Pictures of the Dark – by Simon Bestwick
My 26th real-time review
I’m starting another of my real-time reviews. This time it is of ‘Pictures of the Dark’ a collection of short fiction by Simon Bestwick (Gray Friars Press 2009). I shall attempt to draw out the book’s leitmotifs and mould them into its gestalt. I shall leave reading the book’s Introduction by Gary McMahon and the Author Story Notes until I’ve read all the stories themselves and completed this review. [My previous reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/ ]
Love Among The Bones
Only a very few times in a lifetime, you come across a genuinely perfect story. This is one of those stories. It works (form and content) irrespective of its presence within any book and of the stories (as yet unread) that follow it – or no doubt the remaining stories will colour this experience later, even enhancing it, I hope, if that be possible. It needs to be read. And anyone telling its tale in shorthand for a review would not do justice to it, but let me say it is a rite of passage of two young people (barely out of childhood), male and female, with eventual sexual explorations amid a setting that only a genuine Horror story can throw up. At my age of 61 (and steeped in Proust as well as Ligotti), I sometimes think that it should be difficult now to empathise with such young emotions and to appreciate the gothHorror trappings of this type of genre fiction. And I do find it difficult. But that is the point of the story. Indeed, this is proved to me as the two protagonists grow older within the story… and I envisage the story’s future. The house will always be there. (9 July 09)
“I’m one of them you cross the street to avoid.”
From the dead bones to a single living bone created by the person who wants it back inside her. Horror Stories in Britain are essentially working class. Perhaps we are all working class who read this book and and who read the other book I just finished reviewing today. I certainly was a Fifties working-class boy, brought up with a tin bath hanging on the wall and an outside lavatory.
But certain things are beyond my experience. This is a very powerful story. The protagonist here speaks an effective simple common language in his narration that tells the story just as strongly as the more ‘literary’, textured prose of the previous story which also had a working-class feel.
A hard childood making him what he is today, sexual abuse within the family, afraid of women because of these highly-charged memories – a baggage and more that haunts him, as today, he sits regularly with a mate in a coffee shop opposite a strange red light establishment suddenly noticed squeezed next to a launderette. Fears and low life and ginnels and reminders of the past, all crowd in on the protagonist, as his mate seems to be continually attracted to the punishing regime behind the red light. They crowd in on the reader, too. It’s relentless. And you wonder if one should keep returning to this book as if to another punishing regime that one just can’t put down?
“But I couldn’t stop it. And I liked it and I hated it.” (9 July 09 – 7 hours later)
Death Will Come Softly, To The Beat Of A Drum
I couldn’t put the book down, but I wish I could. I was snare-drummed back to it this morning. At least one of the photographs on the cover comes to life in this story. In the current round of the soldier class being sacrificed in Afghanistan, this story comes even further to life, if that’s the right expression.
A protagonist — who chain-smokes and relies on whiskey to assuage awareness of his own predicament within a life he never asked for — receives a photograph in the post: a prescription for conscription to the army of those who are dead set on scorching the earth behind them. There is an interesting complementary parallel in ‘Alouette’ / ‘The Sleepers’ in another book I finished reviewing yesterday. It’s as if I’m in my own loop. The story’s collateral damage. Awaiting the drumming of coincidences to finally stop at the precise pre-determined moment of my death in action. That’s just me talking. Not the story.
This story itself builds up suspense and paranoiac fear skilfully. The beauty of well-written fiction is that it depends on itself – and can never be spoiled by summarising its plot for a review. Once spoilers are themselves spoilt, we know there can only be good fiction.
“…the wonderful thinking machine that created OEDIPUS REX, OLIVER TWIST and KING LEAR goes all to cock and loses the ability to distinguish dreams – or in my case, nightmares – from reality.” (10 July 09)
“Where are we? Is this Iraq? Afghanistan? Chechnya? Or anyone of a dozen warzones across the world? No. This is England.”
Anyone who is a warzone is a zombie. A tripartite battle between death, life and the insidious state that is neither.
This is indeed a zombie story with brilliant gory and genre descriptions of a housing estate become a scorched earth for a dead set scenario. A student – filming low life and archetypal urban decay – meets the dangers head on when the dossers morph into the stock half-dead. Sometimes I thought of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. But essentially this is good honest Horror story for its own sake. Or it could also be seen as a metaphor for our society of the crunched who are forced to walk mindlessly among acronyms. Another modest proposal for those who cannot make old bones. A punishing regime for we readers, we slight ghosts in the night hutch, watching via the safe distance of fiction, yet brought closer and even closer by the sleights of Bestwick’s hand. (10 July 09 – 10 hours later)
Got up early on a Saturday morning to imbibe this story. I can’t stop. This book won’t let me go, despite saying elsewhere that I would take it slowly. A half-dead companion piece to the previous story, this one itself becomes “a thin line, pencil-thin, hair-thin, molecule-thin…” unbrokenly mapping a swirl of red vessels in my tired eyes. (11 July 09)
“…webbed with firework displays of crimson, ruptured blood vessels in the cheeks.”
I am getting fed up with saying how powerful each story is. So no more. You’d simply not believe how powerful, anyway. This one is about a vividly word-itemised underclass – and about a childish comforter or religious relic or portal – and about down-and-outs who, this time, have not become zombies as such, because as zombies there’s a sort of saving grace: they’re never real, are they? Supernatural retribution against bent coppers here takes centre stage, and bitter bitter pathos, and bravery, and a sense that things do exist that never should exist. That sleight of hand again. Or it’s not magic at all but fiction-as-fact. If I were a different person, I might even weep. They are expendable soldiers of truth….
I am sure another of the battered photographs on the cover comes to life as a result of this story. I said publicly elsewhere before beginning to read the stories: “I really don’t like the cover, btw. I hope you don’t mind me saying that. It’s too fussy, complicated and gauche (to my taste) and the text on the back is garish and almost illegible.” Now, I wonder. It perhaps needs to be itemised / focussed in one’s mind, lived with, dwelt upon, like a childish blanket comforter with many infantile years sucking at the corners and besmirching it in the play-pen to make it look used and old, survivable into one’s grown-up years, a talisman, a portal or a collection of miniature portals … rather than off-puttingly glimpsed in a bookshop.
It’s just the skull. And where it begins and ends. (11 July 09 – 2 hours later)
From Those Dark Waters, Where Lost Bones Lie
But fiction power accumulates. It has to be said. Each story stands alone but equally they stand together. This story expresses the pangs of guilt and sorrow when you are estranged from your own children by divorce. Lost Bones both lie at the bottom of a reservoir of memory and they also lie, tell untruths…unless the reservoir’s deeps hide higher truths where shallow lies don’t matter. An evocation of this and more: a day in the countrified sunshine, swimming, looking longingly at other families. Until you sense a ghost in the making for a ghost story, not quite a ghost yet, but one that is destined to live and breathe in those hidden depths of the reservoir you thought had been a dream. Or dreamt had been a thought. The bones echo the book’s earlier bones. And your only recourse is to hold your breath….
[If one of those battered photographs on the cover depicts this protagonist in a diving-aid, then it lies. That makes everything all too easy. Life is not life without pain.] (11 July 09 – another 4 hours later)
To This Darkness, We Give Light
“He turned on the television. Three of the five channels showed only blank screens or fizzing static.”
Power-cuts. Vodka and roll-ups. A story of breaches (or as Allen Ashley calls them: reality rifts) – with intruders who leave scorch-marks on the pavement. A population striving to mend the breaches by breaching the wartime dictum: “Loose talk costs lives”. Someone was surely on the point of praying, even if their hands were only glimpsed through the grille of a passing freight train. And if they’re praying, all hope isn’t lost. Interesting that one of the few TV channels left broadcasting is showing repeats of ‘Dixon of Dock Green’. Many of the streets that one walks today are the same black and white streets Sgt. Dixon once patrolled. We’re safe in his hands, at least. And I defy anyone to watch ‘Casablanca’ on its regular Christmas afternoon slot without bursting into tears. A story in a book that can truly speak to us during days of credit crunches, MPs’ expenses, broken teachers, pointless wars and swine flu.
[Is the yellow portal on the back cover a blanket ‘breach’?] (11 July 09 – another 90 minutes later)
Welcome to Mengele’s
“Then you come up to the fifth house on the right, crunch your way up another gravel drive and press the bell, which plays the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth.”
Literally anything goes via à vis the sex drive. Russell T Davies providing a different trampoline skin for your every bounce. Dirty stuff. Not sure how it fits into this book.
Not working-class, but Thatcher cottaging. (11 July 09 – another 3 hours later)
[later] Ah, I see, it is a metaphor for the credit crunch (eggs in a basket) and cosmetic surgery to the putty point of becoming icons or anagrams for psychological-real (eg. Princess Di –> Id?) instead of just acting them out on the reality/unreality ‘Big Brother’ of life. And in the new light of a new day, the DoctorWho –> Torchwood is again transcended. Each day has its own remix. (12 July 09)
The Hours of the Dead
More reality breaches – or not quite. I daren’t say for fear of spoiling the end. This story could be spoilt. Spoilt by over-sickness. A sickness sickeningly described, so that the sickness actually sits on the words keeping them down for fear of them becoming the sickness itself … or fighting sickness with sickness, so that only sickness can win. May the better sickness win. Also a very effective parallel with the book’s earlier urban decay / zombiefication now cast as sickness. But that takes away from the sickness, giving it a literary purpose. After all, when you get the sickness – and you will, we all will – there’ll be no reality breach to suck you back to normality, no pretentious philosophy of text-management to deter the sickness from lasting forever so that not even death is a cure, no possible eschatological suicide pact with literature or literary theory to ease the pain. At the end of the day, words won’t help. Not even Bestwick’s.
But some may say this is a Horror story, just horrors piled (if expertly and evocatively by an arch Horror fiction manipulator) on more horrors. And they’ll say that what I’ve said above is mere extrapolation from an unextrapolatable text. Well, make your own mind up. I have. (12 July 2009 – 2 hours later)
“Some of you might already know the meaning of the name; if so, keep it your bloody self for now. This is my story; I’ll tell it my own way; and in my own time.”
This story is a bloody masterpiece. Both in or out of context of this book. Nuff said.
That’s not intended to diminish the worth of the other stories read and as yet unread about which I’ve already said and will say more. It just seemed right in this instance. (12 July 09 – another 4 hours later)
Walking in a Winter Wonderland
A Proustian review through the sense of taste. A childish memory of one’s own real childishness that permeates onwards through so-called maturity into the memory itself as if through a stick of rock – a journey in the snow, a car radio with static except for back-to-back goldie oldies on one channel, an inverted dream vision of what I infer to be an archetype of James Stewart’s ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. Inverted, because a sweet tooth as nostalgia becomes a nightmare. Acid drops, then eyeballs with pure white whites and no blood vessels. The Milky Bar Kid who became Michael Portillo. But the story is even sadder than that. This book is full of regret and guilt that our own-created monsters carry for us in case we forget, touching upon the once erstwhile permanence of self and upon the destiny of bones when we anticipate that self dissolving like a bitter sweet in the mouth… (12 July 09 – another 90 minutes later)
The Slashed Menagerie
“…it’s hard to be superior when you’re gasping and yelping your way to a climax.”
I can’t believe anyone would be allowed to publish a story like this one. Hidden right in the middle of the book in the hope that nobody would notice. It’s probably the most outrageous story I’ve ever read. This is true, even with the thematic excuse of thrusting a working-class protagonist into a world of hooray henries and of depicting timelily the cruel outcomes of various wars upon the soldiers who barely survived them and of paralleling zombies and urban decay with the goriness of war … plot factors in tune with the previous audit trail of the book so far.
A tour of this Home for those injured in war – and their bones (still in use) on full show …. and the wicked games upon the residents played by those in charge …. nothing will give warning enough to unwary readers of this story. I suspect even Sir Charles Birkin would have blanched. Although he’s probably in there somewhere.
I refuse to believe this story has any moral high ground or scope for philosophising about at all. If you can stomach it, you are no doubt worthy of sharing this book’s family of stories along with others of your kind. This one is the big test. Unless there are bigger ones yet to come? I dread to think. This one is framed so that it is entirely inexcusable. Social satire is in one of the cages being beaten black, blue and red by unadulterated horror and onanism. I don’t think I was sufficiently prepared for this story. It contains a Zoo of Zero tolerance. A punishing regime.
[With my involvement with the ‘Only Connect’ school of thought, I am intrigued by the reference to E.M. Forster in this story. It doesn’t seem to fit. I mean, how did this literary figure deserve to be implicated with this unspeakable plot? Anyone help?]
“‘Excuse me,’ the keeper said. ‘I do grow prone to philosophising. This way now.'” (12 July 09 – another 90 minutes later).
The Loving of Ghosts
This is a most beautiful story of a dying war, a war of vague or alternate-world resemblance to a 20th century World War, a slowly returning soldier from the trenches, who has the skill to summon the presence of his loved one along the way, a physical ghost worthy of May Sinclair. This story is perfectly composed, timed, a genuine literary gem. The visionary width of this book ever grows. Comprising harsh instinct and subtle maturity. It seems to make sense in hindsight of many things that need an ability to travel here in spirit to clarify their previous existences. Meanwhile, ‘The Slashed Menagerie’ is in the Diary Room talking to Big Brother. (12 July 09 – another hour later)
Still recovering from JINDIVIK. Now read it and RED LIGHT together. There seems something that makes me want to play down JINDIVIK, so that the less people who read it means there is more of it left for me to absorb. On the other hand, I don’t want to take the whole responsibility. (12 July 09 – another 30 minutes later)
Never Say Goodbye
“What had I expected? Bones, of course. Little or nothing more.”
A highly characterised story of a lost sibling, whose body is found in gruesome shape, who said she would exist forever, even past death. A perfect portrayal of her grieving brother. A perfect portrayal of a Daily Mail-type reporter, and a perfect portrayal of the story’s spirit of place…all in a finely worked yet manly embroidery of words. This fiction really lives, despite the misinterpretations by its own protagonists about what really happened. Or am I (as a mere reader) misinterpreting their misinterpretations? That (perhaps disintentionalised) doubt is what makes the thing really really live. There can be no spoilers for good fiction. But I won’t even go there. No need to tempt fate as spoilers may lurk unforeseen even in good fiction. This story, suffice it to say, sits well with the mutilative mayhems and other leitmotifs that slowly form the bare bones of this book’s gestalt for me as I head into the last third of this book.
“…the cheap roll-ups he smoked, the cheap whiskey on his breath.” (13 July 09)
Going Under, Flying High
“Grief has a taste; it is bitter. So has loneliness.”
When I earlier vowed not to mention that any particular story is powerful, because they all are, I had not predicted the cumulativeness of this book’s power. This story has the touching physical ghost (as opposed to the essentially different phenomenon known as a zombie) that was prefigured by ‘The Loving of Ghosts’ but pulling with it all the powers of a zombie built up heretofore by this book. Here, we have cancer as an added ingredient. More information would instil a cancer into the story itself. Not a spoiler, but a real word-tumour. But since when were surface cancers ‘tumescent’? This story has it so.
Suffice it to say that this story fulfils a destiny of yearning in the strangest, most unexpected, most horrifyingly pathetic way than any story I can imagine existing in any book. Plus a deliberate hiatus in omniscience:
“And…and I’m not going to tell you what she said. It was private, personal beyond words: that was the point. It has no need or place here.” (13 July 09 – 2 hours later)
[Many of the story titles in the book unusually contain a comma; their own tumour tail built in?] (13 July 09 – another ten minutes later)
The Proving Ground
This is not a boyish rite-of-passage, not a ‘Family Fishing’ or ‘The Reach of Childen’; this is something inexplicable. It is tantamount to grappling with this book itself, left alone to read it …. even for a 61 year old like me, hoping to grow up… (13 July 09 – another hour later)
Perhaps inspired by the Saf Dar in Simon Clark’s novel ‘Nailed By The Heart’, this is another story of the true working-class, the soldiers who fight for a living even stronger than the others in our world who also have to fight life itself for a living. Imagine the current Afghan campaign taking place in Manchester, England, with all the tribal and feudal implications and corruptions so easily transposed between the two similar potentialities of warfare scenario. Just that. No other implications needed. No pretentious text-management. This is raw stuff. Another ‘proving ground’:
“The insults sounded strange; ‘scum’ and ‘swine’, like words out of a boy’s adventure story. But they hit harder than any obscenity or profanity, because it was as if Jock realised that there are no words. For something like this, you can say nothing. You can only stand on the edge of madness and look into a chasm of the dead.” (13 July 09 – another hour later)
To Walk In Midnight’s Realm
This is a first for me. Since starting this project of real-time reviewing, I’ve ‘done’ many books in a similar fashion. This story has been reviewed by me in one such review, i.e. in an anthology where it first appeared: as the last story in Beneath The Ground edited by Joel Lane (Alchemy Press 2003). This was what I said in that review:
Well, this is the end of the fiction in this book. Can fiction die? And, if so, can death bring its own fulfilment and reward – a bit like religion if not a religion in itself? This excellent story fortuitously or fatefully seems to act as the chief symbiosis factor between itself and all the other stories – especially with the book’s first story (‘The End Of A Summer’s Day’). It gives further hope to that earlier story or at least some underpinning to its foundling or changeling of despair – acting as a positive force towards reunion in utter darkness. As if each end of the book wraps round and falls into an eternal lexic love.
This last story has two dramatically important suicides plus a brother/brother relationship (one being a ‘rock’ to the other (Cf the previous story)), a relationship that lasts beyond the death of one of them, a love between a man and a woman that also outlasts death (necrophilia?) plus a mighty Jules Verne-like vision beneath the ground of a Welsh mountain plus a horde of zombies plus a theme of Religion versus Rationality represented by the tension between two characters plus Babylonic (inter alia) sculptures made from the stalagmites and stalactites plus racial undercurrents plus social class undercurrents (down and outs etc) plus much more that echoes the gestalt of this book for me — all blending wonderfully into a thrust of fiction that sheds light as well as more perceived darkness on the journey we have just travelled as readers. It has a prose style capable of carrying the weight and responsibility upon its ‘shoulders’.
My recent review of another book concerning “I” narration and its author’s response (and it is also relevant, for example, to ‘Lost and Found’ and ‘Empty Stations’ in the book I’m currently reviewing here) has taught me not to worry about the apparent artificiality of such an “I” narration appearing, say, in a letter from one character to another in the style of highly-honed artful fiction (as it does here). It works. This story works very well on many levels including the accessibly horrific.
I have just re-read the story. It remains just as good. It seems to be the perfect blend for this book’s zombie and physical ghost themes – the cruelty of death in contrast to the ultimate perseverance of love, but the author and we readers are having to fight a war to reach that goal of perseverance, aided and abetted by various soldiers of reality and unreality, have and have-not — or synchronous shards of random truth and fiction…
With the previous book in which this story lived, we had somehow reached that goal. Here, in this new book, we are still trying to reach it and, of course, we may never reach it with 4 stories yet to read. A miracle, though, how one story can be two different stories. (13 July 09 – another 3 hours later)
Drop Dead Gorgeous
“Sadness has a smell, thick and rotten…”
A monologue by a cynical barman in a Singles Bar. The place actually reeks with cigarette smoke (so possibly a ‘historic’ document). This is the more upwardly mobile side of ‘whiskey and roll-ups’, the nouveau riche who may have been brought up with a tin bath and an outside loo come to pair off (in Thatcherite times?) for sex and warding off loneliness at least for a moment. But that’s just reading things into it. This is another piece about the half-dead, or should I say, undead? Just by evidence of giving the finger, there’s not much to choose between them. Regarding our ‘goal towards the perseverance of love’ identified in my comments on the previous story, it looks as we have just had a set-back. A credit crunch, literally. (14 July 09)
Touch The Dark
More breaches, more reality riffs. Another protagonist as refugee from Thatcherite Britain, once an architect, now amid the urban decay and human suffering depicted by this book with metaphors coming and going, pulsing, strobing, now in a high-rise with possible non-Euclidean angles, and ‘black static’: the Suicide Machine.
‘The Machine Stops’ by E.M. Forster as published in 1909 was a meticulous metaphor for the modern Internet, believe me. You won’t need my word for it, if you read it. This story, also. The voice here speaks to you from within the very Web of the Machine. Thank God for print as buffer. Also ‘Twilight’ by Allen Ashley as a complementary read…
‘Touch The Dark’ is full of anguish …. and speaks of a sacrifice to the darkness that you touch for the sake of one of those attractive strangers in the night who keep at bay your own loneliness and despair…at least for a single flash of ‘black lightning’. Perseverance pays off. Even the perseverance of Suicide.
“Perhaps he’d said a quick prayer before he pulled the trigger. No-one knew.” (14 July 09 – 2 hours later)
Close My Eyes
I have to be careful here. I could give you my theories about this story, compare it with the previous one – but it would spoil it. Much like ‘Jindivik’, to which I could also compare it. This story makes me fear that one day I shall forget my own Dad’s recent death. Makes me wonder why I spend so much time within this Machine planting memories of me. This may be my last real-time review. One day, I shall possibly spend time looking for a link but never finding quite the right link so as to delete everything. (14 July 09 – another hour later)
When The West Wind Blows
My mother always told me that I should not pull a face since, if the wind changed, my face would stick that way. Well, the wind has changed. This story is an empty coda, a crude mockery of itself. It has lost its soul. The story itself is a zombie. Staccato sentences without what I earlier described above as ‘finely worked but manly embroidery of words’.
But the book remains a genuine masterpiece. The book has stuck that way because the wind has changed. And in many ways this wind-of-change story, in itself not a masterpiece, somehow makes the whole book perfect. My earlier sightings of the ‘perseverance of love’ was futile. I think I knew that at the time.
The protagonist in this story also struggled for the ‘perseverance of love’ by exhuming his dead wife Sarah to protect her from those who wanted to be zombies. You see, as the world cracked up with plague, war, feudal tribalism etc. there came an army of near-zombies (only quarter-dead instead of half-dead?), creatures that wanted to be full zombies by seeking out the truly dead like Sarah to supplement their existence via metabolism and communion. And Sarah was truly dead, still is, despite the words put into her mouth by the protagonist’s monologue, and addressing her as ‘you’ when she’s dead. And the words put into the protagonist’s own mouth by the author. And the supposed intentions put into the author’s mind as he wrote this story, i.e. put into his mind by a reader who hadn’t yet read it till now.
This last story itself is a suicide soldier-of-fortune opening a ‘breach’ for this book’s very own wendigo … its very own saf dar …. its very own jindivik.
The last bone in the coffin.
“The unthinkable never becomes thinkable; it just happens, and you’re left to deal with what’s left.”
END (14 July – another three hours later)
“I really like the cover – particularly the finished article on the actual book. It suits Simon’s work perfectly: the pulp elements resting alongside social realism.”
2. Weirdmonger left… Tuesday, 14 July 2009 5:36 pm :: http://www.knibbworld.com/campbelldiscus
SB: Des- thanks once again! A brilliant review. Both in terms of being a very complimentary review and of being perceptive, intelligent… of *connecting* with what you’re reading in a way too many reviewers fail to.
As for E.M. Forster’s presence… I’m ashamed to admit I’d read little or none of his fiction at the time of writing ‘Menagerie’ (1998.) I was trying to think of a writer who depicted the lives of upper-class types and he was the first (possibly only!) one I could think of. Laziness on my part, basically. ==============================
Des: Actually, EM Forster made more sense when I thought of his story ‘The Machine Stops’ as a result of another of your stories, Simon.
You probably hit on the right author instinctively. And it was EM Forster (Howard’s End) where I first came across the phrase: ‘only connect’. Which connects with your ‘connection’ comment.
Could you tell I didn’t like the last story but, in the context, thought it was perfect for what was needed at the end? A story that became a zombie *itself* – in a book brimming with ‘real’ zombies! No need to answer that question, as it is a rhetorical one.
“The unthinkable never becomes thinkable; it just happens, and you’re left to deal with what’s left.”