By Allen Ashley

Reviewed by Terry Gates-Grimwood

Allen Ashley's writing is seldom obvious. His stories tend towards the subtle, the sideways glance, the unanswered question, and Somnambulists, his first book-length collection, is no exception. From the witty cover by Dean Harkness, which features a set of dusty objects each representing one of the stories inside, to the actual words themselves, there is a sense of waking nightmare, of dark forces lapping at the edge of (and sometimes overwhelming) the everyday events of our everyday world.

The opening tale, Somme-Nambula, sets the pace and the style. A story of sleepwalking, hypnotism and, perhaps, time travel (but then again, perhaps not), it manages to capture the despair, desolation and stark reality of the First World War, and yet remain bordered by strange shadows, memories of a stage hypnotist, dreams and somnambulistic forays into a no-man's land.

Mixed in with these enigmas are other, more transparent narratives. The most overt are Sequel and Pumpkin Coach. The former relates the sad decline of a movie character who once saved the Earth from alien invasion. The latter is a fairy tale retelling of the death of a certain...well, fairy tale princess. The device works well, not smothering the real tragedy in clever parable, but neatly satirising the realities of that famous Sunday in 1997 and what led up to it.

My own favourite is In Search of Guy Fawkes, a masterly reality-bend in which a scientific accident has merged Elizabethan and modern day England. The constant, sudden and unnerving shifts between 17th and 21st Century speech patterns makes this an astonishingly original and compelling story of foul treason and urban terrorism.

There's also Harmonic Excursions, a surprising Fahrenheit 451 type story where the victim of government control is any newly written music. Comparisons are unfair, however, because derivative this isn't.

By turns startling, puzzling, revelatory and frustratingly opaque, Somnambulists merits a slow, thoughtful read. No bland page-turner, the work is demanding and often asks more questions than it answers; in short, Somnambulists is a serious, bright-shining piece of literature.

Somnambulists by Allen Ashley. Tpb, 190pp, £5.00. Published by Elastic Press, 85 Gertrude Road, Norwich, Norfolk NR3 4SG, UK

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