By Tony Richards
Reviewed by Edward St. Boniface
Horror is one of those genres so oversaturated with mediocre grab-the-cash-moment derivative material and straight 'Draxploitation' garbage and ripoffs-of-ripoffs that it takes an exceptional talent and empathy to add something genuinely new and outstanding. Over the last couple of years, Elastic Press has been consistently finding and presenting authors with this kind of talent and Tony Richards most definitely has special potential.
Richards has a wide range, from 'straight' horror to elements of science fiction and dark fantasy worked into stories whose focus can change frighteningly and unexpectedly and rap you smartly right across your narrative eyes just when you think you know what is really going on. He likes to dislocate you in time and space and apparent reality and play with the consequences; all too often starkly inescapable.
Going Back, the title story of this collection of fourteen varied tales, is my personal favourite and undoubtedly worthy of the soubriquet 'Great'. Simple and linear and possessed of a searing clarity it offers a new, completely appropriate twist on the time travel story and 'getting back to where you were'; playing with that idle notion we all entertain about changing critical moments of our past. It has that quality of empathy and insight and ironical compassion that makes a short story vast in scope and I would advise reading it last--it resonates long after finishing with a message that has rare profound truth.
Worlds-within-worlds a la Rod Serling and David Lynch abound here and there is an eerie convergence of them in A Place In The Country where the intersection of neurotic interior decoration and amplified imagination take a very sinister turn. Zombies and revenants and the animate dead are usually fearful characters but in the brilliantly subversive Beautiful Stranger take on a very different but ultimately even more menacing, maybe-predatory, quality.
More careless time travel disrupts the continuum in What Malcolm Did The Day After Tomorrow. One of my few quibbles with Richards is that some of his titles are giveaways or just a bit clumsy, and the questionable gift hapless Malcolm Cowper is given that progressively maroons him inextricably in Time is given for no well-justified reason, but his eerie fate is imaginatively and frighteningly wrought in the best tradition of the more doom-laden episodes of the original Twilight Zone.
The Cure reminds a little of the cautionary fantasies of Ray Bradbury or Arthur Conan Doyle and is a good, if a bit unsurprising, twist on the 'complementary medicine can be dodgy' theme. Duplicitous witch-women handing out barbed 'healings' are overly familiar territory and this story, like a few others in the collection would benefit from a little fleshing out to avoid becoming derivative. Nothing derivative however about A Matter Of Avoiding Crowds, despite a self-consciously Poesque title. Here, a self-absorbed and malicious loner progressively isolates himself from former partners and friends and endlessly walks the streets of central London, only to find them becoming a labyrinthine multiple mutating mirror-image from which he cannot apparently escape. As a habitual street wanderer myself in London I know the routes described very well and the sense of accelerating dislocation and fear of being lost in a familiar place is particularly authentic and chilling.
Non-Existent Cats, despite not quite capturing the voice of a diffident disingenuous adolescent of the modern Ipod and Playstation and Internet era, has fun with teenage gothic pretensions, the trauma of being haunted by something Beyond and delivers a really scary black-rabbit punch at the end.
Yesterday, Upon The Stair keys in on a personal favourite horror theme of mine--enforced passive helplessness. A young dead man's spirit migrates from home to home, looking in on the living and becoming attached to favourites but is powerless to warn or intervene with someone he knows to be in extreme danger and is forced to watch it through; unable to tear himself away. This is a particular stand-out story and is both tragic and hellishly tense to a near-unbearable pitch. You genuinely feel for both characters.
Balancing Act is interesting and heartfelt--although it seems rushed and unfocussed as a story and doesn't have any real or obvious supernatural elements. By itself it works as a comment on the complexities of abortive and incomplete relationships but doesn't quite fit the rest of the book. Skin Two is straight science fiction and about other rather overly familiar themes--vanity and artificially prolonged youth and beauty. Although the ending here is ominous and nasty it doesn't quite reach the level of what Jonathan Swift, Roald Dahl or Goethe (and Christina Ricci in The Addams Family campfire ghost story scene) have done with a similar theme and there is narrative room for much more. The perils of botched plastic surgery, ultimately ephemeral synthetic skin grafts and Clones on the Range are a bit too easy to write; although some of the cruel reversals of fortune suffered by the characters genuinely hurt.
Too Good To Be True is also in straight science fiction territory (a sexier play on Arthur C. Clarke) and is a fun, dramatically unexpected twist on the sex tourism game. It's a little mixed up in its denouement but the cruelty of abrupt unexplained rejection has an acidity that makes the pain vivid and real. Man, You Gotta See This! is thoroughly original and terrifyingly prescient. What if all humanity became slave to a beauty so great that only blunt-minded philistines could survive? Tony Richards is at his very best here along with the first story--this is a tale completely original and grimly convincing--and the worst ad for the Internet since the 'ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US' website.
Alsiso does not contain one supernatural aspect but it is more frightening and disturbing than so many other Gore 'n Grue 'n You tales. The dark side of over-possessive Sapphic passion comes to the fore as a simple case of sexual ambiguity and unexpected temptation on the part of one half of a holidaying lesbian couple turns into an enigmatic abyss of fear, paranoia and grim foreboding for the future. Raw human emotion and murderous jealousy evoke here with a startling power. By contrast, Nine Rocks is something of a letdown at the end; an ancient astronomical artifact discovery predicting the end of the world that very day as two middle aged professionals find love and a kind of redemption together. It's not a bad story but Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov got there 50 and more years ago and it's long-excavated ground narratively.
Going Back is a collection with an occasionally uneven tone, and some of its influences are too consciously and obviously imitated without acknowledgement. Some character voices do not work, but when he is writing the characters (a little worn, a little wry, a little self-dooming) he is best at, Tony Richards delivers a story that is memorable and of quality. I look forward to reading a novel by him!
Going Back by Tony Richards. Tpb, 168pp, £5.99 plus £1.50 p&p direct from Elastic Press, 85 Gertrude Road, Norwich, Norfolk NR3 4SG, UK, and also available at selected usual online outlets (see publisher's website for details).
Website: - www.elasticpress.com
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