Another review from the reviewer living in Clacton-on-Sea:
Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease
Edited by Joel Lane and Tom Johnstone
Gray Friar Press 2014
I have just received my purchased copy of this book, including stories by Joel Lane, Simon Bestwick, Priya Sharma, John Llewellyn Probert, Stephen Hampton, Gary McMahon, Anna Taborska, John Howard, Laura Mauro, Stephen Bacon, David Williamson, Rosanne Rabinowitz, John Forth, David Turnbull, Alison Littlewood, Andrew Hook, Thana Niveau.
My previous reviews of Gray Friar Press books linked from HERE.
I intend to conduct a real-time review of this book in the comment stream below as and when I happen to read it…
A Cry For Help by Joel Lane
“He travels fast who travels alone.”
There is a ‘cutting’ about the news of a funeral in this story, and it is as if the words themselves are cut, not only into the paper of each page, but also into a pair of deep dark retinas within you that your reading eyes try to disown…
I, too, had expense paid business trips to hotels in the hey-day of my ‘career’, selling things I didn’t want to sell or shouldn’t have been made to sell in those nineteen-eighty, atey, hatey days, and a sense of guilt seeps into me, a cry for help to assuage the past but, by double jeopardy, I was also perhaps undeservedly lucky, unlike Joel’s protagonist’s leaving his wife or her leaving him (and then her later leaving the world itself), with this not happening to me, but would I have helped any stray person who cried for my help to give the world their absence or, rather, to take their life…from it? Hotel rooms and British cities held all manner of doubt and creeping vision, whatever your circumstances, they still do, no doubt. And this story crisply and powerfully conveys all that and more. Deadpan or damned, selling the health of others as a job, or selling one’s own health just to make a living – or just to make or take a life, it’s all the same.
The Battering Stone by Simon Bestwick
“He’d decided I was his ‘weird shit man’ and therefore I was.”
Constructively reminding me of Joel’s detective protagonist in ‘Where Furnaces Burn’ (who, incidentally, had a colleague called Bestwick, I recall!), this psychic or ‘weird shit’ specialist detective investigates a series of seeming socially deprived suicides by skull-battering stone in the derelict climes of the Manchester area, their bodies found by a recurring large hole in the ground and recurring graffiti nearby: and a final fight with a tall stone by means of a hammer… A ball-pein hammer, something I first came across in an AJ Kirby story as a ball-peen hammer … penis or pain, one wonders? A cure-all where bits of the good Earth shard off in the shape of inchoate stone, punishing us by its own self-punishment for what we have already ill-done to that Earth – making holes as a sort of defiantly slow motion vanishing act? Or enabling us to harvest the ultimate stoning out of consciousness, where it little matters whether next Christmas comes or not. As I said in my review of that earlier AJ Kirby story featuring the ball-peen hammer: “This is a morality tale rather than crime fiction – except financial greed is a crime when you infect other people with it even if they infect you with their own greed thus to encourage you to infect them in the first place.”
No easy answers I say to the interactions of the Earth’s scarce resources with the defaults of wealth or deprivation. Perhaps this book will have its own eventual answer?
“And I was thinking too much; thinking about a lonely Christmas, people I missed, people I’d lost…Big chunks of time disappeared in all of that.”
My review of previous stories by Simon Bestwick linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/tag/simon-bestwick/
And a collection here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/pictures-of-the-dark-by-simon-bestwick/
I read and reviewed this book’s next story over a couple of years ago and below is copied and pasted what I then wrote about it in that review (the original context is HERE):
[[ The Ballad of Boomtown – Priya Sharma
“I stand on the threshold of the past.”
On this very day, the UK has officially entered a double-dip recession: and Adam Smith (once author of ‘The Wealth of Nations’) resigns his position so as to create a political firebreak. And this story is a symptom of our era’s enduring financial f**kbubble: here now taken literally as a bubble crime of both passion and omission, a crime that brings down retribution upon the story’s female protagonist even from those mythic beings (The Three Sisters) who should support her. With which I feel emotional empathy. Like the first story, we have roots to and as well as from the past, turning ‘pastilential’ just as human motives and yearnings are subsumed by entropy. But where does entropy start, when does it end? Towards another ‘cold sore’-type of facial condition from the first story, & we are stirred by the effective prose that has its own roots in the paper on which the text is stained like tiny articulate shadows. Here we truly inhale shadows. In the previous two stories, shadows inhaled shadows, perhaps. Then a bird, now an owl or horse. Although humanity always reaches the ultimate endgame of encroaching amnesia, myths exploit a special athanasy. The Three Sisters. And tantamount to a type of Lady Macbeth, our heroine inhales the sorrow that always follows a false certainty. A debt crisis of the soul. Like starting to build a housing estate in the more positive sectors of a cycle only to be aborted by the boom’s busting…here evocatively conveyed. And she will herself be turned to stone, no doubt, rooted to the earth’s core: potentially becoming her own myth: a myth towards which future women might return or seek out again and again through each feminine cycle of existence, an existence that is actually created by means of the thing that such existences originally incubated (a thing that in this story is also seen to be unwelcome and invasive depending on context or consent), a thing that the woman here also brings into being by desperately (mindlessly?) unravelling a man’s belt (compare and contrast the almost autonomous phallus in the first story). Just inferring. A great story, even without such inferences. Cycles of passion, as well as cycles of finance, set against the eternity of myth. Boom and big bang. (25 Apr 12 – 2.35 pm bst) ]]
NB: “And she will herself be turned to stone, no doubt, rooted to the earth’s core: potentially becoming her own myth:”
The Lucky Ones by John Llewellyn Probert
“…glinting in the unforgiving glare of a harsh mid-morning October sun. Monoliths to ruthlessness and ambition, they dominated the skyline.”
This plain story contains what this book would ostensibly decry, i.e. ruthlessness, sexual exploitation, disregard for health and safety, endless business-meetings syndrome, back-stabbing as well as real stabbing for sexual pleasure, here-today-gone-tomorrow financial f**kbubbles and heists, working class exploitation, the fast marketing of a new Deal or No Deal TV game incorporating a version of these ethics of ethos… But I deem that this story is satirical or ironic rather than a story for its hedonistic own sake. You see, the earlier Lane story has an ironically spurned one-to-one plea for help at its end, and this Probert story, by being part of the book’s gestalt, takes on a consequently very similar cast to its remarkably parallel one-to-one ending. Thus, a conte cruel with a moral. No mean feat.
The Sun Trap by Stephen Hampton
“Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.”
This is an absorbing, page-turning, poignant story about someone roughly my age taking a deserved retirement in his sun trap of a garden with enough hard-earned, well-invested money for he and his wife to go to Spain frequently for more sun. (I wish I had such desires to take a backseat in my retirement but I can’t exist without goals like this real-time reviewing!) But this character reaches, literally, his own Son Trap, amid what turns out to be the credit crunch, toxic debt crisis, fiscal cliff, financial f**kbubble, youthful greed, call it what you will. Life is unique. Uniquely vulnerable, too, as this story proves. Life: Never Again.
The sun is the most powerful force in our backyard of a universe?
Only Bleeding by Gary McMahon
“…we want that little bit more time and time again, until it becomes to seem like a form of forever.”
Starting with signs of a distant warehouse fire, this story is the most powerful one I have ever read by this author, and that’s saying a helluva lot! It seems to be a short apotheosis of our time, the death of what we always thought we were – nothing lasts and never is again and again. This seems at first to be a version of the previous story’s Son Trap, as I called it. But a trap, here, where, the filter works both ways, where parents give blood and then take it… Wasn’t there a song by Bob Dylan called “It’s alright, Ma, I’m only bleeding”? Yes, of course, it has long been my favourite Dylan song.
This is a story not to be missed. Buy this book even if for this story alone.
My previous Gary McMahon reviews: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/746-2/
The Lemmy/Trump Test by Anna Taborska
“…accused her of having ‘borrowed a child’, to gain sympathy…”
…or to gain something else, as in the McMahon story just read?
Meanwhile, the Taborska story has rather an extreme irony (similar to the irony I inferred about the Probert story) as it interweaves a club to treat food-bank ‘scroungers’ rather as if they are bait in a fox hunt, and the hunted ones themselves. I was left shrugging.
The litmus test itself regarding whom your potential friends are friends with as a guide to whether you should have them as friends, too…well, one could say the same about what books people read! Would you put your trust in anyone, say, on a train who’s reading this book with such a front cover?
Falling into Stone by John Howard
“I thought he loved that stone. He shouts each word as he brings the hammer down, smash, crash.”
This is an involving tale of unrequited love, where austerity is both a reason for these characters to become lock-easy outlaws like grown-up kids from a sub-titled film making their jokey or scary marks when rambling uninvited in rich houses – and where austerity is stylish minimalism in architecture, give or take the odd Art Deco balcony, I guess. The story also complements the Bestwick story, quite unintentionally, I assume, with stone and a hammer playing a large part in the metaphor of the credit crunch, crunch being the operative word. Marble, too, as a scryable vision of what pattern a stone may contain as well as the person it becomes … flecks on the surface only give away some of what deep emotions reside below, emotions that eventually go cold as stone itself when envy and a sense of unfairness outweigh one’s human nature. But I’m rambling now…
A truly superb story.
“Our name was my idea.”
Ptichka by Laura Mauro (or Laura Lauro in the contents)
“‘We get so many Polish girls in here,’ the nurse says. ‘They get themselves knocked up by British men –‘” …as if the uneasy stand-off of unrequited love in the previous Howard story brings such a glibly moral and financial plight of migrant girls in Britain today into stark relief, where love is only in the painful result of the sex not in the sex itself – a love born from pain, borne upon pain, a love of a creature that the sex itself created, albeit nothing more or nothing less than a shut window’s version of roadkill. Joel Lane’s stories often spoke of us as angels with or without wings. This Mauro story speaks of something similar, reminding us strikingly that we are all complicit in whither or whence each of our own eventual migrations do head after the heart’s first or last faint beat. A birdkill that fiction’s now opened window failed to squash. Freed-up frontiers for the rootless, not the ruthless.
The Devil’s Only Friend by Stephen Bacon
“He smelt vaguely of stale, enclosed rooms, like the interior of caravans or a musty attic; nothing too unpleasant, but, somehow infinitely sad.”
A perfect portrait of a seedy and rundown seaside resort seen as a palimpsest of six years ago and today – dislocated with new street line shop patterns, added Aldi supermarket et al. A well-characterised arsonist who has done his due time returns to his haunts and loves here – and to face his demons and to make meagre amends. That palimpsest seemed to me to indent further the story’s ‘widening gulf’ metaphor: an apotheosis of Exodus. And this seems to sit tellingly with this book’s earlier ‘stone and hammer’ syndrome, those chunked out gaps to escape from as unwelcome gaps in themselves and, paradoxically, to use as welcome gaps that become the very means of escape–
“There was just a rocky slope leading away, tongues of black seaweed carpeting the ground.”
The Procedure by David Williamson – but the book’s contents list has already started amputating this author’s name!
A lightly satirical, take-it-or-leave-it, treatment of the serious concept depicted by the book’s cover. Meanwhile, I was rather proud that, against the odds, I got the song reference at the end.
Pieces of Ourselves by Rosanne Rabinowitz
“His gaze settles on a stone box on the top shelf. It’s made of smooth grey stone, inlaid with patterns…”
This is a substantive exquisition: stemming from a believably experienced cuts demo and its resultant police ‘kettle’: serendipitously blending, inter alia, Bestwick’s earthstone holes with flesh as bodies and Williamson’s every cut is another bodily destructuring toward whole-‘sale’ vanishment, but here Rabinowitz’s work — of accretively obsessive, self-harming shavings and skeins of skin from the male protagonist’s body and the memento stone box where he collects them — becomes a highly sensitised vision of something beyond the cuts, a vision that rationalises the demos and fights against the cuts as part of a pattern of his past life, austerity further pared, his exes, his travels, his thwarted ambitions, the patchwork people, his “Feeling bolder”, a sometimes clear, sometimes confused vision that enticingly is the potential core of the horror uncut ‘book bloc’. For me, the Platonic Form of Library. Or a shimmering Mauro wing. Flecks on marble.
This story is referenced here an hour or so later. From my experience, if anyone enjoys the fiction work of either Rosanne Rabinowitz or Ursula Pflug, they are sure to enjoy the work of the other.
And I’m also reading at the moment “J” by Howard Jacobson, an SF novel that was short-listed this year for the Man Booker prize, and this serendipitously is another essence of Pflug and Rabinowitz.
A Simple Matter of Space by John Forth
Scene: Housing Department office safety screens, behind which housing officers sit. An elderly Leibniz complains to one of them about the bedroom tax, the empty space left by the elapsing of his wife… a loss that not only leaves a void in his life but also in his pocket, in his house, in his universe. There ensues a very effective cataclysmic Baconite Exodus-gulf blood-and-guts scene when Leibniz returns the space to the Housing office, space that implodes and explodes no doubt in accordance with the philosophy of physics of his famous namesake. This constructively contrasts with the equally powerful subtlety of the Rabinowitz story that is directly contiguous with it…
It is not the satire or irony of Probert, Taborska and others. It is a full-blooded defiance ad absurdum, ad infinitum, and all the healthier for it.
The Privilege Card by David Turnbull (David Turnbell in contents list) – but Tom Riley is more of a turncoat, I guess, against his own father’s socialist ideals, when he accepts a rewards card for snooping and culling on behalf of the authorities for his own benefit. This is a satirical Horror SF concept with a Ghost Story aspect where the father comes back to haunt Tom’s conscience, complete with the ‘tumour leeches’ that killed him. Not sure how these leeches fit in with this fable’s moral at the end. Had his father been a filthy Capitalist on the quiet? I am afraid that none of the horror, ghost and satire aspects worked for me. The SF concept was quite intriguing, though.
The Ghost at the Feast by Alison Littlewood
“Coleman’s real name wasn’t Coleman. It seemed to be the fashion these days for MPs to adopt a name to match their principles, or to mask them,…”
A beautifully written SF type extrapolation to match the earlier Privilege Card and the Leibniz bedroom-tax ‘space’, here the Square Footage Tax, where footsteps are measured out in despair or hollowness. A successful ghost story, too, truly haunting, and taking Forth Leibniz’s ad absurdum, ad infinitum defiance, but here toward an apocalyptic but delicately inscrutable, even apolitically didactic, finale.
“Despite the haze across his eyes he could see that the stone was mellow and beautiful in the afternoon sun,…”
The Opaque District by Andrew Hook
Another inscrutably beautiful treat to follow that of Littlewood, the two stories’ endings perfectly complementing each other. This one is a classic of our downtrod times, with its living prehensile queues (negatively symbiotic queues queuing queues) along rejigged shopping parades mentioned earlier in this review, all pared – like Rabinowitz’s skeins of skin – ‘back to basics’. Yet there is the metaphor beyond the graffiti mural, one that resonates with the impermeable stone of this book’s gestalt but also with its Exodus gulf, with the initial promise of light and freedom from the ‘shuffling’ and the “threadbare ‘bag for life'”. Whether or not a false promise, it is for you to decide if this protagonist ever left the queue.
A graffiti mural I photographed in the opaque ukipness of Clactonia a week or so ago:
No History of Violence by Thana Niveau
“Most people took their sanity for granted, never knowing how awful it could be to have to fight for it, gaining ground inch by torturous inch.”
…like those measured steps of Littlewood, upon the stony ground that is existence. I started this story with some trepidation, wondering if it might disrupt the mood built up by the previous two stories, but, as it turned out, this is the perfect coda, where I shall mention Ligottianism and Anti-Natalism surprisingly for the first time in this review. And its ending is powerful and cruel, so much so it even lends hope that, if the parasites are real not imaginary, then they can be killed. That cry for help now answered?
The book is a whole experience, one that is an unmissable landmark, I believe, in a certain form of ostensibly didactic literature that actually works beyond its own didacticism. I shall now read the book’s Afterword by Tom Johnstone that may give me more food for thought but, as ever, I only review fiction. </Uncut>
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