21 thoughts on “The Moment of Panic — Steve Duffy


    This is utterly the greatest bespoke opening to a story collection I have ever read. I sense I belong, have ALWAYS belonged, to this story, and employed by it, now one of its eponymous delegates at the margin, taken to a certain place, here in my own world as a beachcomber by the sea, but there, in the story, beside a motorway, taken to work in a caravan, with a trailer nearby, and men who come and go, seeming to know why they are there, with a poster on the trailer seen from this no man’s land where I am and another on it now unseeable, only seeable from the motorway itself, and I am soon to replace this story’s Howard, to become a new delegate for seeking out the ring-binder with headed pages that he looks at before darkness comes, a chance to read about inscrutable duties, duties without duties. ‘Ring-binder’, as an expression, sounds about right to me. Can’t think why, though. After all, it’s not the M25 motorway that is so precarious to grid-locking, but another motorway near where “the business parks and industrial estates gave way to the wide flat fields of the Cheshire plain.” Like Barry, what else can I say about what this story is about? A trailer for the whole book yet to be read?

  2. THE A TO Z

    A man generated by this book so far with its own progression of letters into words, a man called Hugo, in the well-portrayed era of the 1980s, who “made a virtue of his own marginalisation.” Aickman might easily have named a protagonist Hugo, and at first I thought this story was a particularly effective, even playful, theme-and-variations upon Aickman’s ‘Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen’ (note, inter alia, the use of telephones etc. and, later, the use of a woman’s ‘mincing fingertips’ in this Duffy), but I soon realised it goes even beyond Aickman in its deceptively playful power. Believe me!
    It has the naively sexual and lifely failed young man from Aickman’s ‘Letters to the Postman’ (reviewed by me only yesterday!) and similar obsessions …here with Hugo seeking out that ‘hidden clue’ scrawled into his London A to Z to renew contact with a past fling. Well, as this work compellingly progresses, I immediately airbrushed the mention of my old university up north, and I thought where has this terrifying story been all my life? I can only imagine I had airbrushed it if I had indeed read it before, i.e. blocked it into a form of denial. As I hope I will airbrush it again! As Hugo had himself airbrushed from his memory the previous experience of that past fling called Caroline and her ‘flatmate’ called Lucy. Anything else I tell you will be a spoiler. And indeed if I go into too much detail in public, I will not be able to airbrush it very easily for myself. Suffice to say, I loved its initial development of Hugo’s life up north and now in London, and its era-painting, and the plot mechanics regarding the A to Z, and the taxi man that finally took Hugo home. But some of the implications of its explicitly mentioned ‘muscle memory’ as to the nastinesses within it, ‘the something that becomes something else’, the reference to ‘camps of last resort’… well enough is enough! (Its ‘musky base note’, notwithstanding.)
    Seriously, a classic.

  3. Pingback: The A to Z by Steve Duffy | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews


    “; all the rest was a vast murky undulation, slop and ebb, slop and ebb, featureless, unknowable.”

    This is, on the face of it, a rather straightforward zombie horror story for its own sake, one that takes place at sea, involving three men and a woman attached to the narrator and joining for the first time their customary night cruise in a ship with a beeping ‘fish-finder’ radar, all of them well-characterised and developed, and there is the materialisation of a legend where a stretch of sea off the North Wales coast spits out its drowned ones, with poetic potential. But Duffy certainly takes it to a new level of cold tactility on a hot night and the consequent terrors not unlike some of Hodgson’s, extending them into realms of rot with flesh-colours and more. The fact this crew of men always played backgammon on these night trips seemed strangely relevant to the qualitative nature of the humanity exhumed from down there. And the fact that the word ‘poky’ can seem to mean constriction as well as having sudden strengths.


    I can’t quite believe that this story as a masterpiece of Dr Phibes’ “filthy creation” rested perhaps unconsidered as long as it has and I have not sufficient skills to summon it to readerly life, other than to literally beg you to read it, too, and you, and you, and you… exponentially, as we all try to triangulate its cornucopia of coordinates into full life from the bones of its utterly utterly exquisite prose style and scintillating words as the literary landmark it is and really always has been. No exaggeration.
    Unfilthy, though, in the crudest sense of ‘filthy’. Ranging through the history of post revolution Russia, taking place there as well as in Switzerland and London, comprising the counterpoint of Bach music and famous real roles from history preserved here as not automata, although they are automata, but on the cusp of living creatures, and what Phibes did to preserve himself and his wife from gory accident, and what he did to succour his feral female helpmate with the title’s name, and how she survived what I infer today to be even this story’s own death within the book where it was published. If it’s unfilthy, it is certainly erotic, though, to play with automata as the solicitor at the end discovers. So, if filthiness can bring you to help create this story again from its unheard rumours by dint of the heroine’s name, then I am willing to pretend that it is whatever you want it to be, just to entice your readerly eyes to the communal task, along with me, as its Dr Fictionstein.
    And what you want this story to be is genuinely what it is.


    “Fat lot of good that’ll do me here.”

    I usually can’t get on with dialect stories. But this one works perfectly with a brand of seemingly naive adolescentese with sexual overcurrents written believably as a real-time review by a 14 or 15 year old Irish girl as she stays with her religious mad aunt in Wales, as if rescued from her environment of people (particularly Uncle Declan) in Ireland to save her soul and to take her demons out. I was expecting to be lukewarm about this arguably reprehensible screed, but I must again risk allegations of serial overpraise of this book so far by saying here that it is unbelievably powerful. A brave work of abuse and religious mania, where there is an interpolation by a seeming freehold omniscient narrator at which point the voice of Uncle Declan becomes that of Jesus Christ. But whose omniscience is it? Another genuine masterpiece that should not be sent away into a readerless darkness to lick its wounds of shame. It poses eternal questions that only literature can pose. That’s my answer to its challenge. What is yours? Fat chance of you getting to read it, though.
    Mention of “workers’ playtime” gave me the period. A story worthy of William Trevor, and that is a huge compliment. I have reviewed on this site every single story in his enormous canon.

  7. Pingback: Lives of the Saints by Steve Duffy | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews


    “How strange it is, to walk where people walk when there is only stillness and dark. Before, it used not to bother me.”

    This surely dangerously unrivalled book now deepens further into a left past from page to page, its depiction of rightness ever to become empty as a simple truth? Like history. A powerful vision of England twenty years after the Holocaust, where this our land’s Mysterious Kôr has already, even back then, summoned a spurning of those foreigners — gypsies, totters, this story’s eponymous ones as if from Belsen, bleedin’ come over here, as the barman in this story’s strongly evoked pub might have said! — the same English ironically having at that time recently fought for these people in the war! Yet, one of these foreigners, a Lithuanian, has been utilised bleedin’ over here as a school caretaker, and as in Anna Seghers stories, he was one of those who had turned his coat on behalf of Hitler, and sent his fellows to Padernice, that place which never existed except as a salving fiction for those sent there but now salvaged here as a depiction by fiction! This work has an irony of power that truly works. It skirts dangers so as to transcend them and makes us think more than we can ever think, moving our eyes from left to right across its pages, ever moving our eyes.


    “‘Mint-sauce,’ he shouted, and raised a single finger to the baaing from behind the hedge.”

    Every story Duffy does is most beautifully written, and his stories themselves are versatile. This is comic horror story excursion to Snowdonia from Rhyll in 1981 during a snowy whiteout, an excursion in a Scimitar car on business by a sexual Machiavelli and wood restorer called Ravi, and it is Ravi who tells this story of his adventure as rewritten here by a narrator acting on behalf of Duffy or actually as Duffy himself, the homely soul behind this whole book, just as a different narrator rewrote a story on behalf of Aickman or as Aickman, a less homely soul, I guess, a story originally told by an old man who was gang-raped, when he was 17, by a small girl and a huge woman in the outrageous ‘Mark Ingestre’ story that I reviewed HERE today just before reading this Duffy! And I reckon the hairy trolls in this Duffy escaped through one of the portals that are by chance opened up between two stories if these stories are somehow chosen by me to be consecutively ‘gestalted’ — i.e. the hairy barber, his assistant covered in waste hair and the huge hairy woman passed, by the means of such a portal, from the Aickman to the Duffy. Meantime, the Duffy is about a snowbound chapel vigil overnight around a dead person in a coffin, to protect the corpse from the legendary trolls that are not only hairy but also often baa like sheep before they are made into meals with mint sauce (or the meat pies in the Aickman?), while Ravi has his salacious way with the dead man’s daughter in a box pew, a woman whom he had not met till now! You can’t make it up. (Another highlight is the description of a road accident involving a skid in snow.)

  10. Pingback: The Portals of Gestalt | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  11. To honour the previous story above, we now have the next one’s “counting all the baa-baa black sheep in the world”… and even oblique references to Aickman’s Strangers, reviewed an hour or so ago.

    If I am right about this story, my review below contains a final sentence in italics that contains an enormous Spoiler!


    “Sometimes it seems that way, for we know there are no strangers in dreams….”

    I have a problem; most times I read a new Duffy, or at least new to me, I wonder not only if this is simply my favourite Duffy, but also whether it might be a long-term favourite of mine among a few others by different authors — or even my favourite ever story! This time it reaches that upper limit of consideration, but surely this is due to the passion of the reading moment, a moment not of panic, but a panic of embarrassment or self-doubt? More a moment of finalising something too early. Like life itself. Overlapping this moment of passion with a moment that divulges too much. About myself as well as about this story.

    “…and it would be enough for the moment, just enough.”

    A stylised murder whodunnit with self-organic references to that tradition of writing — and it’s as if the various character sections here partitioned represent a film projected in random reels or on a faulty projector, just to tantalise us even more. The sections give a portrait of each suspect amidst a island scenario hinted at by the overall title, amidst words some banned by political correctness and other words, in their syntax of semantics, literally to die for. This text goes beyond the final tipping-point of prose-style power? Involving motives that reach into human behaviours that will make you gasp within the context of old wars and races that participated in them, sexual and financial desires beyond any pale or imitation. I cannot do justice to each character nor how they fit together despite any mis-projection. So I will end by asking: who did do it? The now less than homely omniscient soul working the projector!

    “…again and again and again, so good that it hurt.”


    There is no way I can directly review the plot without spoiling it. Suffice to say, I kept my beady eye looking through a seedy seeping Glory Hole at its own observationals upon Kenneth a socially inept who is still a mother’s boy of a dead mother, a simple man beset by an imperious uncle and aunt, as well as stalked by a man in in his seventies with an axe. And believable details of a housing estate and a self-help group with people who easily fly off handles. They say that a reader feels they actually can become the main protagonist, step into their shoes, as it were, in well written fiction like this.

    “Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.”


    “Through it all, the little subsets continued to intersect and the larger, protean group remained.”

    In this sometimes contrived romance story with rivalry in love and recrimination and witchy revenge involved, we are subsumed by the nature of a bee swarm’s gestalt, and the evocative descriptions of their darkly beautiful tidal flow (and bees in general, healing unguent from honey or skin blight), swarms both as love or, when, misdirected from other climes, unnatural hate…and a Halloween death. However contrived this work is, it is an engaging portrait of the woman narrator arrived in the community on the Suffolk-Norfolk border, content to take lower pay for a more contented life. Meanwhile, her love life remains the complicating factor…. but any contrivance of such relationships and their ‘firebreaks’ is compensated by the utterly wonderful style in which everything is couched. And by what inspiration it gave me with the secrets of these bee-tender touches upon my philosophy of literature as what I shall now call ‘distributed sentience’, however much, occasionally, it can feel like wading through estuary mud amidst the bathing in the joy of such touches over the years.
    “…the bees shared a consciousness, that the hive was the real sentient being, the apiary as a whole, and its individual members were to some extent distributed portions of a larger entity.” — “…to follow through the litany of seeming coincidences down to where their instincts led.”


    …This rush to live./ This rush to die. Could it be a coincidence? Could it really be . . .? No, of course not. None of it could be. Everything was meant.”

    Like wrapping oneself in the previous potentially dangerous bees, this unmissable story builds on that instinct irresistibly and dangerously, by entering the trees of this story’s wood as Lucas Maybury sat close to the wood of the coffin in the hearse at the end of another story — with the perfect impulse, here, a Japanese man or youth (mourning his idolised music star he later listens to on his iPod during this story’s journey), a man or youth called Harumi, an impulse of self-destruction along with his media-met, yet until now unmet, Yuki girl, soon to be harnessed to the same music iPod, as the train travels towards the place where hangers regularly hang each day from trees whatever the noticeboards say to make them change their minds, whatever old ladies with big faces intervene innocently and unconsciously to stop them. You feel pulled along as the missing ‘I’ – Harum-Scarum — by his very slowly onward impulse and the words describing the events, words that are somehow miraculously couched by whatever soul took over the omniscience of this remarkable experience of a story that seriously must be read before you die. Whatever the collusive inimical forces (you now recognise) of the ghostly hangers-on upon your feet (your Yuki with whom you have fallen in love included among them?) as you suffer your noose’s final endless jerk of pain, this story ineluctably takes you to its end with no discernible retrocausal possibility of altering it. Only Zeno’s paradox arguably to save you from the I pod hearse?




    “…but again. I’m getting ahead of myself.”

    This is a story’s story, a storyteller’s story, an author’s author’s story, combining (seriously!) all the classic, slickly told, but densely textured, with witty offshoot thoughts, stories of all those great American authors who once told of township life in the earlier 20th century, I could name them all for you but I won’t, all merged into a version of James Stewart’s ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ with twists and turns, and sexual flings of an otherwise meek and upstanding man, George, and a wife and children and subjected himself to higher older forces of business in the town, yes, George with a silly uncle thinking of Poe’s Raven, a man whom George keeps employed in the bank and loan company — but who, I ask, is the Angel at the end that makes it the perfect ending when, as George threatens to become another tragic life, among many such tragic lives, finding himself in the dark as his fateful night duly comes, towards his ultimate moment of panic, when he threatens to do what just happened in the Suicide Wood, just now, but instead, no longer downtrodden but beautifully devilishly devious, he holds the girl’s ankles like a ghastly ghost instead of the other way around (what an irony)! But perhaps the real moment of panic is still to come in a Saigon hotel beyond when our official Angel’s ending finishes. That Angel-Demon, as I call this so-called oddbody omniscience who calls himself, I infer, an Angel proper; it’s that homely soul again who first brought our deliciously darksome night to come upon us…

    A remarkable book with some genuine dangerous classics that deserve being kept under wraps, so I can gloat. Sorry for any inadvertent spoilers, but it won’t matter, if you never get to read it.


  16. Pingback: The Moment of Wonder at How a Book Like This has ever been Missed | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

  17. Having slept on it…
    Some new all-time favourite stories of mine galore in this book, some of them literary, others horror genre, yet others both. I don’t know what that says.
    I think Steve Duffy has now become one of my handful of living all-stars. Perhaps he always was since I read the Lion’s Den, and progressed to his four collections.

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