Where The Heart Is (Gray Friar Press)
As ever, I shall attempt to draw out all the fiction’s leitmotifs and mould them into a gestalt. And there is no guarantee how long this process will take.
All my previous real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
cover copyright: Gary Fry 2010 (I call it ‘The Duellist’s Boot’)
Authors: Allen Ashley, Stuart Young, Me, Andrew Hook, Stephen Volk, Rhys Hughes, Mike O’Driscoll, Joel Lane, Mark West, Stephen Bacon, Simon Bestwick, Paul Finch, John Travis, Mark Patrick Lynch, Michelle James, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Gary Fry, Gary McMahon, Carole Johnstone.
Ticker by Allen Ashley
“…’Don’t be seen’ is often the key to survival.”
An ingenious story that gives any reviewer bugs or tics. One that you simply know is a great story but you don’t know exactly why it is or that, if you do hint why it is so great, you will give away unforgiveable spoilers. So, suffice to say that it conveys a familiar sense of travelling London with its elastic time, current and ephemeral fashions, the sense of the prehistoric behind the veneer of a city’s civilisation (a trademark Ashley theme?), so many clever verbal tricks in such a short space, clever because you hardly notice them passing but you still end up thinking about them when the story finishes. Bereavement on a clapped-out video: so meaningful for people of my generation. A story that is its own logo. The leader of the gang. Loved it. (15 June 10)
A Killing in the Market by Stuart Young
“… no-one was interested in salvation while there was shopping to be done.”
Romford. I know Romford. I used to visit an aunt and her lady friend in a flat there…till they died. The author of this story will no doubt put me right, but I saw Romford as a cross between London and Essex, with people there who are on a day-trip distance part-way on the London (Liverpool Street) train line to Clacton-on-Sea (that I happen to know is featured in this book’s next story!). But there are forces in this story that are trying to make Romford into a discrete entity of a town with its own history and a myth of haunting and blood. Funny, I was dreaming of H5N1 last night, and this is also a story about influenza (a meat-butcher who insists, however, that he has a cold not influenza), and a poignant outcome of earlier medical treatment (or negligence?). This story actually touches me deep, in spite (or because?) of being effectively humorous at times. A story of illness in the shape of the person who died from that illness returning…. And a definite sense of Romford as its ‘genius loci’ … and a convincing and interesting ricochet with history (that I’ve now checked on Wikipedia!). (15 June 10 – two hours later)
So by Me
“…we are all passengers on this planet, our togetherness being no protection against premature or sudden death.”
This is a mood piece about a working-class seaside resort with a topical twist in its tail. A fanblade fable. I will not comment further but defer to others who may read it and choose to comment. However, if it should become relevant, in my eyes, to the gestalt of the book, I shall refer to it later. (15 June 10 – another hour later)
The Onion Code by Andrew Hook
“The fish was made of solid metal.”
They keep on coming. Another ingenious tale. Ostensibly, a brief skit on Dan Brown, this takes off into territory that surely appeals to me with my interests in the Snynchronised Shards of Random Truth & Fiction, e.g. serendipity, ‘Only Connect’ and codes in language as well as things. This is about onions and scrying. And mobile phone keys. It seems strangely appropriate it takes place in Norfolk (including Cromer and Sheringham) where I once said that God showed off His ability at throwing horizons great distances. Amusing, too. (15 June 10 – another 2 hours later)
Incidentally, I am not reading the Author Notes after each story until I’ve completed the whole book. Also, if I do not mention the location in any story’s review, that is because I have no experience of it and so cannot claim to be able to relate it to the story itself.
Easter by Stephen Volk
“They say you have two homes in life, one where you’re born and one you find, and he’d found this, within earshot of the lions and elephants of the zoo…”
An absurdist kitchen-sink gospel to what can be built in your garden without fazing you too much. I enjoyed this tale with an effective ‘dying fall’ as its coda. A thoughtful extrapolation on Ionesco and East Enders (or their Bristol equivalent?). Here the tea-cups have their own writing on and so you do not need to depend on the scrying in the previous story, but a good resonance between nevertheless. The art of story positioning, I guess. (Cf the resurrection theme towards the end of ‘A Killing in the Market’, too). I feel this story told me to go gentle into that deep sleep. Constructively so. (15 June 10 – another 3 hours later)
Yesterday, I missed the visionary spreadeagled redemption common, in different ways, to ‘So’ and ‘Easter’. (16 June 10)
The Cuckoos of Bliss by Rhys Hughes
I think this is the best Rhys Hughes story I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something! A classic in many ways, with memorable turns of phrase and absurdist / revelatory images: too many to quote or choose from. I will restrict myself to saying this starts as Urban Horror worthy of a Gary McMahon, Buildings horror of a Steve Duffy, personal-paranoia (eg in a Job Centre) horror as portrayed sometimes by Quentin S Crisp, all great writers … leading to a horror/absurd vision that is entirely Hughesian, as built upon a Heaven dialogue-concept first seen by me in fiction by May Sinclair. Doctor Who gash/crack running theme, Aickman “Growing Boys”, TS Eliot’s Waste Land and much much more. And a protagonist with a crossbow: a dangerous thing these days to claim wielding! Also it contains religious fantasy that suits the context of this book so far. Instead of quoting the best quotes from this excellent Hughesian extravaganza for our times, let me, instead, quote quotes that echo the previous stories in this book: “There were probably other riddles secreted in the mannerisms of her colleagues and the positions of the objects on their desks.” – “They still stood as ash replicas of the originals.” – plus a gang from ‘Ticker’ dressed ecclesiastically – resurrections – redemptions – rebirth (if partial) – angels – babies like huge crashing aeroplanes – “He was running on water” -and, ah, I can’t go on – read it and contextualise or decontextualise it for yourself! (16 June 10 – another two hours later)
Summerhouse by Mike O’Driscoll
“…he could just make out the humpbacked silhouettes of the oak and the ash trees scattered on the curve of the great mound…”
The previous story radiated to and from urban South Wales, here it is idyllic / rural South Wales – and this makes a significant contrast, to the benefit of both stories. Retrocausal in the former case. When I started this one, I thought immediately: this has the quality of Katherine Mansfield … and later a real Katherine by name indeed emerged to my surprise. This is a ghost story – with Lawrencian touches – that flows like wondrous honey, but sporadically spiked. Poignanat interface between past and present. Between two separately balanced responsibilities. An unrequited redemption. Lightly sketched incrementally. The opposite of unbecoming. And an ending to die for. (16 June 10 – another 2 hours later)
“…the sun was made ashier by mist, turning it into a dull gold coin above the sea’s horizon.” (‘So’)
“His breath froze not into mist but into a solid cone that fractured with an audible tinkle and rained down in shards…” (‘The Cuckoos of Bliss’)
“It struck him as unnatural, as though some peculiar force had acted on the mist, punching a hole through it…” (‘Summerhouse’).
The Last Witness by Joel Lane
“I couldn’t look away.”
For me, Joel Lane is Birmingham.
If only by titles alone, this should be the sequel to his acclaimed novella ‘The Witnesses Are Gone’. Chemical photos contrasting with the pencil sketches in ‘Summerhouse’… while the capitalist society’s desecration of property resonates with the misguided security of ’home’ hinted at in ‘So‘. Almost a prose poem, this retrocausally memorable story is toxic in its own way, crystallising its own bitter succinctness by this writer’s unique alchemy of negative pain / grotesqueness and positive commitment. Through Lane, we ever learn to transcend nightmares of existence by sharing his dark visions and breathing in his oxymorons. The best medicine seems toxic. (16 June 10 – another 4 hours later)
The City in the Rain by Mark West
“…he felt as though he was being plugged into a being that was greater than he could ever be…”
I don’t think I’ve read any fiction by Mark West before and, judging by this story, I most certainly should have done! Without putting too fine a point on it, it is in many ways the perfect horror story. It has the horror feel, its tropes, a sense of pulp and popularity, yet with an underlying sophistication and poignancy that bowled me over, a completeness, a satisfying whole, and a language perfectly pitched for what it is. Quite confident in trying to be what it is, without frills. And hauntingly believable with Leicester’s ‘sagging’ and crucifying brick buildings, the urban underclass, the alleys and the implications for the protagonist’s wife’s death in the past from cancer…
It also fits well into this book so far … echoing the form of resurrection in ‘A Killing in the Market’. In fact these two stories work in synergy.
There is a sense of gratuitous despair and a nihilist brick in the wall that I have been building towards a gestalt.
I see that an ‘earlier version’ of this story was published in 2003. I hope this does not prevent it winning awards in 2010, as it should, for being a great horror story. (16 June 10 – another 2 hours later)
Last Summer by Stephen Bacon
“Bricks bounce off the side.“
This is an effective evocation of the Miner’s Strike in Sheffield in the mid-Eighties (the bitterness and personal wars between strikers and scabs and their families) in parallel with the present day protagonist’s return to his childhood at that time and in that place, and an unforeseen redemption now seen-to-be-done by exposing its gory results in this story-as-memorial.
Meanwhile, I, as reader of it, can imagine the mine structures – resonating, at least for me, with the structure in ‘Easter‘ above. That seems a right comparison to make, bearing in mind the passions and emotions of that time, of that place, with which I, as someone who only watched all this on the news at the time, can now more fully empathise …. paradoxically via the truth and immediacy of fiction when compared to the disputatious facts of history.
“…we are standing on the grassy incline of the pit tip, looking down into the colliery.” (16 June 10 – another 2 hours later).
Also please compare the return into the past of ‘Summerhouse‘ with that of ‘Last Summer’ – amazing I missed till now that glaring connection synergising both stories. (16 June 10 – another hour later)
Winter’s End by Simon Bestwick
” ‘So?’ he asked.”
Paul links up with singer Helen after first meeting her at a Manchester gig where she’s performing with some ‘sullen moshers’. One believes in both members of this couple, and gradually we realise she has a past that pervades her present – eventually in a truly monstrous form. There is an alchemy here (similar to that mentioned before in this review) between forces of amorphousness as well as particularity. Insidiousness breathes wetly in our ears and reminds us, as it were, that there may be no escape clause from a retrocausal future that feeds on the past. Be very very worried that any distillation of the flesh does not prevent it being smeared all over our living-room as a spoiler. Rest assured, that tells you nothing about this story, this more disturbing story by subtle implication (as well as gross-out) even than itself. (17 June 10)
The Daftie by Paul Finch
An obstacle course across the Wigan Wastelands – a well-written, location-rich, vividly felt story that seems to be an ‘adventure playground’ within many of the book’s previous stories (without being glib) – e.g. a colliery with a “ghostly totem of the declining wealth” – an effigy of a man literally crucified in a pit cottage garden (!) (cf ‘Easter’ etc) – “you can’t bury stuff forever, can you?” (cf the previous story) – a ‘Summerhouse’ type sketch (on a deflated football) ….. the obstacle course being the rite of passage of an unsporty narrator who takes a short-cut to avoid punishment for flunking a school cross-country race. He fears meeting the local ‘daftie’ who is said to stalk the area. The ending was a surprise that set me thinking…
Good literature is about narration: reliable, unreliable, collusive, uncollusive, a pecking-order from head-lease or freehold author to those creations to whom is handed the story’s baton in a relay marathon of the soul… (17 June 10 – another two hours later)
A Victim of Natural Selection by John Travis
“Ahead was a solitary streetlight he couldn’t remember seeing before at the foot of those great steps, illuminating ash-grey soil piled up on either side of the old structure.”
A striking nightmare vision of urban desolation as Crocus (with meaningful name) is presented with some hope. But sometimes Hope is the greatest Horror of all, when even memories and people we once knew conspire to corrupt even the ground beneath our feet. Breaking glass, a telegraph pole like a totem, black alleys … this is a brilliant mood piece that fits this book hand in riven glove. [I don’t normally draw attention to typos but there was one here that particularly irritated this reader: ‘alluding’ when it should have been ‘eluding’.] (18 June 10)
Ways Out by Mark Patrick Lynch
“I interpret the position of clouds and see geography and time in terms of string…”
This is a beautiful counterpart to the previous story, the landscape’s very soul of desolation there and the same landscape’s inhabitants concentrated upon here, each story with the sporadic scars and ‘soars’ of Hope. One landscape: two locations.
This story – standing on its own as well as being significant to the book’s whole – is seen through the eyes of a narrator sensitive to his own skin colour but radiant with something beyond the vividly described housing-estate crassness of those who see themselves as the land’s natives. He has his own totem of redemption that it would be a mistake to reveal here. It’s just that I found this story very thought-provoking – and I loved the guest appearance of Kookie from 77 Sunset Strip as an equally thoughtful, but cute, diversion. (18 June 10 – another 5 hours later)
Quarry Hill by Michelle James
“It was a ‘kitchen sink’ drama…”
A workmanlike tale of theatrical and/or poltergeist ghosts, interspersed with social commentary that was too didactic for my taste. The acting theme fitted well with people having more people inside them – and a realisation of ‘self’ was interesting to students of ‘The Intentional Fallacy’. This did not seem to add or, thankfully, detract from the book’s gestalt so far. But who knows? It may crystallise further afield into a new context by the time I’ve finished the book. (18 June 10 – another hour later)
Scale Hall by Simon Kurt Unsworth
“There is something special about Scale Hall. It is a small suburb, located roughly halfway between Lancaster and Morecambe.”
I lived in Morecambe and Lancaster for most of the three years from 1966 to 1969: being at University in the area. I am sure that that experience cannot possibly add, for me, to the Hellishness of the Hellish horror in this story because how can its Hellishness be exceeded? Not necessarily a great horror story in the vein of what one would expect of a traditional horror story. It is a bit over-written, somewhat self-conscious. But it remains a very disturbing vision and the story should not be approached lightly. I don’t know if ‘Scale’ has anything to to do with the ‘fishing’ by the monster for children through the skin of nightmare. Or that the words Fish and Christ are, in some contexts, synonymous. Or that I myself had a dream last January then recorded on my Facebook (accessible by ‘friends’) HERE that seems, in hindsight, vaguely significant. (EDIT: See 3rd comment below)
This is about a family man near Scale Hall, and with a really intense visionary power about what he sees – entailing doubts about himself and his care of his own children. It seems to give this book’s gestalt a big injection of ineluctable dread. Impressed. (18 June 10 – another 2 hours later)
Having slept on it, there is a meaningful connection between the ‘fishing’ in ‘Scale Hall’ and the central image of ‘Ways Out’ by dint of line, string or rope. Compare also: the hole punched into the mist of ‘Summerhouse‘, the sowing (sewing) climax of ‘So’ and the downward blood-fishing or sewing of the leeches in ‘A Killing In the Market’ and more…
The Welcoming by Gary Fry
” ‘Jesus Christ,’ he called out loud, and that guy – for all his latter-day popularity – did f**k all to help out.”
The Editor’s story. A hilarious take on the legendary hospitality towards southerners by northerners (in the Yorkshire Moors where I visited many years ago and survived to tell the tale!). An effective, character-rich tale of Aickmanesque quality that serves as a relief safety-valve after the ineluctable dread of the previous story. But insidious enough to health-watchers to stay with you post-reading.
” ‘Hi, there, I’m Des…’ “
[Readers will eventually see that ‘The Welcoming’ makes a very interesting counterpart story to Stephen Bacon’s The Toymaker of Bremen (soon to be published in ‘Null Immortalis’). In many ways, ‘The Toymaker’ is a similar stranded-by-broken-down-car-in-the-middle-of-nowhere story but also quite quite different, providing a synergy for both stories, a synergy, however, that neither really needs, as they are each perfect in their own stand-alone ways.] (19 June 10)
We Are The Doorway by Gary McMahon
“On his way out he glanced over his shoulder, at the plaster Christ on a painted cross, and felt nothing but loneliness.”
I am rarely disappointed by a Gary McMahon story – and I sense this is one of his very best. I’m not sure whether this is because it is intrinsically a great story or because of the preceding context of this book. It is now impossible to tell, of course. Whatever the case, it has a developing image equally impossible to tell. Only the story can tell it. Trust me, it is an astonishing image concerning a Lapsed Catholic in Sunderland, while drowning his sorrows as do many lost souls in our cities today … indeed an image that, here near the end of this book’s journey, enables us literally to enter ’where the heart is’! And that includes the heart-as-home earlier adumbrated by ‘The Last Witness’. Also containing implications of the ‘sagging bricks’ in ‘The City in the Rain’. (19 June 10 – another 7 hours later)
Stamping Ground by Carole Johnstone
“…tick boxes.” “Jesus Christ.”
This story is tail to the top of Ticker: a gang of two: neatly bracketing what is between them. Also, it is, in many ways, the book’s coda, a satisfying ‘dying fall’. A frightening concertina of events stemming from an “absentminded stare” in Glasgow – leading towards a hive-vagrancy … in this case, a subsuming of a businessman protagonist by the loose cannons of society whom he fears the most. By cause and effect and, eventually, by retrocausality.
Brainstorming: Yet, I, for one, see a similar subsuming of myself as result of reading this book, each story a vagrant or derelict soul threatening to form greater vagrancies from its readers. Once you have started reading this book, you cannot turn back. This may indeed be the world’s first book review evaluating a prima facie great anthology book (by evidence of the review’s own express judgement of greatness pertaining to each story separately and, radiating backwards, as a gestalt) — but a review that has its own review gestalt, too: a critical force acting as a disincentive to start reading the book for fear of what this last story implies about the whole book, i.e. for those reading it –
but being a real-time review, it is now too late.
“…everyone was still flushed after the successful crucifixion of Jesus.” (from ‘The Cuckoos of Bliss’)
Now our Heartlands need flushing in a far more basic way. Yet by creatively tapping their darks bowels, these writers have here created literary gold. Thanks to the Gray Friar.
END (19 June 10 – another 2 hours later)
Yes, I noted that, and I say on that thread “we all have our own way to harvest serendipity”. The land mass itself that is our Homeland, the places chosen upon it, the order of stories thus derived, prove the tenets of Geomancy as well as of my original technique of reviewing books. 🙂
2. Weirdmonger left…