Breath and Depth
Steve Erikson’s introduction sets a high standard in the latest issue of PS Publishing’s Postscripts. Telling the real-life story of his adventures with a group of friends in Whiteshell Provincial Park, Manitoba, he delivers forest fires, danger, great characters, atmosphere, spiritual comment and humor in one compact intro. It’s a strange piece to use as an introduction to other people’s short fiction admittedly, but it’s also great fun.
Continuing with more adventure is Juliet McKenna’s "A Spark in the Darkness". In another prequel story to her first book, The Thief’s Gamble, we’re back with Livak’s early life. This time Halice has been badly injured, and her lame leg means that she can’t act as Livak’s muscle in a fight. This also hampers the team’s ability to escape after they’ve pulled a job. Twins Sorgrad and Sorgren are discussing their future with Livak when it becomes apparent that someone is out to kill them all. It’s a story in two halves — the character and plot progression are strongest at the start, easing you into the new situation, before kicking in with tightly choreographed fighting scenes and arson attacks towards the end. The prose is tighter than previous stories, with no wasted words, and it all shows how McKenna is improving her skills at the shorter form.
Matthew Hughes chips in next with "The Farouche Assemblage", a crime tale softly told. The crimes in question are fraud — copying artworks and re-selling them as original art — and art theft. Luff Imbry wants to steal the renowned art collection belonging to Paddachau Chin and to do it he needs to obtain a piece of art by Hassol Humbergruff. (Aren’t the names great!) Chin desperately wants to add a Humbergruff to his collection, so Imbry sets out to exploit Humbergruff’s addiction to the dreaming drug Blue Borrache and make the artist create a final piece. This gentle tale is bulging with themes about life choices and materialism, where perceptions of right and wrong are challenged and ego is examined. And it’s all packaged up in a wonderfully traditional (and satisfying) structure with a beginning, middle and end.
Rhys Hughes uses a less rigid structure and, on a really good day, his imagination is so far "out there" that it’s difficult to keep up. Even on a calmer day, he remains much more inventive than your average short story writer. "The Mermaid of Curitiba" sits in those calmer waters, shining quietly. It is the story of a traveler who falls in love with a mermaid at a carnival in Brazil. His desperate desire to see her again after their one night together turns out to be as bittersweet as it is hopeful. A lovely story that is perfect with "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough" playing in the background.
Zoran Živković also hits his stride in “The Hotel Room”. In the third of four self-contained stories making up the mosaic novel, Four Stories Till The End, the author has maintained the intensity demonstrated by the first two tales. Once more we have a central character in a room being visited by a series of (often unwelcome) guests to tell him stories. This time it’s the hotel staff telling tales of underground abattoirs and local suicides. As imaginative as ever, this time there are darker things on offer than in the previous stories (including a swimming pool full of blood) and the presence of a solid ending does much to lift this tale above its predecessors.
Stephen Baxter’s "The Long Road" doesn’t really have a beginning or an ending, just continuity. Anyone who has seen the author’s enthusiastic talk at conventions about the evolution of his hometown from Roman times to the present day will recognize a similar enthusiasm here. Standing at one geographical point, Baxter moves cleverly through the years to show us that progression is, in fact, an illusion.
Keeping us in the future, "12 Men Born of Woman" by Garry Kilworth has distinct overtones of the 12 Angry Men movie — both being set behind the scenes at a trial in a room with an all male jury. But Kilworth moves his story to a more advanced society and opens up a completely different set of social questions. The defendant is on trial for killing a man on a yacht, but the victim wasn’t onboard when they set out on the fishing trip and could not have got onboard after departure. A theory of Random Spontaneous Cloning is put forward — several people go into a confined pace and more come out — the question being whether the clone can be regarded as a ‘true’ man, since he wasn’t born of woman. It’s a thoughtful story of mob rule, environmental destruction and ethics and the main points are revealed deftly throughout the text. Intriguing in its own right. It’s also a good ambassador for Kilworth’s collection, Moby Jack and Other Tall Tales [reviewed here last month – Cheryl].
And finally, on the fiction front at least, there’s Conrad Williams’ "The Veteran". As a non-football fan, I was somewhat wary of this tale of football reminiscences but I needn’t have concerned myself. Williams comes through with a character driven tale of people with a passion — in this case football, but everyone can apply that passion to some part of their life with ease. Deal’s life is a mess and he isn’t getting any younger. In an attempt to regain his youthful enthusiasm he returns to the football pitch with middle-age spread and a drink problem. But his new team has its own way of selecting the squad — a violent, bloody method that hides so much more than Deal understands. A dark one, this. Full of regrets, it seethes with revenge and the hopelessness of life. Williams pens an emotional story wrapped in an intelligent structure and, while he can be under-rated at times, he certainly shows his worth easily in these pages, rounding off the fiction in style.
The non-fiction offering in this edition features Iain Emsley’s interview with Elizabeth Hand and Mike Ashley’s article about Houdini. Elizabeth Hand bubbles through her interview with a seemingly single stream of consciousness. She details the influences and experiences that go a long way to explaining the depth of her fiction. Meanwhile, Mike Ashley turns out a beautifully researched and utterly fascinating article about how Houdini may have influenced early 20th Century literature. Simply riveting.
Overall then this is a softer, more consistent issue than the last one. It’s interesting, it’s intelligent and it’s well worth reading.