Monday, 18 February 2008

new collections

Skimming off the cream? Mopping up the scum? Either way, the 13 stories in Andrew Humphrey’s second collection of short fiction, Other Voices (Elastic Press), are a fine collection of literary SF, urban terror, weird crime, melancholy noir, and bloody pessimism. It’s an engaging sampler of whatever sorrows float in the deep vats of cross-genre slipstream. There are dramas of cruelty and candour, sociopathic affairs and broken marriages, but the various characters’ estrangements might actually be from reality, and some protagonists find their sense of identity is undermined by curious events. Just like the urgent messiness of real life, happenings are frequently beyond explanation let alone human control.

When this volume came along I was partway through reading Joe Hill’s expansive collection 20th Century Ghosts (Gollancz), and must admit that the American author’s constant engagement with wraparound sentimentality was just starting to bore me (a little bit!), so the unexpected opportunity to review Other Voices for Starburst #360 provided a welcome relief. Okay, so maybe there’s a little too much of Norwich in Humphrey’s work, but this book frames an ample dose of satisfyingly British doom and gloom, with an appealing minimum of the mushy, the woolly, and the tritely condescending. Actually, there's nearly as much 'hope' in Humphrey's fiction as there is in Joe Hill's, but whereas hope seems like an essential ingredient in most of Hill's work, Humphrey's hope is fleeting at best or plays really hard to get. If you’re after dark fiction that quietly stockpiles optimism and settles happily into maudlin comforts after a hard day’s night practicing survival tactics, shop elsewhere.

Published by Serpent’s Tale books, Old Devil Moon is Christopher Fowler’s 10th collection of short fiction, exploring an impressive range of themes and styles from urban horror to whimsical fantasy, packing in much contemporary wit, literary flair and satirical insight. Compared to Humphrey’s finely-honed accounts of domestic disaster and laments for wrecked psyches, the grumbling quality of Fowler’s high-contrast offerings might be somewhat variable, but the sheer diversity of material reaches levels of pure astonishment, perhaps to the extent that readers might be left questioning whether all these disparate chillers and comedies were indeed composed by just one mind (latent evidence of Fowler’s um, apparently well-managed, multiple-personality disorder?).

Ringing the changes from knockabout Sherlock Holmes case histories and catalogues of absurdity (certainly, Fowler’s The Night Museum is a lot more fun than any dozen books by Tom Holt!) to cautionary tales about foreign travel, guiding us through yet another set of fascinatingly twisted and macabre tropes which, like the chillingly primal classic Sharper Knives (1992), sagely warns readers about whatever’s probably lurking down both familiar dimly-lit alleys and the cheerfully unknown back roads of cosmopolitan landscapes.

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