By Mike O'Driscoll
Reviewed by Edward St Boniface
Mike O'Driscoll is a very modern and excellent horror writer and this is a collection of eerily involving short stories (the especially abrasive and ghoulish Sounds Like has been optioned for US Cable TV production), set in or near his native Swansea, sometimes London or different parts of the United States. The lonely-painted locations (London's bleakness to an unprepared visitor in particular) very firmly complement the fractured inner worlds of psychically splintered characters who tend to gradually disintegrate as they fall into their disordered discordant memories and traumatic experiences (which may or may not actually be their own)--or cannot escape the void of entropy and grinding spiritual drag growing cancerously within them.
Frequently O'Driscoll leaves a story open-ended as to its full consequences for the character(s), creating a satisfying effect of mystery, enigma and a sort of grim enervating zone hovering perpetually close at hand like a malevolent cloud of entropy into which those characters etiolate and fade. His tales impassively suck up the unwary and innocent and depraved alike and consistently confound an easy or straightforward resolution without, interestingly, leaving anything vital out of the story. Whether you go with O'Driscoll to rural Wales, the parched deserts of Arizona, a threateningly foreign London, bleached out San Francisco or some wasted 'road to nowhere' mystery-scape, he is taking you close to the mouth of Hell via a deathly individuality-smothering limbo populated by the brutal and brutalized and powerful malign forces of brutality. How you get there may be circuitous but it is always a carefully constructed pattern.
O'Driscoll writes a completed incompleteness and this is a very difficult literary trick to bring off. A story may change direction unexpectedly, show a final wrench of perspective at the very end or remorselessly creep up on a diffident or disingenuous character groomed as the inevitable victim, but in each tale he makes sure we do not get what we expect, good or bad; and in each case the story keeps its continuity brilliantly. O'Driscoll's humour is scythe-sharp, goes right down to the bone and scrapes away there viscerally and very unpleasantly.
Unbecoming, the title story, is a clever twist on the world of the working writer and what happens when pseudonyms of pseudonyms start to take over. Another, We Will Not Be Here Yesterday (many titles have a flavor of the original Rod Serling Twilight Zone), is a great satire on a pretentious, partially described London gallery installation by two peculiarly snide and mutually antagonistic artists with a very cruel twist at the end. As in Danielewski's House of Leaves O'Driscoll lets us look through the eyes of the artists and reviewers to gibe on our expectations and bring out unexpected contradictions and revelations of an object (in this case a very weird object) viewed from wildly differing, subjective, self interested and probably unreliable perspectives. That Obscure Object of Desire also takes a fun barbed prod at the art world and how 'concept' and bland ideas could be completely overwhelmed by even more soulless software technology.
If I Should Wake Before I Die is a masterful and riveting exploration of pathologically murderous psychosis and its paradoxical innocence through the eyes of an apparently rational character who has a specific and quite (to him) logical explanation for each one of the grisly murders he perpetrates, graduating from animal cruelty to repeated human murders and a final unanticipated payoff not only completely appropriate but satisfying in a horrified sublimity. This story may be the finest in the book; although not my personal favorite it shows an insight to madness and phobia that takes study and a lot of hard thought in addition to writing talent.
Mike O'Driscoll's style is very dark and explores with real insight the masses of contradictions that make up people, and in particular phobia and neurosis-ridden people who are self-destructing without seeming control as they relive awful or personally agonizing events in their past. Inner worlds are frequently associated with the detritus of memories like photographs, the playing (or memory) of music, published stories and journalism, inconclusive reveries and the commonplace objects (often books or records) in which we so often invest so much of our emotions and remembrances. He shows that as these objects themselves deteriorate or become disordered and lost, so do the characters who have made them into an important part of their identity and past. In most cases they lose it altogether and the void takes them.
The supernatural and elasticity of what we assume to be reality is treated matter-of-factly here, the focus often being on the human will itself distorting and mutating reality (or reacting to it in a contributory, possessed-by or aggravating way), sometimes actual and sometimes perceptual, with increasing success as madness grows and that willpower becomes perverted into trying to grab back lost or imagined time. O'Driscoll strews his tales with reminders and symbols of the dangers around his characters; trails of clues and meanings which we discover only just slightly ahead of them so that the story's impact is never compromised.
My personal favorite was Evelyn Is Not Real, a story set in the world of Z-grade cinema and lost adolescent stardom where the power of disrupted imagination, obscure independent movies and unreliable multiple colliding memories assume terrifyingly intricate and labyrinthine proportions. It takes a lot of care, insight, intelligence and love of the subject to get this kind of story live. It is genuinely compelling and sad and 'I'm not going to the movies ever again'--or at least avoid the bargain bin at your local DVD rental emporium. Just as David Lynch in film, which he references in several of his tales, O'Driscoll is an expert at envisioning a dream (leaping from normal to nightmare without premonition) and projecting it fully into his chosen medium and making it work as a narrative within the framework of the art.
Entropy is his main focus: the nasty and unpredictable gravitations of fate and dissolution reaching out to and into these characters, eating away inside them for years and gradually drawing them into the negative spiral of abandoning hope in the present and future for futile refuge in the past (if any past remains to them as it warps out of existence)--often a past so poisoned by illusion and self deception that nothing but the void is left. Or the entropy is more direct; it simply genies' up through the interstices of reality, grabs characters, smashes them around in a Zoetrope of massive overload and violently decompresses them into psychic rejecta membra until they dissolve into soul-corrupted static.
Mike O'Driscoll is a writer's writer--the world of literature and cinema and art and culture past and contemporary is one he constantly refers to and draws inspiration from, but in a deft and original and subtle way that a voracious reader will appreciate. Reading him you are intimately aware that O'Driscoll really cares about his stories and his characters--they are not victims to be mechanically discarded once they have provided the requisite moment of torture or blasting revelation before inevitable doom. There is a lot of empathy at work alongside the cruelty and I had the experience of really caring what happened to these assorted characters; an element of real compassion so often missing from horror literature of the present.
The occasional quick anecdote or reference to a book or idea or author is an effective way of adding the firmly grounded and familiar to these paranoia-infested fantasies and giving them unexpectedly strong reality-texture at moments when the reader is disarmed and has completely suspended disbelief. This too is a difficult tactic to make work well and O'Driscoll is superb at it. He sets an ominous mood in generally bleak or isolated settings draining out their life-force while they oppress equally emptying-out characters, or the narrator is that setting; usually intelligent and insightful but with invisible forces arrayed against them that are too predatory and persistent and devious in their hunt for the soul to avoid for long. And the reader goes down with them, carried along by O'Driscoll's really disturbing talent. It takes awhile to come back up sometimes.
Do not take this book to bed with you.
Unbecoming by Mike O'Driscoll. Tpb, 260pp, £6.00 plus £1.50 p&p direct from Elastic Press, 85 Gertrude Road, Norwich, Norfolk NR3 4SG, UK
Website: - www.elasticpress.com
Return to Whispers review archive