Edited by Christopher C Teague
Reviewed by Steven Pirie
A busy man is that Chris Teague. Puts out titles like there's no tomorrow. But there's little doubt in my mind that Pendragon Press is going from strength to strength in its publications. Having recently released the wonderful and enigmatic From the Molehills of Madness by Rhys Hughes, and the gritty Rough Cut by Gary McMahon, we now have Choices: six novellas penned by six different authors.
And a superb collection it is, too.
The Last Kiss, by Andrew Humphrey, is a decent start to the anthology, and one that firmly sets the theme of choices.
John and Becky are married, but it's an oddly stale marriage in which Becky's hair is often unwashed and greasy, and her kisses fetid like she'd '...decayed from the inside out...'. It's little wonder, then, that John seeks solace in the arms of former lover Helen. Perhaps more puzzling under these circumstances is the interest John's friend Charlie has for Becky.
When, one evening, Charlie and John are returning from a night out (with Becky once more neglected and left at home), they stumble upon Luke, apparently about to plunge to his death from a bridge. It's left to John to successfully talk Luke away from his death leap.
But Luke is not all he seems. His uncanny ability to know a great deal about John and Becky sees him turn into something of an unwelcome guest. Unwelcome as far as John is concerned, but not so Becky--she's washing again, for a start, and showing rather an interest in Luke.
The story ends with John desperately seeking to evaluate his life choices. Will he see Becky again?
It feels like a complicated plot in so short a story, but it works very well, and the change in John as it seems he might lose everything he truly cares for brings his recent (and not so recent) choices into sharp relief.
A good, solid start to the anthology.
Certain Faces by Stephen Volk...
Stella is an artist--heads and shoulders--and she's often on the lookout for an interesting subject to paint. She receives a call from three students keen to sit for her, and as always in these cases suggests they meet to see if they're suitable.
None of the three prove to be so, but when Vicki, one of the students, appears shortly afterwards in the papers under 'Missing' headlines, Stella is shocked. She cannot bring herself to tell her husband Gavin of the meeting. This leads to the apparent breakdown of their marriage.
I must admit I can't help feeling I'm missing something in this story. The writing is wonderful, the dialogue as natural as you'll find it written anywhere, but where it fails for me is in plot.
I can't quite figure why Stella would want to keep the meeting with Vicki so secret. Why can't she tell Gavin? Why is it such a big deal?
I found myself looking to see if there were hints that Stella is somehow responsible for the girl's disappearance, but if they're there then they're well hidden. I wondered perhaps if the marriage is already rocky, and such secretive behaviour is enough to push it over the edge, but again found no real cause. I found no trait in Stella to suggest she's prone to irrational, incongruous behaviour.
So, what was left for me was a tale that whilst being a delight to read felt shallow in terms of resolution/substance. As I say, possibly plot-wise it sailed over my head.
Kid by Paul Finch....
Don't allow yourself to be lured to Baker's Wood. It's a place of ruin and decay from which you may never escape. In Kid, Paul Finch uses this scenario as an excellent extended metaphor for how Kid--failed, disgraced boxer, unemployed thug, wife beater--now sees his life. Once you're in Baker's Wood, there's no way back.
There's a definite Neil Gaiman feel to this story, in its style not as a direct derivative. The fact that Baker's Wood is on no map, is surreal in the way it is enclosed, imprisoning, and yet is clearly a mere whisper away from everyday life (so much so that Kid can hear the bustle of London beyond Baker's Wood's walls) gives the tale that slightest step from reality that Neil Gaiman conjures so well.
Kid tries to escape, and apparently succeeds in somewhat James Bond style. But once you're in Baker's Wood...
Does Kid win through? I'm not saying.
Kid is another very strong tale in what is itself a strong anthology.
Hitch by Gary Fry...
Hitch is a sad tale in many respects. Clearly Louise has issues from her childhood--from an abusive father and an overprotective mother--and such issues seem bound to affect her choices now as she struggles into adulthood.
Louise has a job interview--a job means money, independence, control--but then all of that means a lack of safety, a straying from childhood and her boring, dependable boyfriend, Gavin. With such confusion (because of such confusion), Louise misses the bus, and it seems Fate has intervened. But no, a passing stranger sees the bus pull away and offers Louise a lift. Against her upbringing, Louise accepts.
Now there are further complications. This young man is brash and racy, hurls insults as he drives too fast; is both frightening and compelling, and far removed from the Freud-loving, safe, not-had-sex-yet Gavin. But what are the guy's motives, and are they likely to be any different from those that drove her father's advances years before? Aren't all males the same?
Louise 'escapes' and calls her father on her mobile. There is a confrontation, and through this we are led to wonder just who is the victim. And what of Louise, what choices does she have now? Can she ever recover from her past?
Fry deals well with the confusion in Louise's head. It makes for a powerful tale that keeps the reader's interest until the end. It does feel like something of a psychologist's convention at times, as all the characters seem to have some grounding in psychology and aren't afraid to discuss this conversationally. This involves the narrative, too, and it felt I was being lectured here and there. Still, I managed to repress such shenanigans and I can report that my Id enjoyed the tale a great deal. (Sorry, there's probably nothing worse than a non-psychologist trying to crack psychologist's jokes).
Memory of Joy by Eric Brown...
When Ed accidentally runs his car over his only child, Ella, it's understandable that both he and his wife Laura are all but destroyed by grief. But now Neuro-tech, a company headed by the erstwhile professor Enright, has developed Mem-erase, a procedure by which specific memories may be erased, Ed and Laura are faced with a stark choice: to live with their grief or to expunge all memory of their lost daughter.
Supercharged with emotion, this tale, Brown delves nicely into what it must feel like to live with such guilt and grief. The fact that he steers Ed and Laura into different directions in dealing with their pain makes for a full read. Also, that he doesn't dwell unduly on the process involved in Mem-erase keeps that air of credibility while still adding the hint of fantasy Mr Teague no doubt looked for.
And the choice really is a moral one--what's best, the grieving that makes us all human or the artificial choice of living with no bad memories, as if Ella never existed at all?
Possibly the ending lets the tale down a little. It seems a little contrived, and it's hard to be specific here without adding a spoiler, but once Laura in particular has made the decision to 'do the right thing', the fact that she can indeed 'do the right thing' is somewhat thrust upon us and attained too easily. But that's not to detract too much from what I feel to be one of the best stories in what, as I have already said, is a very strong collection.
Radio Trauma by Richard Wright...
John Brosnan is the brash, bullying, over confident radio talk-show host whose role as devil's advocate is reversed when the psychopathic Keith calls in and threatens to murder his (Keith's) wife live on air. Brosnan, along with his sound engineer Miles, must use their wits and skill as 'talkers' to control the situation, to figure out Keith's motives, and, at least in Brosnan's case, to eventually arrive at his own lifestyle choice.
This is a fast paced story, at times confusing given that lines of dialogue flash back and forth without pause, without a reassurance as to who's speaking. In his contributor notes, Wright mentions the story began life as a stage play, and clearly this leaning toward undiluted dialogue is a consequence of that fact. I did wonder briefly how quickly Brosnan accepts the caller as genuine (one assumes such a talk show host has seen many hoax calls and would take some convincing that this call was real). I say briefly, because the sheer energy of the piece quickly whisked me away from such thoughts.
It's surely one of those tales that grips. It hooked me as a reader until I had to finish the story in one sitting. I enjoyed how Brosnan is reduced from the sarcastic, sardonic character at the start, is belittled and plagued with self doubt as the story unfolds, only to redeem himself at the end and walk away seemingly a better character. As fine an example of story building as you'll find.
Overall, Choices is an excellent addition to Pendragon's stable. I have no problems whatsoever recommending it to you.
Choices edited by Christopher Teague. Tpb, 208pp, £7.99. Published by Pendragon Press, PO Box 12, Maesteg, Mid Glamorgan, South Wales, CF34 0XG, United Kingdom.
Website: - www.pendragonpress.co.uk
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