Tim Lees, The Life to Come. 2005. Elastic Press. Pp. 200. ISBN 0954881222. £5.00.

Reviewed by Johann Carlisle

If you read the independent press in the UK it is likely that you may have come across at least one of the stories in this collection before. Of the sixteen stories by Tim Lees collected herein, most appeared for the first time in The Third Alternative, a couple in each of Crimewave and Midnight Street, and five are previously unpublished. Judging by the consistent quality of the stories here, this is either a selection from the top quartile of Lees' work, or else everything he writes really is this good.

Several themes recur in this work: characters are earthy, real, believable. They have family problems, relationship issues, are not always articulate and successful. Often the weird, alien, or supernatural crux of the story is not the worst of their problems. Atmosphere and credible background scenarios are more important than eldritch terror or thrilling action in Lees' stories (which is not to say that they can not be eldritch or thrilling at times).

Some of the stories are set in a world much like our own. In ‘Headcrimes’ the narrator's mother is paranoid, bordering on the schizophrenic; her absent father is a German who moved to England after the war and never talks about his past, and the narrator herself lives alone, trying to stay in touch with both parents, remembering a childhood as a foreigner in her own country. All of which is beautifully, convincingly told. ‘The Anti-Fan’ is a Stephen-King-esque story (but without the melodrama) about a stand-up comedian stalked by a mysterious bully: this is a believable, unromantic vision of fame as it might be for a small-time British celebrity. ‘Rif’ is the story of four hippy kids trying to pull off a dope deal with some farmers in a Moroccan village: a very atmospheric evocation of their lifestyles and attitudes.

A healthy fistful of stories start from our world, but introduce something strange or alien that makes it suddenly unreal. In ‘The Life to Come’, the title story, the future is encroaching on the present, introducing aliens, artifacts, and monsters into our daily lives. But at the same time the protagonists are recovering from a failed relationship: the future is something they don't have; the past, they are involuntarily reliving; and their relationship is better and more civil that it was when it was real. ‘Homeground’ is a story with starts in a similar tone (although the protagonists are happily married): it describes a visit by aliens from another dimension of space/time, and the effect they have on the politics and economy of a small, run-down, conservative, rural town. ‘The Leopard Girl’ is the story of a growing, dislocated boy who becomes obsessed with the leopard-skinned girl that scavenges and hunts on the outskirts of his quiet coastal town, and who tries to protect her from the angry local farmers. But it is also the story of the boy's relationship with his sad, restless, tired father, who never lets them stay in one place for much more than a season. In ‘Home in the Light’ a girl is asked out by an unsettlingly awkward alien who is desperate to fit in, and who misses his regimented, predictable home. The alien in ‘Boomtime’, known only as the "man from Mars", could almost be the same person, but the story is very different: this is a tale of grim realism, narrated by a wino on a downward spiral, again told with Lees' fine but relentless sensitivity.

In a similar vein are the three stories in this volume about Uncle Edward, who is introduced in ‘Starlight’, a tale of a boy's wonder at and admiration for his eccentric uncle (especially as compared to his stuffy and snobbish parents). His uncle's latest experiment is to concentrate starlight with a special telescope and create a living homunculus of starstuff. But the experiment is ill-conceived and careless, as always, and after a narrowly averted disaster, the story leaves you with a taste of a disappointed life, or dreams never quite fulfilled. The two other stories in this series (both previously unpublished), are less satisfying. In ‘Oi’, the experiment is less clear, involving the capturing of alien dreams, and the outcome slightly confusing: I was not sure this story was finished. ‘Jinner and the Shambly House’, on the other hand, is a stronger story set at the end of Uncle Edward's life, looking back at an incident in his childhood that led to disaster. The House in question is spooky, to be sure, and we feel the child's fear as he explores it, but it is not clear at the end what has happened, which makes the horror a little hollow.

Finally there are a few stories in this book which start in a world different from our own, although usually only in a small way. ‘The God House’ refers to a power station where the source of energy is the gods imprisoned within like artifacts in a museum; the narrator is described in terms of a lost pilgrim, wandering among those who worship the contained deities, but the story is also a parable of wasteful energy consumption and short-sightedness in assuming that the bountiful source will never run out. ‘Up There’ is a lovely little story that has the effortless inventive detail of Ted Chiang: a city high up in the air, made of ropes, bridges, and pillars, but including well-built and bolstered monuments and cathedrals, where the people believe that the air is pure and the earth the source of our fleshy, base instincts. The land-dweller who visits the air-city finds it difficult to fit in, but when he eventually leaves he suffers land-sickness, of the moral as well as the physical vareity. ‘Everybody's Crazy in the West’ is a postmodern future where all cinema has to be real, and so Hollywood is the most dangerous place on earth. And in ‘Relics’, a civilised airman living with a peasant girl hunts for fragments of alien spacecraft in the seas close to her home.

The last story in the volume, ‘A Specialist in Souls’, is a witty pastiche written in the manner of Hemingway's Parisian memoirs. It is short—for the borrowed style could not support anything much longer—and equal parts endearing, unsettling, and amusing.

The strongest impression left with me when I put down this volume of Lees' stories was the sensitivity to life and to detail, the sheer realism of his descriptions and his characters. If I didn't know better, I might assume that the author had in fact experience first hand what it is to be a pilgrim, a foreigner, an alien, a celebrity, a drug-dealer, a Hollywood writer, an alcoholic, a treasure-seeker, and a big-game hunter!

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