By Stuart Young

Introduction by Mark Samuels

Reviewed by Gary McMahon

This slim volume from Chris Teague's Pendragon Press is something of a showcase for the undoubted talents of writer Stuart Young. Now, Young seems to have been around for quite a long time--I remember his stories from the lamented Nasty Piece of Work--but for some reason I haven't seen his name appear in as many venues as I'd expect. This collection, however, goes some way towards rectifying that state of affairs, and demonstrates the breadth of the man's scope in terms of his fiction.

We open with the splendid novella (or, strictly speaking, novelette--a word I've never been fond of) The Mask Behind The Face. This is the story of Craig, a man who suffers from an obscure condition called Pick's Disease, which transforms the very basis of his memories, and of his personality. This malady is skilfully rendered by Young, who gives us an insight into the odd place Craig's world has become.

Craig forgets things, but has no awareness of doing so. He's forgotten how to be a mechanic, how he used to treat those around him, even how to be a good husband and father. He is also prone to outbursts of embarrassing (and tactless) honesty in public places--and is puzzled by the reactions he receives in return.

Craig is persuaded by an ex girlfriend to take up meditative yoga as a way to control the worst of his outbursts, and possibly help his deteriorating state of mind in the process.

And that's when the problems begin. During a session of intense meditation, Craig is convinced that he sees the face of God.

After this experience, our hero uncovers a vague plot concerning a borderline cult group, and eventually goes on to confront the infinite.

For all its lurches into the territory of cosmic horror towards the end, this tale is, for the most part, an intimate study of a man driven to the edge by a condition that he cannot control or fully understand. The story is rooted in everyday realism. Craig is someone who we are allowed to know and understand, and his problems are ultimately human ones. Even his obsessive pursuit of these glimpses of something beyond is initiated by a quest to understand himself.

This is horror fiction as it should be: real, confrontational, yet simple, honest and intimate. Despite the heavy themes of God, creation and the mystery of human consciousness, Young holds the reader in the palm of his hands for the duration, rarely missing a beat.

Next up is a story called The Death of Innocence, which chronicles the very personal aftermath experienced by the victim of a particularly savage and unprovoked attack.

The tale deals with the question of cowardice, and focuses upon a character whose identity is under threat from his own self doubts. It's powerful stuff, and the ending is a knockout.

Daddy's Little Girl is the disturbing narrative of a child who is about to be horrifically abused. This very short piece looks at the ways adults manipulate children, and it is unflinching in its portrayal of a real-life horror that surrounds us every day. It's another strong piece, and one that will leave a nasty aftertaste--but, again, it is above all honest and true.

The last of a good bunch is Mr Nice Guy. This one is about a cursed poem, and how it affects the women loved by the young man who composed it. Compared to the stories that have come before, this one feels a little weak and lightweight. This isn't really a criticism of the tale itself, more a comment on how strong the others in the collection are.

I also need to make room to mention the cover and design of the book, which are very attractive indeed. The cover art, by Ben Baldwin, is striking and the overall look of the book is very professional.

At only £4.99 you'd be a fool not to buy this. The title story alone is worth the cover price--the equally high quality of the accompanying tales is merely a welcome bonus.

The Mask Behind The Face by Stuart Young. Tpb, 80pp, £4.99. Published by Pendragon Press, PO Box 12, Maesteg, Mid Glamorgan, South Wales, CF34 0FG, UK.

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