Tales of Childhood, Regret, and Innocence Lost
Introduction by Ramsey Campbell
CHIZINE PUBLICATIONS 2019
My previous reviews of Simon Bestwick: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/pictures-of-the-dark-by-simon-bestwick/ and https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/simon-bestwick/
When I read these stories, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…
My 2011 review of the first story is show below…
“He sidles up closer to the window and watches Salford glide past him in the thickening dusk,…”
An impelling, rather than compelling, build-up via some tacit simple prose about all-too-human policemen in their special room at the police station in interface with the recent riot troubles? – or, if not, with what? Indeed, with what? But I have a problem. If I say that effective build-up leads to one of the most shocking dénouements it has been my pleasure or displeasure to experience in a work of fiction (so incredibly full, otherwise, of ‘stuff’ despite its relative short length) – then it may be a let-down or a relief when you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with me. So I will merely let you loose in its words without my assistance – with your own psychologically hairless body and baby-mind as a metaphor for you as a reader of this fiction (possibly only like that till you finish it!) – and judge for yourself, if you’re not irreversibly scarred or simply changed, that is, by the story and, therefore, unable to rationalise about it at all! Seriously. Even whether it is in turn a metaphor for recent troubles and the collusion and/or non-collusion between the various parties. [What’s the difference between ‘implicit’ and ‘complicit’?] (16 Aug 11 – another hour later)
BENEATH THE SUN
“—he still regarded computers as the tool of the devil—“
…referring to the narrator’s father. A twelve year old boy is this narrator — as seen from the future, the boy living, at that earlier time, just with his father in a new area — now narrating a disturbing vision as his younger self wanders in the countryside in an attempt to transcend the then recent loss of his mother, amid the piney smells that reminded him of her, and with new less pleasant smells that accompany the vision. I won’t describe here the vision the boy had because that is to what this story is devoted. Nor will I mention what happened afterwards. I can only obliquely assume that this narration was typed on a computer.
“That was when I saw the faint desire-line…”
… or the desire path as the line of least resistance. As the narrator, ending in the present tense, takes us ironically down some aggravated line instead, via moraine and glacial till, as he and his wife try to get off the Lakeland mountain followed by the clicking rattling mimicking Mexican-waves of scree and rubble with a monstrous shape under it that uses the wife as bait for him. Peppered with more casual thoughts of feeling fitter by his outpacing her – and her studied comments on their love and marriage, spoken by her while in extremis. And a horrible scene with the scree monster torturing a lamb, ironically after her eating a “rack of lamb in red wine jus” yesterday. One wonders who typed out this one even when eventually within its present tense? And typed it on what device? Very impressed with the absurdist nature of the scree monster. And please compare it enlighteningly to the stony boulder visions in the previous story and note the once apparent desire-line we now seem to be empathetically following upon badly wounded feet. “I’m crawling now.” And cannot easily come again.
COMFORT YOUR DEAD
With squirrels and “the tone of a royal command”, this is a touching portrait of a widowed man and his young daughter meeting, by chance, a single mother and her small son in the park, and immediately being attracted to each other. I am also a liar or at least the emitter of half-truths in saying that. It IS touching, though, as well as disturbingly disturbing (and that adverb is not tautologous).
THE SCHOOL HOUSE
“That was the first little bit of loose scree that goes sliding, dislodging more, which dislodges more…”
A novella with a psychiatric hospital called the Pines after this book’s earlier piney smell, a smell that conveys nostalgia but also this Tarr and Fether place where your time at Grammar School is tarred with the nightmares of what happened there, replicated here, the bullying, unforgiving sexual guilt, the rituals, the onward collapse of this book’s scree and the monster under it. This is an inchoate vision that will tell you more from its raw staccato edges and lacunae than its slick writing, though it does contain the latter, too. And I mean all that as a compliment. Heartfelt to heartfelt. Nothing can be exaggerated nor made abnormally nightmarish when one lives in such a world as ours. We live with it, create it, too, a rawness that eventually will be transcended, if only by death’s hindsight of whatever gestalt is then clinched, however inchoate those processes are.
The image’s html code has “alignleft” and this book has a rough warmth of page with the insect staining of exquisitely cold, close-ordered words….
“Even French windows and a fricking balcony.”
Who envies a balcony, even if it be the last balcony? This is a gratuitous ritual rite-of-passage towards the dead city centre. Then out again. A near future that is NOW. A teenage looking pocked individual told to do things, get a glass of red wine in the Judas Frost pub. Then to do what? To leave what behind? If this story does not stay with you then YOU are left behind.
“Until then I was a nobody. Waiting to be somebody.”
A rather run-of-the-mill story of pursuing justice upon a child attacker, a story with supernatural implications, and peppered with political didacticism.
A SMALL COLD HAND
“Just a quick visit — down by train, of course. I almost bought two tickets, one for her.”
A perfect portrait of guilt at killing a six year old girl at night in one’s car, followed by the long-term untrammelling of the circumstances. A chilling warmth. That’s all I need to say: perfect. She can, but needn’t, come again.
I reviewed the next story THE PROVING GROUND in 2009 here:
Having reread it, a powerful story of a cruelly gratuitous fatherly initiation into life for his young son, comprising echoes of scenes in The School House and a reversion of another story’s fateful car crash. It is a story even more powerful than I remember it to have been. When I read it again after another ten years, I will be dead.
ANGELS OF THE SILENCES
“I could remember what’d happened but it was all broken up, like a jigsaw. And I didn’t want to put it together, but I knew I would. Had to really.”
This is a novella that should have been a novelette, but that does not change the fact that, for me, this is a unique work about being dead, but dead in a sort of Limbo of still being alive in the context of one’s own previous life, still with mobiles, parents, hiccups, blushing, sex, mourning other dead people, revenge, even piles. A worthy absurdist literary work as well as one in the horror genre. Well-characterised portraits of two feisty teenage girls through the colloquial urban Northern England narration of one of them. A perfect poignant ending with the prefigured lift near Deansgate. Very impressive work, and it should be better known. And, yes, a pike – waits. (And as it happened, I read another Limbo story, one by John Langan, here, this very morning. Now in mutual synergy with this Bestwick.)
“bus bus” “rude rude” “ghost ghost”
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” — Daphne du Maurier
. . . AND DREAM OF AVALON
“…and finally pines at the top. These last twitched in a sudden gust of wind; he smelt their sap.”
For me, effectively a rhapsodic version of the Limbo scenario in the previous work: “the boyish features barely softened with age;”
This is the story of Matthew (“religiously left-wing as only the young and middle-class can be”) who returns to a large house on a lake where he and a group of other students had managed to stay one endless summer long ago. The then hopes and ideals and young rumbustiousness and loves and raptures. Boys of Summer, a song that included the girls. Can that happen now? Apparently it can. Even the story’s inevitable ending has a beautiful musical ‘dying fall’ about it. And cannot come again? Darkness inspiring, as well as the earlier light, I guess. Only in art and literature can things be properly transcended.
The next story I reviewed in 2010 and below is what I wrote about it in its then context. I had a story in the same book entitled ‘So’.
” ‘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)
‘a retrocausal future that feeds on the past’. Cf the previous Avalon story.
“I’ve never been a lover of beans, but you make use of what you’ve got. Don’t you? We all do.”
As an old has-been myself, I find this a tantalising tale of blighted and nigh house-bound claustrophobia and a dark possible metamorphosis of escape — but to do this by waiting at an urban bus shelter where buses cannot come again? A tale of hopeless kids that gather at the shelter, intermittent visits to these kids there by a woman stranger in a sleek car, a woman with child-abusive tendencies, plus seeming knife crimes witnessed separately by the two old men, one right wing and the other, the narrator, left wing, but long-term pals nevertheless. A has-been scenario that gradually pans out…
THE CHILDREN OF MOLOCH
I started this but I am afraid it was too sexually crude and horror-melodramatic for me.
This story has now taken on a new light having read PARADISE POINT here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2019/10/04/nightscript-volume-v/#comment-17258
AND CANNOT COME AGAIN
“…a running joke that if he turned sideways at school he’d be marked absent.”
I don’t know why but I related that image to a later one about smashing a cross with a “gaunt, tormented Christ” nailed upon it. “…I’m not here to try and find meaning or a moral. I’m just here to witness,…”. And “There couldn’t be two separate things. So that meant a connection.” This is a workmanlike horror genre novella with well-honed horror descriptions, and that is how it reads. And there is much to admire in the well-characterised genius loci of Barmouth (where once I spent a whole day in persistent torrential rain), plus the exposition of this whole book’s subtitle, innocence lost, ideals lost, unrequited love, youthful love mutated into monstrousness, spanning twenty years, the protagonist returning to Barmouth to finally transcend the girl he once dallied with and her religious obsessive of a father, Christianity morphed, made mania, the protagonist’s three other pals, too, from long ago, two now missing … but I cannot rehearse the whole of the plot here.
This book is unmissable for its undoubted classics, viz. Dermot, Left Behind, The Proving Ground, A Small Cold Hand, Angels of the Silences, And Dream of Avalon & They Wait. I shall now read, for the first time, the Introduction (The Man Who Put the Best In Bestwick) by Ramsey Campbell and the author’s Afterword (Notes from the King of the Bastards).
Thank you so much for this, Des! I’m really glad you enjoyed it.