Tragic Life Stories – by Steve Duffy

Tragic Life Stories – by Steve Duffy

posted Monday, 3 May 2010

Since reading ‘The Lion’s Den’ by Steve Duffy in CERN ZOO (2009), I have prepared myself to become a big fan of Steve Duffy fiction…

Indeed, I’m starting below another of my gradual real-time reviews. And it is of the collection entitled ‘Tragic Life Stories’ by Steve Duffy (Ash Tree Press 2010). As is customary with my reviews, I shall attempt to draw out all the fiction’s leitmotifs and mould them into a gestalt. There is no guarantee how quickly it will take to complete this review, especially as I am currently working hard on ‘Null Immortalis’ (the final Nemonymous).

CAVEAT: Spoilers are not intended but there may be inadvertent ones. You may wish (i) to take that risk and read my review before or during your own reading of the stories, or (ii) to wait until you have finished reading them.  In either case, I hope it gives a useful or interesting perspective.

All my real-time reviews are linked from here:


(1) Tragic Life Stories

A major story.  I hesitate to call it the perfectly told story (although it probably is), but it is without question a perfect story to real-time review because it is amazingly the first real-time story I think I’ve ever read and when you read it you will know exactly what I mean.  There is no other way to review it.  No other way to read it. No other way to write and continue to write it as it develops in the mind (the reader’s and the writer’s) into a an eidos of a full-fledged novel with only the story’s own ending as its own writer’s ‘wall’.

The story’s protagonist is a previously successful fantasy writer who is a bit down in the mouth following some setbacks in his career and love-life. Who meets an amenable woman to assuage his loneliness.  And a new writing project concerned with the ‘Tragic Life Story’ genre of fiction. 

The style is compelling and perfectly pitched and paced and syntaxed as it conveys the believability of a writer’s write of passage that – in clumsier hands – would be ludicrous. It is genuinely disturbing and depressing and cruel. But the story, for a writer like me reading it, is also paradoxically uplifting when I see what can be achieved in fiction.  Yet I am convinced in my own mind that non-writer readers will become tantamount to writers themselves just for the period that they will spend deeply involved in this very clever work.  If the rest of the book lives up to this story (even only halfway up to it), it will be be … well, I don’t know … I’m probably entering uncharted territory.  And there will arrive real entities into my house that were never there before but will be there now because the book put them there.  Or not the book so much, as the act of reading it.  Or visualising what it makes me visualise with the power of what I would call ‘magic fiction’ because it somehow promises to be, for me, at least a leap beyond ‘magic realism’. (3 May 10)

It has occurred to me that, generally, the ‘Tragic Life Story’ book genre is not really supposed to be a fiction genre. (4 May 2010)


(2) Tantara

“They were just the kind of people he would normally run a mile from, and here he was entering the dragon’s den instead.”

In fact there is a distantly viewed figure in ‘Tantara’ who is truly ringed by feral danger, just like a similar (?) character in ‘The Lion’s Den’ story I mentioned earlier! In any event, this story tends to be a caricature horror story (a mix of Pan Horror or ‘The League of Gentlemen’?) and is a welcome foil to the previous story wherein emotions run far deeper.  It tells of a couple exploring their edgy relationship by holidaying in the Welsh hills and increasingly circumscribed by local insider / outsider hybrids and their hunting esprit de ‘cor’ – but the place names are Welsh (not French!) and are often Lovecraft-like in look and sound!  I am myself half Welsh and stem, via my father, from Llanelli (HPL’s Y’ha-nthlei) and, therefore, I can truly appreciate the hybrid nature of this gruesomely absurd tale. [Just as an aside, I note that, in the previous story, someone had to wait in a public place for an inordinate time for a companion to visit the loo.  In this story, too.]

I will not repeat myself when I review each story. You see, I suspect that we should take it as read that the prose style will be as I described it above for the previous story. I am already convinced that a Duffy trademark is the beautifully crafted style so perfect for what it is trying to express. [The only real complaint is that there are not enough semi-colons in this book (so far)!] (4 May 10)


(3) Certain Death for a Known Person

“I forget the name of the room we were in, but it was long and narrow, and the girls used it as a sort of downstairs den.”

I suggest this is a second classic story following the first one in this book. Too early to tell. But it is literally steeped in what I have long publicly called ‘The Ominous Imagination’. This story almost tangibly reeks of it and — following a perfectly described, almost gently lightsome party held at an isolated upper class house with young golly-gosh girls and a male protagonist besotted with one of them — I don’t think I have ever, as a reader, been subsequently so subsumed by or suffused with such utter fateful despair or cloying dream.  In many ways, this is a well-written traditional ghost-story but, heavens forfend, I don’t want to read again too many stories quite like this one. Or do I?  After all, what do we read fiction for but to experience the ‘unexperienceable’ (whether benign or malign)? Perhaps, because I am long accustomed to the Aesthetics of the exploratory ‘Only Connect’ of reality, I am excessively sensitive to this still-percolating story…

“Interconnections, synchronicities.” (5 May 10)


(4) The Fabric of Things

“…A-S-D-F, semicolon-L-K-J.”

Another remarkable story. A  Welsh girl from (significantly?) Bridgend who is office-working in the Big Smoke and we learn gradually of her interface with rough macho-tongued workmen as they incrementally circumscribe her work-station while she conscientiously tries to fulfil her duties in a new job — and, in turn, of her and their interface with the offfice building of hybrid tenuity, ramshackleness and fabrication (in more senses than one). Meanwhile, she creates ‘workable’ office dens for herself in different parts of the building away from the workmen.

This story combines Tantara’s absurd and Tragic Life Stories’ serious circumscriptions … and, indeed, this story’s own constructive ramshackleness of fabrication and point-of-view leads to another “writer’s ‘wall'” ending.  It seems to be a potentially longer fiction that suddenly reaches — without prematurely looking ahead towards the actual text’s end itself — a creatively fateful, if ad hoccul de sac with a sense of encroaching spiritual as well as material subsidence. 

Health and Safety notice: this story itself is unquestionably an impressive one, so don’t be put off by what I have just said about it, but what I have said about it is absolutely true.  It needs to be read for the whole experience to be appreciated. This is just a taster.  I’m now off for a ciggie break… (6 May 10)


(5) Nightmare Farm

” ‘Like talking to the bloody wall!’ “

Not dens, but pens. Animal pens. A deeply felt story that starts with a Welsh couple circumscribed by a recurring nightmare. The eventual two-way filter of a dream-catcher — through a friend’s pretensions so typical of serendipitous beliefs within the modern psyche — is brought to bear and, via images of animal cruelty, compulsive ‘weeing‘, cappuccino dowsing, cigarette smoking, millenium resolutions, leads to an apocalyptic, Barker-ian denouement. I cannot even begin conveying the visionary audit trail here struck by this book’s Fellmonger….

” ‘If he dreams of tigers, he’ll become a tiger.’ “  (7 May 10)


(6) Someone Across The Way

“It was late, gone midnight, when Gary first became aware of the lighted window in the house across the way.”

This, I suggest, is the seminal work on the colonisation or annexisation of identity, the nemonisation of self amid the “dreamcatchers“… well, seminal, till I spotted, through my rear window with the help of my field glasses, a story called ‘Blue Glow’ by R.B Russell (from ‘Literary Remains’) on the metaphorical bookcase within the distant window of the house across the way. Seriously and serendipitously, both stories are seminal, both are different.  This Duffy one, incidentally, also has the lion from the cupboard or from the Lewisian wardrobe (pre-figured in ‘Tragic Life Stories’). 

How many of you, I ask, see your own belongings over the years as being not only part of but also the essence of YOU? Anchors of self within reality?  If so, ‘Someone Across The Way’ will disturb you greatly.  Another great story.  How good can this book get?

An underclass of existences continues to crowd in on me as I enter further into the enclosure of this book.  And this story tightens the screw.

“A glimpse of bare wall, no more. […] …the smell of old dog-ends, all the cigarettes he’d smoked in a lifetime…” (8 May 10)


(7) Only Passing Through Here

I was a bit dismayed when starting this story. I personally don’t like fiction with a lot of elided-to-‘sound’-common dialogue.  Indeed, although the narrator is ostensibly ‘educated’, he, too, gives an impression of rough-cut ‘drugese’ in reporting this dialogue and the events surrounding a burglary-of-a-large-country-house-with antiques-and-stuffed-animals (a zodiac as cern zoo in the night sky as it turns out) – however, sufficiently ‘educated’ to tell this story, eventually, in a compulsive textured prose that echoes many of the leit-motifs of this book so far… The (Joel) Lane-like underclass characters, often in a slow-motion puppetry of behaviour. The wall. The den. The subsidence. The smoking, here a ‘glowing fuzz’ (in more than one sense!), indeed, quite strangely, a ‘blue glow’, pulsing with meaning and non-meaning alternately. A beautiful story, I have to admit, despite its shortcomings (for me). In fact narrated through a grey fuzz of the drug scene it somehow depicts obliquely, about a drug trope via a prose drug, as it were.

“It was more like a wall; the end of something, and the beginning of something else. Two separate modes of existence, each unknowable to the other.”  (9 May 10)

Also about ‘belongings’ as in the previous story – and their pilferability. (later – 9 May 10)


(8) Numbers

“And yet we are all connected. Imagine, all across the country – across the whole world, who knows – we have this thing we share, this thing we have in common; and we don’t even know it, because we don’t know who we are.”

In common, indeed. And my reservations about the ‘voice’ of the previous story’s first person narrator takes on a new slant here, with a symphony (or cacophony) of voices ‘sketchpadded’ within a zoo of creatures lately escaped from Reagan’s enclosures of sexual quarantine … all stemming from a zero that reaches a point like a cone and then towards a base where suffering becomes a form of angelic gay martyrdom – or simply more Lane-ish fiction characters reaching out for each other in the dark. 

I suggest that you need fully to expose yourself as a reader to this ‘story’, not worrying about the voices’ meanings so much as the dance of their sometimes sedate sometimes strident music of words  – because meanings evolve and the various voices leave their enclosures of self-narration and focus towards a single voice that in turn becomes a real representative of the fleshy souls by whom you are hugged — under the bed covers with sometimes desperate sometimes sluggish passion — while you wonder (as in the previous story) at the mystery of their disentangleability from the clothes they still wear. (10 May 10)


(9) The First Time

Sometimes you don’t know what to say about a story straightaway after having first read it. But often the best truths are instinctive ones. This is a long story that I doubt you will be able to resist reading in a single sitting. Like the first story in this book, it is unquestionably a major story.  It is not only a major story, it is likely to be the one that you will remember in years to come more than any other, for good or ill. And it won’t appeal to everyone.

Brilliantly crafted, this story represents a sensitive but no-holds-barred build-up of a youth’s sexual encounter and a parallel magical thread that implicitly reminded me (in part at least) of the name of one of the punk bands of the era depicted: the Sex Pistols. The first person narrator (the youth himself) here retains a uniformity of voice and effectively tells of his younger days in Seventies Manchester (the song ‘Life on Mars’ is mentioned!) and, yes, those punk bands and the ethos surrounding them – and a superficially hard-bitten woman (a “den mother”). There is also an imputed book, a grimoire, a ‘magic fiction’ standing upon the shoulders of the earlier ‘Tragic Life Story’ genre concept at the beginning of this book, now, in this story, made stronger than it could ever hope to be without that consequent synergy. 

Here, one has now truly entered the “magician’s den“. The imputed author, too, as a character, has passed through his own wall at last. And one hopes the consequent glimpse of Hell is transcended as a result.

“…conscious of a thick animal reek that lingered throughout the stairwell, the smell of caged animals, zoo predators in a tight concrete pen.” (10 May 10 – four hours later)


This book will not be easy to forget. One that made me tussle with various emotions and will continue to do so.

It is full of great story-telling. That is its ultimate strength, disregarding my sometimes rarefied impressions above that I’ve tried to recount as they happened.



Final edit: The sense of evil at the end of ‘The First Time’ is the strongest I think I have ever felt in any fiction. It was a very significant experience reading the whole of this story this afternoon. (10 May 10 – another 2 hours later)

comments (15)

1. Mick Curtis left…

Tuesday, 4 May 2010 4:33 pm

This is an excellent review of a wonderful book – keep up the good work!

2. Weirdmonger left…

Tuesday, 4 May 2010 5:17 pm

Thanks, Mick. I’ll do my best. 🙂

Just to confirm, while I’m writing here, that I am not reading the book’s intro or the story notes until I’ve completed the whole review.

3. Steve Duffy left…

Wednesday, 5 May 2010 8:03 pm

Semi-colons? Sorry, you’ll have to take that up with my editor!

4. Nebuly left…

Thursday, 6 May 2010 3:52 pm

The lack of semi-colons is largely my fault, Des. You can always go through the book with a fine black marker and put some in at random. . . .

Glad you seem to be enjoying the book thus far!

5. Weirdmonger left…

Thursday, 6 May 2010 4:17 pm

Thanks, Barbara. Yes, it’s a truly remarkable book so far. Really enjoying it.

You may notice I’ve just found a semi-colon above in the text, next to DF …. 😉

6. abc left…

Thursday, 6 May 2010 5:02 pm

Like it Mick.

7. Weirdmonger left…

Thursday, 6 May 2010 7:55 pm ::

For possible significance of ‘Bridgend’ in ‘The Fabric of Things’ please see link immediately above. Also ‘Bridge End’ as a phrase is significant in the context??

8. Weirdmonger left…

Friday, 7 May 2010 9:59 pm

Concerning the Fellmonger in ‘Nightmare Farm;, I wonder if anyone knows that wool shorn off live sheep is shorling wool and that shorn off dead sheep is morling wool?

9. nebuly left…

Monday, 10 May 2010 8:12 am

Des: apart from the ‘elided-to-‘sound’-common dialogue’, what were the story’s other shortcomings (for you) to which you alluded? I’d be interested to know.

10. Weirdmonger left…

Monday, 10 May 2010 8:30 am

Hi, Barbara. Well I did say ONLY PASSING THROUGH HERE is a beautiful story, and it is indeed a visionary dark panoply, tinged with a pulsing misty blue. I don’t think Steve Duffy is capable of writing anything less than a memorable story. However, only passing through here, I gradually sensed in myself a troubling disconnect with the first person narrator – who initially reports on all that elided dialogue and his own off-the-wall expressions concerning the low life and drugs. Although he is shown as explicitly ‘educated’, his later very sensitive take on the experiences that he encounters via a highly effective and well-structured prose seems out of character. It just seemed that a higher narrator in the pecking order of narration took over from the original narrator and spoke in a different voice. I may be talking prematurely. The whole book (two stories for me yet to read) may cast back a different light on my disconnect here. I can already tell, I’m sure, that this collection is a great one, both as separate stories and as a cumulativeness of stories. Incidentally, in ‘Only Passing Through Here’, I found myself speculating overnight on the character Mezzer (Meredith) and the name’s connection with a Mezzanine floor in a building. This story may be that very floor of the book’s structure.

11. Steve Duffy left…

Monday, 10 May 2010 7:28 pm

A writer should never pass comment on his/her reviews, so I shan’t do that – but I do want to thank you very, very much for taking the time and trouble to communicate your impressions of the book in such a comprehensively entertaining and thoughtful way. Cheers, Des! It was an absolute honour.

12. Weirdmonger left…

Monday, 10 May 2010 7:41 pm

Thanks, Steve. 🙂 des

13. nebuly left…

Monday, 10 May 2010 9:17 pm

Des, you wrote ‘I gradually sensed in myself a troubling disconnect with the first person narrator – who initially reports on all that elided dialogue and his own off-the-wall expressions concerning the low life and drugs. Although he is shown as explicitly ‘educated’, his later very sensitive take on the experiences that he encounters via a highly effective and well-structured prose seems out of character. It just seemed that a higher narrator in the pecking order of narration took over from the original narrator and spoke in a different voice.’

I’ve read this story several times now, and while I appreciate your point, I’d argue that the narrator’s gradual shift in tone is indicative of what he goes through in the course of the story. He is a man of some education, yes, but at the beginning he is living/operating in a very different world to the one in which he seems to have been brought up, and has (to my mind) adapted the patois and mind-set of his new world, perhaps to ‘fit in’, perhaps because we are influenced, speech-wise, by what we see and hear around us daily. However, as the story progresses and he is not only distanced from that world but thrown on his own resources, I think we see him reverting to his origins. His attitude, and his language, change, going back to what he once was, showing us (perhaps) the person he might have been had his life taken a different course. It’s very gradually and subtly accomplished, this change; hence my comment elsewhere that this is, I think, a collection that repays re-reading.

14. Weirdmonger left…

Monday, 10 May 2010 9:48 pm

Thanks, Barbara. I will one day re-read such a great book, no doubt, and I agree that it seems to be the sort of book that will repay re-reading even though I think I have already uncovered a lot of subtext even with one reading. A real-time review (like this one) by its nature is to give one’s reaction step by step so obviously stems from only a first reading. In fact, many readers read books only once.

15. Weirdmonger left…

Tuesday, 11 May 2010 8:25 am

While I was reading ‘The First Time’ yesterday afternoon/evening, it now seems that the recent hung parliament shenanigans in UK following the UK general election took a new turn – with Liberal and Labour in surprising talks for coalition…. A rhetorical question … isn’t there a metaphor (in hindsight) within ‘The First Time’, e.g. with Labour’s active approach to (or passive reception of) Liberal’s implied overture for coalition in interface with a greater evil?….


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7 responses to “Tragic Life Stories – by Steve Duffy

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  6. The above book was a purchased book not a review copy.

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