By David Mathew
Reviewed by Peter Tennant
David Mathew is a writer who slips through the cracks, an ambient writer if you like, somebody who is always there in the background but never registers as a significant blip on the small press radar. He's not somebody you automatically think of as an especially prolific writer in the way that you do Rhys Hughes or Paul Finch and yet, with 450 published stories to his credit, Mathew's record speaks for itself, exceeded only by that of Des Lewis in the UK, at least as far as I know.
And so we have Paranoid Landscapes, a first collection of Mathew's work, a meaty volume containing thirty stories, and a book that could just as easily slip through those cracks. You won't find it on www.lulu.com, even though it appears to be self-published (but don't let that put you off--most of these stories are previously published, having been subjected to the editorial ukase at places like Nemonymous, SciFantastic, Redsine, Storyville and Infinity Plus). You won't find it at shocklines or in any of the usual places, and while a google search throws up plenty of answers none of them are the answers you're searching for. My own copy was a present from the author, with whom I once worked as part of the editorial team at Interzone (Dave's still there, I'm not), and the only place I have been able to find it is on Amazon.
One of the ways you can assess the regard a writer is held in by his peers is to look at who he has worked with, and Mathew appears to have collaborated more than most, with people of the calibre of M F Korn, Paul Meloy, Hertzan Chimera and the aforementioned D F Lewis just some of those with whom he's broken bread, a fine sampling of their works appearing in Paranoid Landscapes.
Korn is the most prominent of these co-conspirators. In The Red Spectre the canny pair take nips at the edges of reality, the dividing line between fiction and fact, with creatures from the world of celluloid crossing over into our own and taking on flesh, while their real world protégés are elevated to the immortality of film, a clever tale that builds gradually, with hints and suggestions, before revealing the true state of affairs. There's a similar affect in another Korn collaboration, The Secret Ingredient, which on the surface is nothing more than the bog standard plot about what really goes into those meat pies you love so much, and no prizes for guessing the secret ingredient of the title. But the writers have a lot of fun, giving us a foodie in the boondocks, adding sex and grave robbing to the mix, and serving it all up with wit and spice in a repast that would have made Sophie Dahl's grandfather proud.
Mathew and Korn are joined by Chimera for the evocatively titled The Whispermen, a wonderfully inventive outing that plays games with sexual deviancy, as young lovers get off on re-enacting death scenes with the help of these psychic stalkers, and you just know that it's all going to end badly, but the fun is in seeing exactly how. The Drive-By Heart, a collaboration with Meloy, touches on themes of karma as the protagonist finds himself cursed with bad luck courtesy of the woman he done wrong, and unable to get out from under. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then it could well freeze over when faced by the indifference of this lady.
Criminality is a recurring theme, with several off the wall stories that take in the activities of career gangster Dreadnought and his henchmen. How Long Has Your Face Been on Fire? has an assassin sent to New York and getting into a bad situation. In The Car Eaters Dreadnought's wife attempts to double cross him, while in The Inspissation Dreadnought tries his criminal tricks on an incredibly fat man, forcing him to take on a rival in an eating competition. There's a hit and miss quality to these stories. Mathew provides larger than life characters with believable dialogue and an underworld stamp of authenticity, though sometimes the plots are just a little too oblique and confusing for their own good. But when things come together he plays a blinder, as with We'd All Think of Different Things, a day in the life of Dreadnought outing, with an encounter on the underground containing the promise of both romance and violence, concluding in a reality enema for our hero, the story powered by biting dialogue and a genuine sense of mounting menace, underlying all that an understanding of machismo.
Tangled personal relationships are another common thread. Case in point, A Difficult Angle in which the hapless Stuey gets in over his head with Becky, the wife of his brother Phil, their entanglement played out in scenes of betrayal that wound even as they compel our attention, and form the spine of a story in which Stuey's discovery of a knack for making money, something another writer might have made central, is only window dressing. In Heart of the Seahorse a lovelorn man is duped by a beautiful woman and a stage magician, while in the perceptive and beautifully characterised Nod Your Own Head an unhappy couple find solace in the husband's penchant for self harm. Then there's the provocatively observed Blame, another tale of brothers doing the marital dirty on each other, with a solid set up and culminating in one of those horrendous family dinner parties where all the chickens come home to roost, the stuff of superior soap opera and sitcom.
Ghosts too are another one of the leit motifs running through this collection, though Mathew is his own man and never satisfied to simply scare the reader. The oblique Mr Konstantin's Visitors (co-written with Korn) features a ghost looking back to discover the cause of his death, though in truth he was never really alive, while in Things Break a young woman is dogged by strange men who watch her, their numbers steadily increasing until there is a crowd of observers, standing quietly and looking in at her life. In Parts to Play a woman becomes a bestselling writer by channelling the ghost of an actress who dictates her autobiography, along the way endangering her own corporeality. One of many highlights in this collection is Brainwreck Meal Times in which Solomon befriends the man who tries to burgle his flat, only for them to realise that they are both ghosts and must witness whatever other atrocities occur in the flat, getting joined by yet more spirits in a dazzling story that keeps the reader off balance all the way through.
Mathew is a very different writer, most definitely, and I'm certainly not accusing him of plagiarism, but looking back on this collection I can't help being reminded of Clive Barker's oeuvre (and, in case anyone is unsure where I stand on the subject of Mr B, that's meant as a compliment). There are echoes in so many of the stories, as with The Red Spectre (Son of Celluloid), Brainwreck Meal Times (Revelations) and the zany Family Whorls, where a young boy's madness is manifested in the idea that his fingers talk to him and act independently, murderously so (The Body Politic). Mathew takes these ideas and plot signifiers, and makes them his own, puts an individual and eccentric spin on them.
Perhaps the most Barkerish story, and for my money also the best in the collection, is City Went A-Courtin' with its echoes of The Age of Desire by the sainted Mr B (I'm titling these stories from the Books of Blood from memory, so please make allowances if I get any wrong). It's a tale of science run amok and libidos out of control aboard a subway train as powerful pheromones are unleashed, told through the eyes of a gallery of well drawn characters, and deftly exploring our own prurience as we both disapprove and wonder what it might be like to be on that train and free of all moral restraint/culpability (erm, hope that's not just me), so you're left with an enhanced awareness of how fragile and artificial all our social and ethical systems are, merely convenient lies we tell ourselves to deny the beast within.
Not everything here hits the spot (e.g. the short Rivereyes which is, perhaps, something to do with a man being beguiled by a water spirit, and I have nothing more useful to say on the subject), but that goes with the territory for any writer who has the ambition to circumvent our preconceptions. On balance though there is far more to like than not, and Mathew is a writer who deserves more recognition than he has received heretofore, so I'm hoping against hope that Paranoid Landscapes doesn't slip through those cracks.
Paranoid Landscapes by David Mathew. Tpb, 323pp, £15.94. Published by Lulu and available from Amazon.
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