Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Moment of Panic

'The Marginals', the first story in this book, neatly sums up Steve Duffy's very British brand of horror. In this tale a man who has made some bad life choices (or fallen victim to circumstance, or both) gets a strange job. It involves observing what appear to be rather dull men standing about in lay-by. 

These men are not ghosts or zombies, but partake of some of the qualities of both. They are at once real yet nonexistent: 'they were given over to the margins, to the space around the edge of things. In this way, they became the sort of creatures for whom these places - these inhospitable thresholds they're forever on the verge of crossing - might have been invented.' 

It is this marginal land that most of Steve Duffy's characters inhabit, explore, or blunder into. It is recognisable as Britain (most of the time), but it is certainly not the country described by corporations, the media, or politicians. This is in part because it is the land that they have made, and therefore must never acknowledge. 

Thus in 'The A to Z' Hugo's migration to London from the provinces recalls any number of novels and films from the Swinging Sixties. But his saga takes place not in the era of 'Waterloo Sunset', but of Maggie in Number Ten. Hugo's discovery of an address and phone number scribbled on a page of his battered street guide might have led to a romantic, uplifting conclusion. At some level he knows it can't. But he must make the call, have the conversation, and go to the place in the posh suburbs where he will encounter - what? No stock monster, certainly, but a rather Eighties species of horror.

'The Suicide Wood' has a very different background, but a not-dissimilar story - of someone whose options have, so far as he can see, run out. A Japanese teenager decided to take his life in the eponymous forest and arranges a suicide pact online with a girl. Fans of Japanese horror movies will find much to enjoy here, especially the youngsters' meeting at a railway station. We can guess that things will not end well for Harumi, but what part will the lovely Yuki play in his fate?

'Lives of the Saints' is a minor tour-de-force that is apparently based on a real and very tragic case. Told in the voice of a lively Irish girl, Daisy May, who is sent to Wales to live with intensely religious relatives, it seems at first to be a rather upbeat story of teenage rebellion, but things darken gradually thanks to intense superstition and credulity. The transition from comedy to tragedy is brilliantly handled.

At this point you might be wondering if this is another collection of that 'miserablist' horror that some ghost story fans tend to prod with a stick and then step carefully around. I've always thought that the term, applied to so many stories written in the Nineties, is a classic instance of categorising a trend in terms of its worst examples. The best fiction by, say, the late Joel Lane was not inherently miserable, any more than the stories of (say) Hardy or Conrad - compassionate pessimists both. But, just in case, let me assure you that there in some unalloyed fun to be found in these pages.

'Todhunter's Rock' is certainly an upbeat effort, and in a way acts as an antidote to all those lavish Agatha Christie adaptations so beloved of TV executives. A murder mystery, the story offers the reader information about a series of characters, any one of whom might end up killing the wheelchair-bound millionaire who lives off the Cornish coast. The author celebrates the joy of starting an absorbing whodunit, and pays tribute to a number of thriller writers. 

'Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed' is, according to the author's notes, surprisingly popular. It's easy to see why. It is a story that will delight anyone who's spent far too much of their lives watching old horror movies, shows like The X-Files, and reading anthologies about Nautical Nasties. The Platonic archetype of the weird tale set on a boat is available right here, folks. And it's Welsh. A group of friends set out for an evening's boozing and yarning off Anglesey. They anchor above a mythical sunken land, and the sonar detects something rising toward them. Something that is not a shoal of fish... If you love that moment in a movie as much as I do, this one's for you. 

'Girl put your records on'
On the subject of celluloid, 'Vulnavia, or, The Mechanical Princess' is a splendid tribute to the Doctor Phibes movies, which starred Vincent Price as a hideously disfigured organ-playing supervillain. Looking at that picture (the actress is Virginia North), who wouldn't want to know her story? And where she got the hat? Sadly we don't learn about the titfer, but a lot is revealed in this jeu d'esprit, which offers a credible explanation for a seemingly nice girl's alliance with the murderous Anton Phibes. This is very playful stuff, enlivened by Duffy's trademark intelligence and wit.

A very different take on a classic movie is 'You Are Now in Bedford Falls'. I've always found It's a Wonderful Life resistible because of the darkness Duffy highlights here. Capra's fable reveals rather too well the malice and greed that mar the American dream, while the sentimental denouement doesn't really work. So the story just takes the next logical step and reveals that dear old George (the James Stewart character) is not in fact rescued by an angel at all...

'A Serious Piece of Metal' appeared in the fifth issue of ST. Hard to believe it was that long ago. This one might deserve the miserablist tag in some ways; it's a grim Northern nightmare, much of which takes place in a public toilet. It will certainly not be adapted for television by Julian Fellowes, and is all the better for it. But I might add that it's quite funny in a knockabout, mad axeman sort of way.

Around the time 'A Serious Piece...' saw print I turned down 'Secrets of the Beehive' for ST, and have been regretting it ever since. This one is a slow-burner with a whiff of Nigel Kneale's Beasts, not least in its cosy country setting and the sense that something is going seriously awry just out of sight. I have no idea why I didn't like this story when I first read it, proving yet again that editing, like writing, can't even aspire to the status of an inexact science.

Oh well. On to stories that other editors sensibly accepted. Ro Pardoe took 'Old As the Hills' for the last fiction issue of Ghosts & Scholars (old style), while Barbara Roden published 'The Rag and Bone Men' in Ash-Tree's Shadows & Silence. 'Old As the Hills' has all the ingredients of a Jamesian pastiche - traveller in remote part of the country, strange antics at the village church, a horror that is glimpsed rather than seen. But the modern setting and style demonstrate that the essence of Jamesian horror has nothing to do with period detail. It works by effective scene-setting and deft characterisation, which work to bring a good idea to life.

'The Rag and Bone Men' is about as far from the cosy antiquarian ghost story as you can imagine. It's not surprising that the author was worried about its reception, as it deals with the most monstrous crime of our age. The story succeeds (and rightly won a prestigious award) because it doesn't attempt to push the reader toward any particular emotional response. We are instead invited to grasp something of the truth of history by sharing the memories of a man who is, morally speaking, a monster. And he is a very ordinary man, which is where the true horror lies.

Like Steve Duffy's previous collection, Tragic Life Stories, this book offers plenty of old-school thrills and twists. But each story is also an object lesson in how weird fiction should be written - with respect for the form, and for the reader's intelligence.

2 comments:

Aonghus Fallon said...

Sounds like my cup of tea! I'm not sure why, but I've always been interested in English stories that are set on the ugly, desolate margins of society. It's one reason why I much preferred Mantel's 'Beyond Black' to her historical series. Also the TV series, 'Ultraviolet'.

valdemar said...

Yes, I agree - the England that isn't all picturesque and heritage-y is better for horror (or fantasy/sf) than the Miss Marple zone.