting/disturbing story that is generated by a Fry-works running theme of families, dysfunctional and endeavouring to strip free the inter-generational impurities of (for example) the discommoding Dad and the trials and tribulations of Social Care and other poignant lack of synchromeshing – here from a family’s daughter’s standpoint, rather than the more usual (in Fry’s works) standpoint of the son. It’s as if Cancer and childbirth run in tandem … and all becomes even more dysfunctional intrinsically by generations returning as ghosts of themselves at their worst (the person behaving badly if not (knowingly) maliciously but body now behaving maliciously against the person for whom it acts as vehicle in life and now as a ghost).
A very clever play on words with ‘banana’. But I won’t give more away. It’s a story that makes me flounder somewhat – with my critical focus now become as dysfunctional as some of the characters! (7 May 09)

On The Wings
An extension of a Fry theme (the artistic lad from a dysfunctional working-class background) which one expects to follow a David Almond or ‘Billy Elliott’ or Blackwood’s ‘Jimbo’ or ‘Kes’ trajectory…
But his passion to ‘fly’ creates a frightening winged creature for real that will be the protagonist’s means to fight his corner, often (as is necessary in his perceived vicious world around him) to fight viciously. A bully forced to be a bully by other bullies? That’s the big question I feel this story poses.
Perhaps writing stories is another means to continue fighting one’s corners.
Falconry came to mind – head-covering masks, with just the eyes & beaks showing…
Loved it. How good can a writer be before someone notices?
Or hears the wings unfurling…
Stories with peripheral glances and things that become artistic-off-the-page (abstract and representational and cubist) simply by being half-noticed as a horror trope struggling to uncloy itself from the ink that once stuck it to the paper. (7 May 09 – anoher 3 hours later)

Unfriendly Fire
A slightly ludicrous Hitchcockian mystery story with a theme of supernatural retribution and (Google-induced) coincidence – mixed with ontological and teleological concerns. I thought I was in for a Fry special when I found the plot centred on a North Sea coast town (I live on a part of this coast and recognise the ambiance) but, other than the gate and the thing’s passage through the gate, I found this a bit run-of-the-mill and tortuous. Not the reader-friendliest Fry I’ve read. (8 May 09)

Die hard
Gary Fry has set such high standards for me with many wonderful stories that I’ve read over recent months, it is difficult to evaluate just ordinary tales that would otherwise be simply entertaining. This is one such. An honest ghost story with a memorable vision of the ghost. Also a workmanlike treatment of football and its relationship with big business or the fans.
I did enjoy it. And I wonder how many other playbacks in slo-mo of live action TV – if examined – would produce hints of things that were not meant otherwise to be hinted at in real time…? Such as that the football being kicked around was really a human head encased in leather. But that’s another story. (8.5.09 – 4 hours later)

Taking on Life
Back to form, this is a genuine Fry classic. Just the right balance of his themes. In fact it seems to be the optimum treatment of Fry-as-I’ve read-him-so-far (and I guess I am currently the only independent reviewer of his works who has publicly reviewed Fry having read most of his published output). Essential Fry. Despite my distance from the era and age of the protagonists, I found this very moving and very personal. Anything else I say would spoil it for future readers. But, being me, I will say that gene-audit-trails can bear the most horrific afterbirths, nay, pre-births.
[The act of kissing (or tentatively approaching love-making) being akin to falconry was just another aspect that I ‘improvised’ within my reading of this story and the context of the whole book – but this observation of mine is highly off-the-wall critically – hence the brackets[]].
[“fannying on the internet” = “bleeding a radiator”??] (9 May 09)

Closer Than That
I now look back at the six ‘peripheral glances’ that my thoughts on the first six stories in this book have now become, stories that were read whilst away on holiday and simply now denoted by the aide-memoires above. I also note a comment that I made about ‘School of Fought’ (the excellent first story in the book) that I sent to THIS THREAD from a Salisbury Library computer:
“I’m in Sarum at the moment. Read the first five stories so far. All haunting and memorable. ‘School of Fought’ is particularly striking. I happened to read ‘The Head’ by Reggie Oliver the same evening. Both great disconnected stories.”
Today, a week or so later, this story (‘Closer Than That’) seems to be the culmination of this ‘head’ leit-motif, whereby a face at a window is first described here not as a face, but as a ‘head’ – leading to other momentous emanations in my mind (flesh as a strait-jacket fabric?) and becoming a dark-motif of ‘heads’ (in an otherwise (for me) somewhat contrived story of supernatural retribution and Gothic ‘sisters’).
So, despite its shortcomings of artificiality (for me), this is a tale (another Whitby one) that gains from its context in this book rather than from being intrinsically a special story in the same way that many of Fry’s other stories are special in context and also when stood-alone.
[Loved the light-motif play on words ‘what on earth was going on?’ vis-a-vis an electrical fitting dismantlement!] (9 May 09 – 2 hours later)

The Older Man
After grappling (with eventual success) with the differentiation of the various characters in this story – I enjoyed the experience, in a sort of sick, old-man way. In its serious moments, it’s a treatment of the interaction of gender and age and status in relationships. In its even more serious moments of horror, it becomes a disgusting gross-out that erects a theatrical display of old meat on old meat. Mating ‘guys’ on a dead bonfire as a mobile art-installation that I shall probably not forget, even though most of me wants to forget it – and quickly. Perhaps writing this will exorcise the memory. I hope so. But even if it don’t, I have far less of my life yet to live than that I’ve already lived, so it doesn’t matter so much to the likes of me as it does to the likes of you if you read this story at a younger age than I am now. Go figure.
[More builders in this story. Fry’s ‘working-class’ are protagonists rather than victims. Even if at the end of the day, we all are victims. Builders box in. Bodies box in, too. Specially, when focussed on mind rather than body, boxed in by our heads. Perhaps we can never escape our boxes, given the possibility to become haunted or haunting.] (9 May 09 – another 1.5 hours later)

The Tree House
A ‘Just William’ story, with ‘Just William’ type mis-spellings etc and child-like imaginings of wars etc, morphing into a new early Eighties Fork-lands campaign – where the fork itself punctures the head-motif. Literally.
“ambitious dead men”
And, aptly, too, imagination becomes real, as generation feeds into generation, and prejudices breached. But further (political) prejudices seeded.
“And which possessed a head that hardly seemed solid enough to support any organs of sense?”
“The tines tore directky into and then out of the man’s head … […] …the fork, which bore a tangled residue of leather-like skn.”
An excellent ending to my Journey into Fry. One I hope will not end here but will continue when new stuff is published. He’s quite young, I understand. But not in the first blush of youth.

The blush of youth. Hmmm. As I start brainstorming again, this and other new truths seem to occur to me. Truths from fiction, if not from intentionality. Peripheral glances and fixed stares as we wade through the war-torn intellectual deep-waters in the alien country of our own up-bringing. Half-noticed shapes – and heads in windows soon to become faces. Figures of Fun. Guy forks. Art-installation monsters that are realler than reality itself. Dreams that underpin themselves with something more than just themselves. Social concerns and glitches. Love in the bud. Death in an even deeper bud.
The protagonist was determined, this last story tells us, to defend the tree-house to the death. A tree-house is the book itself. And the author, I infer, sits with steely glances (peripheral or otherwise, blade-like or not) to defend his own work similarly. Well, he won’t need to defend it from the likes of me. (9 May 09 – another 1.5 hours later)



EDIT (12 May 09):


Well, he won’t need to defend it from the likes of me.
Sorry, just noticed – that should read:

“Well, he won’t need to defend it against the likes of me.”


Gary F (Here):

Thanks for the review, Des! I’ve been watching it, but my silence on this book must remain absolute.


1. Dr Terror left…

Tuesday, 21 April 2009 1:40 pm :: http://www.freewebs.com/mortburypress/

What’s the contents, Des?
2. Weirdmonger left…

Tuesday, 21 April 2009 4:04 pm

Hi, Charles.

The answer to your question:-

School of Fought

Man’s Best Friend

Black Dogs

Figure of Fun

Going Back


Index of an Enigma

Big Brother

In Nature’s Arms

The Price To Pay

It Sounds a Bit Like…

On The Wings

Unfriendly Fire

Die Hard

Taking On Life

Closer Than That

The Older Man

The Tree House

I went back today with more cash to that shop. Couldn’t find it! A serious blow to me as most of the Ghost Story books they’ve got there seemed rare and relativelyy cheap. But, I’ll go back tomorrow with some locals who know that part of town better than me, in the hope I may find the right road the shop was in. The shop also had a lot of purple carbon paper. But that doesn’t help.
3. Charlie left…

Tuesday, 21 April 2009 10:59 pm

Thank you Des. I noticed it was listed in JLP’s Catacombs of Fear the other day. Looks good. The bookshop sounds like one of the ones that I find in parts of towns that only exist in my dreams!
4. Weirdmonger left…

Thursday, 30 April 2009 5:33 pm

I’m in Sarum at the mooment. Read the first five stories so far. All haunting and memorable. ‘School of Fought’ is particularly striking. I happened to read ‘The Head’ by Reggie Oliver the same evening. Both great disconnected stories. des
5. Weirdmonger left…

Thursday, 30 April 2009 8:40 pm

(only read half a dozen stories so far but already troubling my dreams):

Head-brace housing? Dog-muzzles? ‘King Lear’-ments? Renactments and ‘May Sinclair’-like ‘screwing of ghosts’, a Ligottian jester and working man’s humour as a back-stop ‘gainst despair or ‘gainst Winston Churchill’s Black Dog:
6. Weirdmonger left…

Tuesday, 5 May 2009 7:13 pm :: http://www.knibbworld.com/campbelldiscus

Gary F at thread linked directly above:

>>>Academia vs. Working

I just love this bipolar construct of yours, D.
7. Weirdmonger left…

Thursday, 7 May 2009 10:30 pm

DFL: There’s nothing on the spine.

Weber-Gregston: just one remaining tendon and a piece of rotting muscle…


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