Andrew Hook, Beyond Each Blue Horizon. 2005. King's Lynn: Crowswing Books. Pp. 211. ISBN 1905100043. £20.00.

Reviewed by Djibril

Having read a few stories by Hook before, which I found to be refreshingly original, uncompromisingly provocative, and daringly intelligent, I was looking forward to reviewing this collection. If I may have found myself at times slightly disappointed—or, perhaps, rather disenchanted—with the reading experience, I can certainly nevertheless say that none of the twenty-one pieces in this volume gave me any cause to change that original assessment of this successful small-press author. Nearly half of the stories in this book are previously unpublished or rewritten, a commendably high proportion for collections of this kind. As is to be expected, some of the new stories are of more variable quality than the published ones, but this is by no means the rule.

So, for example, one unpublished piece, ‘Kiosk B’, feels a little rough at the edges, containing more typos and grammatical infelicities than usual (and the occasional such error creeps into most stories). The story follows what seems to be a half-dreamt "prototype detective", who is hired for the apparently impossible mission of tracking down a lost little girl and a hooker in a (?sentient) city that is hiding them. As happened more than once, the character's confusion spilled over into the reader perhaps more than it should have, and one wonders if this story might not have benefitted from the leave-it-for-six-months-and-then-rewrite treatment.

On the other hand another previously unpublished story, ‘Honey Ward’, is one of the better pieces in the volume. This tale tells of a bent cop (a character type that recurs in Hook's œuvre) blackmailed by a prosperous crimelord into investigating the violation of his harem. Far from the roughness of the previous title, this story is very slick, superbly paced and slyly characterised—if somewhat heavy-handedly cliché-ridden—and increasingly creepy and surreal as it progresses.

Another very strong story that has not appeared before (although it is accepted in an anthology, so I suppose not strictly speaking unedited) is ‘Fen Shui’, which, despite the unpromising cheap pun of the title, is both inventive, vivid, and convincing. A time-travel story, which side-steps but does not ignore the paradox that is the dull staple of clichéd speculative fiction, in which the complementary principles of feng shui and hado are applied to repair damage caused by a nuclear explosion in the Norfolk fens of the eighteenth century. Although less fully fleshed out than elsewhere, the characters in this story are among the most sensitive and compassionate that Hook has created.

I have reviewed the story ‘Alsiso’ as part of the collection in which it appears in an earlier issue of this magazine, so will say little about it here, except to note that this excellent story of a sado-masochistic, crooked cop does not stand out as quite so unusual in this collection as it did in the anthology.

While several of the stories in this volume are impersonal in their observation of the quirkiness of modern life, and therefore feel cold and amoral, ‘Only the Lonely’ immerses us in a man's miserable existence without sacrificing empathy. The middle-aged, unemployed protagonist, who is trapped in a loveless (but, somewhat repulsively, not sexless) marriage, begins to witness the ghostly reënactment of girls' suicides in the area surrounding his home. Loneliness, desperation, and day-to-day, unglamorous sensuality are sketched with breathtaking efficiency of style and simple sensitivity.

‘One Day all this will be Fields’ is another powerful story, a dystopian nightmare that begins, without introduction, with a man and a child scavenging in the landscape of a ravaged city. In a post-liberal world populated by gangs obsessed with racial purity, where most countries (including the UK, where the action is set) practice merciless ethnic cleansing and forced repatriation, the protagonist is trying to protect his mixed-race son, while living in a refugee/internment camp. As matters become worse and worse, our hero starts to question whether it is in fact the children who most need protecting...

Perhaps the most effective piece here, ‘Pregnant Sky’ is the story of a reporter staying in a city in which the entire population has been sterilised in atonement (or retribution?) for some unstated atrocity. This mass sterilisation is seen as a form of slow suicide, since the population will die in a generations time: already there are no children below the age of fifteen or so. As a result the people have no future, no hope, no love; their only pleasure in the instant gratification of desire. Pornography and promiscuity are rife, but largely joyless, and moral outrage seems entirely absent. The protagonist seduces a young bereaved girl he meets at her fiancé's funeral, and tries to convince her that her townspeople's elective infertility is immoral. I am not convinced by the morality of the tale, but the observation of human character is unflinching and beautiful.

The title story, which comes last in the collection, ‘Beyond Each Blue Horizon’, follows a house of students on the run-up to election day in a stereotypically un-free country (which may be yours). As quiet but sinister repression of rights of assembly, speech and opinion intensify, people start to disappear. The result is that Ludo, a foreign student who does not vote anyway, finds himself more and more alone. With a glorious, typically surreal ending to this almost Marquezian tale, the books ends on as high a note as it conceivably could.

I have commented here on some of the most important pieces in this collection, but it should by no means be assumed that the others are all inferior or less worthy of attention. Hook almost unfailingly brings his keen eye for detail to play on scenarios in which quite ordinary, fallible but sympathetic people are put in only slightly unusual situations which quickly spiral out in unexpected, not to say surreal, directions. There are several themes that recur in these stories: on the most superficial level is the theme of sexuality—all but one or two stories in this collection contain some explicit, often transgressive although never pornographic, sexual activity in fairly prominent place. Loneliness or disaffection from normal society also occur often enough to draw attention: characters may be loners, or criminals, or victims; paranoid crooked cops, or quirky private detectives; invalids, students, fugitives, or perverts; everyone has something to set them apart. (But then, doesn't everyone?) And as often as not it is the removal of normal societal controls that makes these people different, not any flaw in their own characters. This is the fiction of the weird, speculative in the purest sense; most of it is not "sci-fi".

In fact this eccentricity and taste for the bizarre, which is the strength behind Hook's powerful writing, may be the very element that led to my early concern that this book was not appealing to me as much as his individual stories do. Hook's stories are best read alone, in a magazine or anthology full of more staid stories by other speculative authors, where they will glitter and stand out as refreshing, challenging, prodigious. In a collection like this they are too bright, it is impossible to read several stories at a single sitting and still appreciate each for the ground-breaking reality-bend that it should be. If you buy this book—and I strongly recommend that you do—then the best way to read it is to treat yourself to at most one story a day, with other reading in between to resensitise your imagination for the broiling Hook is going to give you afresh each time.

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