I am starting below another of my gradual real-time reviews. This time I shall be reviewing the fiction in the anthology entitled ‘Never Again’ – edited by Allyson Bird & Joel Lane (Gray Friar Press 2010).
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.
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. Days, months or years.
In accordance with all of my previous real-time reviews (by now, a substantial number), I am reading and reviewing the stories in order, without first having read any introduction, after-notes or cover blurb.
All my previous real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/
Authors: Nina Allan, rj krijnen-kemp, Lisa Tuttle, John Howard, Tony Richards, Alison Littlewood, R.B. Russell, Mat Joiner, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Rhys Hughes, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Joe R. Lansdale, Kaaron Warren, Steve Duffy, Gary McMahon, Robert Shearman, Carole Johnstone, Stephen Volk, David Sutton, Thana Niveau, Andrew Hook, Ramsey Campbell, Simon Bestwick.
Feet of Clay by Nina Allan
“…put on in the evenings when they were alone together, Debussy’s Submerged Cathedral.”
A memorable narrative concerning Allis – abandoned by her boy friend, Noel. She lives filtered through the prose in touching interface with her father, her recently deceased grandmother (and a retrocausal parcel), her grandmother’s golem, and the history of racial tensions, holocausts, and their impingement on the present moment. Leading to a full brush-stroke (brush-smoke?) solution at the end that might harm the innocent as well as guilty motes in the cartography of time (much like Allis’s grandmother’s erstwhile use of the double-edged golem ‘sword’ – and Allis’s later ‘use’ of it). Some receive caring asylum, some do not, in Allis’ own current asylum of existence, often an accident of destiny rather than roots: the place where one happens to live. Where the heart is? I faintly hear the bells, the tolling of the bells, the brazen bells – from the submerged cathedral. Allis’s Asylum. Or Noel’s? (27 Sep 10)
Volk by rj krijnen-kemp
“Beneath her sad notes, she came to imagine she could hear another sound.”
From Allis to Elise – to Volk upstairs in a block of thin flats. This is a remarkable Pinteresque vision by dialogue and astringent prose where life is attenuated by the dead spirit in the catgut. One wonders if the first story’s ‘brush-stroke’ is already working through the creatures both dear and deadly. This is a pre-post-Holocaust. By stream of music. Scraping by.
“Motes of dust laded the grey morning light.” (27 Sep 10 – two hours later)
In the Arcade by Lisa Tuttle
“But the sobs forced themselves up from her gut…”
In effective stark contrast, we start with no sounds here, as Eula Mae wakes up possibly to that earlier ‘brush-stroked’ world but certainly to a classic post-holocaust SF scenario of everyone apparently dead or unconscious except herself with possible premonition of King’s Dome… leading tellingly to a Pilgrim’s Progress / Huxleyan vision that, inter alia, touches on cruel words – cruel when used by by some people about different people – but affectionate when used by those different people about themselves…
The mixed power of words that this anthology (any anthology) would no doubt hope to deploy.
Eula Mae. Enola Gay?
“…the sound must have been heard throughout the thin-walled building.” (27 Sep 10 – another 2 hours later)
A Flowering Wound by John Howard
“I turn away from the balcony.”
But not before it collapses on me – or under me. This very powerful story is full of meaning for me. But does it mean anything to other people? It reminds me of the classic story, ‘The City In The Rain’, by Mark West that I reviewed here.
This is about the gathering into tribes. We are each in our own tribe. A tribe of people-that-are-us. Even if the tribe-of-people-that-are-us tread cruelly upon the tribe-of-people-that-are-not-us, we can countenance that because we are blinded to those relativities by the ‘golem’ of the tribe to which we belong. This is what I discover from this book’s gestalt so far.
Sometimes we are in a tribe of the aspirationally tribeless. Fascism can potentially bud in each branch of politics, tribeful or tribeless. It takes something akin to complete non-committedness to become unfascist, neither tribeful or tribeless, perhaps. To cease name-calling is the first step, because names as well as words can be interpreted separately from their semantics. It takes fiction to depict the flowering wound of each ‘y*d’ or ‘n*g*er’ or ‘f*s*ist’ gibe or jollity. (27 Sep 10 – another 4 hours later)
Sense by Tony Richards
“Someone set fire to the local mosque that night. Which saddened him, not least because he could still remember when it had been a synagogue.”
I am a great admirer of Tony Richards’ fiction, his memorable ghost stories etc. This, however, is a near future ‘diary’ with little point other than to underpin more obviously the thoughts that I wrung out above from the previous more successful (oblique, poetic) ‘story’.
Fiction when it becomes overtly or overly didactic ceases to be fiction, I feel.
“Us people? He meant white.” (27 Sep 10 – another hour later)
In on the Tide by Alison J. Littlewood
I enjoyed this Scottish sea community story about facing the same conflicts as adumbrated piecemeal by each previous story and as also assumed (I guess) to be more commonplace in urban societies. A clever fable to depict that foreignness is relative and everywhere – and that we are all fallible in our needs to be in a recognisable tribe while also needing eventually to explore (and obviate?) our own fears of the ‘unknown’.
A brown pricked-out winkle from its shell is just more flotsam (my words) … and the ‘cathedral’ of souls (my words) that Churchill submerged off the coast there in the war? Obliquenesses that have no meaning other than to accentuate the meaningful? (27 Sep 2010 – another 3 hours later)
Decision by R.B.Russell
I am intrigued by this truly compelling tale of apparent unconnected consequences, a tale that seems to arrive eventually at an inscrutable ending that paradoxically then equally seems – in the context of this book so far – to give a final, satisfying ending that is not inscrutable at all! A clever trick.
The actual anxious path sets off with a similar sense of disorientation like that at the start of ‘In the Arcade’ as the protagonist experiences a tripping fuse-box, a slightly disappointing business meeting, a headache healing by a woman stranger named Lottie Rainbow in a pub, then urinating, danger, terror, missed appointments and more headaches.
‘Decision’ leaves me with a decision. To ring-fence it forever as a gratuitously enjoyable story and not worry to make a decision about it at all. Or to ear-mark it with an aide-memoire tattoo and put it in abeyance awaiting a decision. Only a real-time reviewer is faced with such decisions, because only a real-time reviewer retains hope that the tale’s plot elements will – deliberately by virtue of the reviewer’s skills or autonomously without his intervention – resolve themselves into a pattern when seen in the round of the whole book, the reviewer meanwhile remaining in denial about the fact that the plot elements sometimes don’t ever resolve themselves.
Life is rarely a pattern. While fiction always is. And the decisions themselves will not be resolved until the reviewer has read the whole book and – before he goes of to the pub with his headache to meet whoever he meets there – he’ll recite his little prayer: “May we find leitmotifs where there are some / May we find leitmotifs where there are none / When the great gestalt is found we are done.” LOVED this story, by the way. (27 Sep 10 – another 3 hours later)
‘Decision’ has also decided me not to worry about any superstition embodied in the book’s overall title (with me probably splitting the reading and the reviewing either side of a fast-looming round-trip of 16 days to foreign lands): i.e. consequences will connect or unconnect in accordance with the ‘Synchronised Shards of Random Truth & Fiction’ not with superstition. (28 Sep 10)
South of Autumn by Mat Joiner
“…advertised their policies on street kites strung from lamp-posts and balconies.”
The world of ‘A Flowering Wound’, ‘The City in the Rain’, and Ex Occidente Press’ Mittel Europa – this story is a splendid nocturne (not Debussy this time, not Chopin, but Scriabin perhaps?), words made into secret unexpressible music without calling it music, a threnody of political activists in nostalgic dream (or nightmare) – with a timely ironic warning how easy (self-indulgent?) it is to transcribe everything into Fiction. Sometimes things should be left real as they do not deserve being made into fiction. But here they are well deserving and well served.
” ‘How many years had you stopped seeing us, except as folk tales, or in your books? Which I’ve never read, by the way’ “ (28 Sep 10 – another 2 hours later)
Survivor’s Guilt by Rosanne Rabinowitz
“Who says words can’t change things?”
As a perfect complement (complement, not compliment) to the previous story, ‘Survivor’s Guilt’ is an ingenious portrayal of nostalgia in real-time, nostalgia again tinged with the dream and nightmare of past political activism Europe wide, and today’s version near the Thames, but so utterly poignant as past and present stare at each other head-on with little recognition on one side, in fact distracted… It is tantamount to an activist’s ‘Molly Bloom Monologue’, here with an accessibly shining yet narrative stream of consciousness within the memories together with a real believable vision of the present moment playing out in front of the narrator and intertwining with her form of memory’s monologue. There is also a very clever brief touch that emerges from the Horror genre that gives a needful oblique resonance. This story, for me, honestly should win literary acclaim given the right exposure beyond the Horror genre. But that is endangering its own built-in activism of spirit, the spirit of being simply itself without fear or favour regarding what praise and whence such praise is given.
“…like listening to music full of defiance, made all the more powerful by notes of loss and melancholy.” (28 Sep 10 – another 2 hours later)
Rediffusion by Rhys Hughes
No disrespect to any of the previous stories, but this is a palate-cleanser.
It evokes a brilliant absurdist concept of Kafkaesque crime and punishment in tele-moto-perpetuo-miniaturitis.
For me, it also complements ‘Decision’ in its game of consequences and, by inverse serendipity, seems to extrapolate upon what I said above about ‘South of Autumn’: “Sometimes things should be left real as they do not deserve being made into fiction.”
[I have been fruitfully exploring the various aspects of the word ‘diffusion’ in honour of this story.] (28 sep 10 – another 3 hours later)
A Place For Feeding by Simon Kurt Unsworth
“…and only then did she come out of the cupboard. She went quickly, carrying Shaun against her front like her badge and shield and armour.”
[From the gent’s loo cupboard, reflecting a larger restaurant elsewhere – in the sixties, because these days there are proper baby changing-rooms…?]
I really feel for this lady trying to breast-feed her child in an eating-area, then becoming beset by the increasingly ugly-looking faces of ‘fascism’ (if that word can be extended to such a phenomenon as human intolerance about breast-feeding in a public place). This is highly compulsive reading. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It makes strong points without making them too obvious. As an aside, it also resonates with the Huxleyan vision of ‘In the Arcade’ – and with a more pliable golem as it ‘latches’…? (28 Sep 10 – another 3 hours later)
Night They Missed the Horror Show by Joe R. Lansdale
“Across the forehead the wrapping had turned dark. Down by the mouth and chin was an ad for a fish sale.”
This takes the catch from “In on the Tide” and puts it right down your gullet. A simple message from ultra-foooooKing prose – full of gang-sputching – where centrifugal dogs are spun to smack you rotten. There’s been talk elsewhere today on the Fishing-Net about a stanger story in the 7th Black book-of-horror. This one, though, here, whirrs like a spin-doctor who knows how to foul things up and leave a stickleback for your cumin-jar. Ni*g*r or dog? Which comes first? This leaves a bad bad taste in every respect. No spinning out of that one. Never never again. (28 Sep 10 – another 4 hours later)
THE REST OF THIS REVIEW WILL CONTINUE HERE FROM TOWARDS THE END OF OCTOBER 2010. This will include my face-value impressions of the stories below – as I have already done with the stories above – followed by my appraisal of the whole book’s gestalt pre- and post- my first reading of its Introduction. I hope, but cannot guarantee, that all this is eventually found to be worthwile to the reader picking up the book just to read its fiction as well as to the book’s goal itself. (1 Oct 2010)
I shall now shortly be resuming this review. I have been mulling over the book (which was too heavy to take with me) during the last two weeks while making a ground-level tour – and an opportunity for a fact-finding mission – in the cities of Berlin, Warsaw, Minsk, Novgorod, Moscow, St Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen. A stressful but enjoyable holiday, or, rather, rite of passage! I shall now read the following stories for the first time and review them. (18 Oct 2010)
Ghost Jail by Kaaron Warren
“She reached for him but he leapt over the balcony, over so fast he blurred in her eyes.”
Like the story itself. Complex and ungraspable. But some work better that way – like this one. When in Minsk, Belarus, a few days ago, I saw high-rise blocks of flats being built as new, their upper floors still unfinished, as if they were being ‘destroyed’ by some retrocausal holocaust. You don’t see them being built as new like that any more where I live in UK, unless one travels back to the nineteen-sixties. The clinging ghosts, breath cancer, and the facile fascism of the word (where media often controls governments), and Ghost Jail – in this reader’s personal context – resonates brilliantly. (18 Oct 10)
The Torturer by Steve Duffy
“…after a chaotic and terrible caesura […] …an apostrophe in the day’s frantic diatribe, a turning aside to the secret sharer, the hidden self.”
This is a masterpiece of ‘self’ horror. I can say little about it, as I am quite stunned, but I will report that the only fiction I read when abroad in the last two weeks was ‘The Secret Sharer’ by Joseph Conrad…as if in dress rehearsal for reading ‘The Torturer’. A sister story, if ever there was one. The super-text of ‘The Torturer’ is society run by torture but that is not as important as its sub-text. Its ‘Beneath The Ground’ ethos. (19 Oct 10)
I think an additional story should have been placed here at this point in the contents of ‘Never Again’: i.e. ‘From The Hearth’. (19 Oct 10 – ten minutes later)
Methods of Confinement by Gary McMahon
“Had life simply become such a gaol to David that he’d decided to change cells?”
Whether the author intended it or not, this is a striking play on two words: ‘confinement’ as both prison and birth, and gaol/goal of one’s DNA or ‘cells’. Destination unknown. A tunnel towards the submerged cathedral. Not the most overtly typical McMahon, but good enough for my own strict requirements regarding the soul of flesh-opening fiction I now expect from him. Gives this book another onward boost.
Each story a cog in a gigantic complex or a numinous machine the existence of which possibly even the editors only half-sensed without fully realising what they were compiling. I do not yet know what the end gestalt will be. This book needs to be savoured with trepidation. (19 Oct 10 – another 8 hours later)
Damned if you Don’t by Robert Shearman
“But turn your head to the side and you could see the soul…”
Another palate cleanser to rediffuse with the absurdist crime-and-punishment of Rhys Hughes’ story – melding in my mind with my anthropomorphic memories of ‘The Terror and the Tortoiseshell’.
It is a telling fable that lightens as well as enlightens the foregoing fiction and flows as sweetly as the crazy concepts to which falling in love with Hitler’s dog can only give a single clue among many others. Hell is a prison that ‘Methods of Confinement’ acts as immediate backdrop and, retrocausally, becomes a different story by reading this story straight after it, and vice versa. Damned if you don’t, so glad I did. (19 Oct 10 – another 90 minutes later)
Relevant to at least the previous two stories and others – included in my aforementioned trip that split this review in two were: the tour of a prison in St Petersburg where I entered the ‘cells’ that were used for political prisoners, touching a preserved part of the Wall in Berlin, listening at length to an 84 year old Pole in Warsaw about what he and the city had gone through in the 20th Century, seeing the ‘blind faith’ within Russian Orthodox Churches with the altar ‘walled’ away by the iconostasis, seeing the double headed picture of a Russian and American soldier at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, hearing ad hoc crowds praying at night in a Warsaw street, Moscow’s Red Square, the history in the museums and galleries &c &c More to remember, perhaps, later.
And today, the UK Government announces the ‘cuts’. We would not wish to be where we are at today (by whatever or whosever fault), but ‘cuts’ are surely needed; it’s just we wince at them because they are to be administered by millionaires like David Cameron and George Osbourne?
Didactic, moi? Never Again. (20 Oct 10)
Machine by Carole Johnstone
“That thundercloud hanging over the country might well have finally burst – voiding bile and fury that had too long festered…”
Incredible. Having previously this morning written above in italics some thoughts of mine about my trip and current politics, I now reach this story and read it for the first time. I cannot prove I have done this, but this is absolutely true. It is difficult to separate the personal from the objective. I’m pretty sure this is a great story as a separate entity (language, style, imagination, ethos) but I can’t be quite 100% sure because of the intervention of the personal aspect. This story seems to encapsulate the book so far – an onward tread of a real Machine (worse even than the internet itself as depicted by EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909)), i.e about reality stemming from fabrication or the parthenogenesis of truth from artifice – a theme park in an alternate world (?) one depicting the horrors of what I see as 20th century Europe and current politics. While on my trip, I saw the world outside my means of conveyance as a fabrication: a theme show or film-set. [I wrote a story during the trip, one depicting, inter alia, that feeling of fabrication.] Also Carole Johnstone’s story seems to me to belong locationally to the area where I live, a sea-side resort opposite Holland and Belgium. ‘Aghast’ is indeed the word, and, yes, incredible. And meanwhile, I’m convinced, it is a great story. (20 Oct 10 – another 2 hours later)
After the Ape by Stephen Volk
” ‘Thirteen million unemployed. Almost every bank is closed. People are losing their farms, homes, businesses. You have no money, no hope…’ ”
And today in real-time, UK suffered the severest cuts…
This story is an Art Deco exquisition, a cinematic ‘genius loci’, whereby the love of Hitler’s Dog in a previous story is paralleled by a much larger love within a prehensile mythos, again via the parthenogenesis of truth from artifice. Very impressed, too, by the whole narration and dialogue and character interaction: “…all about getting the Story.”
The sensual interface between Mittel Europe represented by a Thirties youth in face with older American style (in subtle tune with that two-faced emblem at Checkpoint Charlie).
A skyscraper of a fiction. It really is. And I can’t help thinking again of where we came in: that submerged cathedral: an inversion of life, “a graveyard upended.” And compared to that love of anthropomorphic animals, we must think back, too, towards a spinning morning-star in the form of a ‘centrifugal dog’ that an earlier story smashed into my face. (20 Oct 10 – another 4 hours later).
Zulu’s War by David Sutton
“…a barrier from the intrusions of the dead.”
Like the iconostasis in some churches…
This seems to be a well-researched, well-characterised, well-written skunksight of the Iraq War, its immediacy and its aftermath back home in UK – its mingled religions, so mingled that even Sunday School images in UK are like visions of Iraqi people where, after all, Christianity finds its basin. And, in tune with the mock-stylised ‘zombies’ (refugees from Hell) in Robert Shearman’s story, we have here a memorable vision that conveys all the underlying implications of such a war without being too didactic. (20 Oct 10 – another 3 hours later)
Death of Dreams by Thana Niveau
The author’s name itself reminds me of the ‘submerged cathedral’ or Volk’s ‘graveyard upended’; Thanatos being a personification of death and ‘niveau’ a level. The death level. More later… possibly because, as I notice, the Ramsey Campbell story (as yet unread) is called ‘The Depths’.
[‘Thana’ is also a police station. A death cell?]
” ‘No one has the right to gawk at my personal demons’. “
Which is perhaps a strange theme in a story from an anthology of ‘Weird Fiction’.
Thana Niveau’s story is a neat (and, for me, original) story about a ‘dreamcatcher’ device used for surveillance or spite. In a Pan Horror mode.
Niveau again, please. (21 Oct 10)
Beyond Each Blue Horizon by Andrew Hook
” ‘In a world of illusion, you only see what you feel.’ “
Hence the dreamcatcher again – and a meaningful reality in a name (Khali) similar to the process I just made with Thana Niveau.
Now and again, one comes across stories that one knows will stay in the mind, somewhere at least, forever. This is an example of that. The mountains of the city as iconostasis (“walls of the hourglass“) best seen from an underused balcony, politics as essential cursor (as well as bore – JJ?). A realistic view of didacticism, its power and its weakness. Love as ‘Nothing’ (see the John Travis story of that name and the cover of his book, reviewed HERE) – and just too many resonances to count or even to identify. Loved it. (22 Oct 10)
The Depths by Ramsey Campbell
I have a sense I read this story years ago. It is possibly the lynch-pin of this book’s ethos: inasmuch as catharsis of simply writing about things solves those same things. This is an iconic modern horror story, one I sense this book has been gagging to present to its readers as its central spike. A Horror writer, at story’s end, meeting his marathon ‘wall’ as iconostasis – and we can soak in its resonances with the rest of the book as if in a deep bath of warm blood:
“On the roof of a pub extension gargoyles began barking, for they were dogs.” – “It was as if he kept struggling out of dark pit, having repeatedly forgotten what was at the top.” – “Night had bricked up all the windows.” -Machine now as Collective Unconscious in onward tread amid “festering nightmare.”
A classic of its kind. A synaesthetic indulgence in the visionary physicality of words. But too easy an emblem for this book? (22 Oct 10 – nine hours later)
Malachi by Simon Bestwick
“God knows what you catch.”
We are in on the tide, now. A coda. This story is not one that speaks to the reader directly but it does speak to the rest of the book, I sense.
I recall that 84 year old man who spoke to us at great length in Warsaw a week or so ago about what he went through. And he kept using the word ‘manifestation’. I still don’t know what he meant by that. But by not knowing one knows much.
And that must be what one takes from this book. It is a morning star, a great swingeing collection of Fiction. Not Weird Fiction. But Fiction. And if it sells well, I trust that the causes that the editors support by dint of the cover’s banner will also do well. I trust in these editors’ choices because I have met them and I do trust them. I do not need to read the introduction to know that.
I fear that reading the introduction (which I haven’t) will tarnish the effect. Fiction should be pure, undidactic. That way it works best. Fiction is like praying in a submerged cathedral. (22 Oct 10 – another hour later)