The Art of Un-Becoming
Prior to 2004 I knew next to nothing about Mike O’Driscoll except that, like me, he was a regular contributor to The Alien Online. I hadn’t realized that, like most reviewers and columnists, he was a writer himself. So when I first read, in the Ellen Datlow’s anthology The Dark, his outstanding tale "The silence of the fallen stars", I was surprised and spellbound. Written in beautiful prose the story, set in the Death Valley, is an extraordinary example of psychological horror featuring a lonely ranger, a family of British tourists and some mysterious rocks. The uneasy atmosphere of this remarkable piece of fiction is imbued with silence, dread and heat.
Since then I’ve tried to trace new material by O’Driscoll, but managed only to enjoy his fine contribution to Poe’s Progeny, "The Hurting House", a cryptic but effective tale about two friends in love with the same woman and their deep suffering after her sudden disappearance.
So, as you can guess, I was looking forward to the present, long awaited collection from the excellent Elastic Press, which gathers O’Driscoll’s short fiction under the enigmatic title Unbecoming. According to the Oxford Thesaurus the word ‘unbecoming’ is an adjective synonymous of ‘unsuitable, unflattering, unsuited, improper etc.’ but, as I understand it, the meaning here is different. The title story is a Kafkaesque, solid piece portraying a writer suffering a progressive loss of identity. Among other things, the novel he’s writing, called "Becoming", unaccountably gets re-titled "Unbecoming", that is the opposite of what he intended. In other words what the story describes and what the whole collection is about is the ‘un-becoming’, meaning the process by which identities shatter and lives fall apart. This is the common ground underlying O’Driscoll’s stories, proving that horror lies within our souls and any outer menace is but the projection of our inner fears.
The two stories I mentioned above are, of course, included in the collection. So are a bunch of superb tales that previously appeared elsewhere, mainly in the magazine The Third Alternative. "Shadows" is the masterful description of the gradual descent into a private hell by a man who, after his best friend's death, sees his job, his family and his own life dissolve into thin air.
"In the Darkening Green" depicts a young girl’s struggle to be accepted in the world without losing her identity. In "Rare Promise" a dirty childhood secret casts its dark shadow on the lives of two boys and a girl, with the most tragic consequences. Told in a skilful yet somehow reticent manner the yarn becomes more and more engrossing as the ending approaches.
"The City Calls Her Home", co-written with Christopher Kenworthy, is a distressing tale of urban horror conveying a sense of an unnamed threat in which reality gradually disintegrates. In "Sounds Like" the untimely death of their baby daughter overcomes a mother with despair and a father with the curse of being able to hear sounds such as beads of sweat rolling down his chest or the scuttle of a spider across the ceiling, sounds that nobody else can hear. "Hello Darkness" provides a journey in a world of squalid sex, dope and alienation, described by the author in a detached, restrained fashion.
As an extra bonus the book offers also an unpublished piece of work, "Evelyn is Not Real", a fascinating tale revolving around the complex relationship between a girl and a former actor haunted by the memory of a woman who co-starred with him in an elusive movie.
Endowed with an exceptional talent for producing prose often akin to poetry, O’Driscoll is a natural storyteller with the uncommon ability to probe in depth the abyss of human soul and its capacity of ‘un-becoming’…