This is marvellous, malevolent fun. The story of Slink and his troubles is high entertainment, with just the right amount of darkness - exquisite drops of poison - dispensed in all the right places and moments. Like a fairytale gone awry, it has tension and torment, the good and bad of childhood stripped bare, until... the story ends, as all stories true and fictional must end, with a descent into chaos.
A superb introduction.
The Guy Who Nailed Himself to the Bench
This is obviously a labour of love, dedicated to The Pixies, a highly influential American band.
It begins in a dreamworld, populated by bizarre characters and framed by the self-scrutiny which is blurred and obscured by the supposed scrutiny of others. This, I always feel, is the key to all ghost stories - the ghost, seen from distance, is in fact ourselves.
There is meaning, hidden and revealed, within the text - seemingly throwaway lines, half-thoughts and references rise unbidden like spectres, haunting the aftertaste of reading. Banner headlines - 'TRAIN DERAILMENT - THREE DEAD. VANDALS BLAMED' - are chilling in their stark, uncompromising gravity, an epitaph of our present.
Dalton is driven to crucify himself, in effect, in response to the love/hate inspired by his inner demons. At least, we hope they are his own demons rather than something real and external. The imagery is suggestive, calling to mind all manner of devotion, homage, placation - the very lifeblood of our man-made gods and devils. Dalton is then a 'holy fool' but no more foolish than generations of men and women.
The Guy Who Nailed Himself to the Bench is a genuinely haunting story, the kind of unforgettable work which John Travis does so very well. I'm not sure I would ever read it again, and that is testament to its undiluted dark power.
Devils abound again in the next Mostly Monochrome story. And once more, we are obliged to ponder on the reality - or otherwise - of such creatures of the mind; 'the children of the night', one might say.
'Little devils'... What, in the idle hands of a lesser writer, might merely suggest the breakdown in communication between disparate generations - the young and the older, the rebellious and the authoritarian - is given a more profound spin by Travis. Although wholly better, this story reminded me of short fiction by Stephen King but John Travis has perhaps more 'depth', subtlety - where King's shouts even when he has little to say, Travis whispers effectively; the result is as unsettling - as disturbing and seductive - as intimacy.
After reading Idle Hands, you might stare in wonder and perplexity at the graffiti with which those alien, alienated creatures - the young - mark their territory. They are only words... but you will hesitate to divine the anarchy of their revelation.
Nothing is so moving that it almost defies criticism, in both sense of that word.
Oscar Wilde mused that 'all regret is useless'; by extension, one might say that mourning is similarly a waste of our precious time; yet it is essential to us, the undead.
Here, in this story, such human consolations - our nostalgia, our small rituals - are shown in a sympathetic, tenebrist light, in all their childlike fragility. With the central character, we clutch at straws and see what may only exist in the mind; this acts as motivation for one who has lost all motive, the very reason for living.
Nothing is a remarkably touching tale, one which shows us how we really are - human, all too human, but vital nonetheless - and how we are still, in the brash face of modern civilisation, the inheritors of the superstitious past. The critic and author DF Lewis considered Nothing to be 'a most beautiful treatment of love and bereavement'; that it is. It reveals us, in a caressing half-light. This is a very fine story indeed, arguably the stand-out work in an excellent collection.
The Happy Misanthropist
A startling opening line, a memorable first paragraph - what more could a reader desire? The more I read this collection of stories, the more I admire the author; as noted previously, Travis is rarely explicit in his horrors but the effect is uncanny; it's almost as if the reader is talking - or rather, thinking - to himself; no monsters are needed; this is the voice of our conscience...
With a wilful inversion of clichés and expectations, Travis turns the harsh light of interrogation on us all - see here, in The Happy Misanthropist, the obsession with privacy, with surveillance, with a forced and yet deliberate loneliness. The author continuously whispers the leading question: 'are we all sociopaths at heart?' Such questions are unfailingly inspired by Travis's artistry and artfulness, yet we shudder to imagine the answers...
Dance of the Selves
Once again the theme of loneliness raises its head, sheepishly at first then boldly, confronting the reader with the sick grin of Mr Peyt. The author is unafraid of writing within the confines of traditional horror but he always finds an original means of expression in his homage: if the previous story suggested The Monkey's Paw, Dance of the Selves polishes that dusty old trope The Mysterious Shop. With no little skill, Travis brings something new to the table... or counter. With the most subtle foreshadowing, the author hints at what is to come and makes us question the true nature of time itself (time being an entirely human concept).
In reading this story, I wondered if Mountjoy was in any sense 'real'; was he in fact a ghost, trapped in the time of his own creation? After noting the by-now pertinent trademarks of the Travis style, I discovered Mountjoy standing alone again, naturally. The denouement left me with a striking image in mind - was Mountjoy erased? Like the story's - and the song's - Eleanor Rigby, did he no longer wear his true face? Was his visage as blank and faceless as the city in which he 'lived'? And is this nothingness the collective face of urban Man?
The Terror and the Tortoiseshell (A Benji Spriteman Story)
The Terror and the Tortoiseshell has all the trappings of a pulp novel, with animals cast as detectives and other stock characters of Films Noir. This is a very welcome light piece, after the darkness of the previous stories, and revels in the smooth talk and one-liners. I enjoyed it thoroughly - this story shows that its author can turn his hand to most styles with excellent results.
Hey Garland, I Dig Your Tweed Coat (Written in collaboration with D F Lewis)
Surreal. Nearly every line is memorable, quote-worthy, bizarre.
'Anything by Garland is worth a sandstorm.' See what I mean?
The Flooding of Mark Wiper
The protagonist of this story builds what is effectively a monument to himself, and not for the usual reasons of self-glorification, rather, self-negation. Mark Wiper's statue is unreal, impersonal, a mausoleum of the self. It has no place in life, even when alive...
This reads like a true story despite its 'fantastic' elements. It reads like a perceptive, painful insight into depression; the bottom line is, in truth, that some unfortunate people cannot stand to live with themselves. Death, the literal opposite of life, is ever-present in this story; once again, John Travis uses fiction to deliver some disturbing truths.
The Wasteland, Eliot's seminal work, might be an influence here. Certainly, it shares the same decor, an associated mise-en-scéne: desolation, futility, the barren land of a deadened human soul.
The imagined crying of the gulls is as devastating as anything from the poet's litany of horrors.
The Other Exhibition
The Other Exhibition made me recall Colin Wilson's observations about some of Gogol's short fiction: '...all is disordered, chaotic; you expect to see donkey's head and flowerpots upside-down in the sky, as in Chagall's painting'. How apt a description this is, when applied to this story. Dali and Magritte make their presence felt too, and the company of such surrealists lends itself to madness, or at least, the travails of our obsessive self-analysis; a hallmark of Travis's work, I think.
This particular story takes its protagonist, and the reader, within and without the framing of our existence, as in Pere Borrell del Caso's Escaping Criticism.
The Arse of Dracula
A throwaway, whimsical piece, funny in parts, with unashamed homage as its genesis. A leftfield story from the author and a neat distraction from its more sinister neighbours.
The Splintered Forest
A splintering of selves, the shattering of identities. On the one hand, John Travis's story; on the other, the memory of earlier tales, of spirits - of the afterlife, the mind, the forest - which seem out of time and place. The kind of 'ghosts' which were once sung of in ballads, I feel in reading this, far distant from contemporary life and its urban legends. This story is an updated Snow White, the original grim tale; motherhood, childhood reign here, and men are superfluous, redundant.
Random Events in the Life of a Victim
A further story which stresses alienation and the attraction/repulsion the necessary company of others incites. A loner, a sociopath, a nihilist - they need others to define themselves; even if those others end up dead. The victims, those nameless names in a newspaper, forgotten and forgettable statistics, are the collateral damage of modern life's neuroses. Mental dislocation defines us all; we are essentially alone amongst millions of others.
It Grows In Your Face
The thought that hair continues to grow after death niggled away at me while reading this. That and the nauseating, remembered images from the film The Fly. Oh, and I could mention the Demon Barber but that is all too graphic and gratuitous for a master like John Travis; he works in more mysterious, subtle ways...
So many of the author's characters are 'innocents' - they wouldn't hurt a fly, so to speak - yet they bring chaos to themselves and others; death too...
It takes a real, bona fide talent to bring out the worst, the most dramatic, from our drab, unromantic age; happily - such an unsuitable word in this case - the author has talent to burn... and dismember... and... then he vanishes, ghostlike, into the grey smoke of our fictional real world.
Reduced to Clear
The hellishness, the hustle and bustle, the accepted chaos of modern life, dominates this story once more. We find ourselves trapped since birth in what is effectively a vast supermarket, marked-out as mere consumers playing in the sandbox of market forces. Yes, this is a mere tale, a simple work of fancy, of fiction, but it is as deep and grave as terminal disease; even the oversweet sugar they add to everything these days can sicken us to a living death. But still, we're obliged to conform; one must partake, even if this means vampirising ourselves...
Beyond The Call of Duty
Small tokens, heavy with hidden meaning... Like Merricat's tokens - the book nailed to the tree, the buried coins - in Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, small sacrifices have their place here (the skin, the nail etc). Each takes on an outsized aspect, tiny in reality but writ large in the mind. The cat too, of course, is cast in a small but important role.
A shut-off world, a secret garden of sorts, that of faith - which is a retreat from harsh reality, after all - and Nature, human nature red in tooth and claw, nevertheless creeping over the boundary of that world. Token lives and deaths...
We return to a secret inner world. A meditation on, and in, the paperweight of the title. The Fantastic Voyage the protagonist embarks upon is, once more, a journey towards himself. Like Huysmans' Des Esseintes, the protagonist closes his doors to the world outside himself. The wonders within the paperweight, the shades and textures he finds so beguiling, are in fact reminiscent of the garish House of Usher; he is lost, truly, in this trompe l'oeil confection. But, with Des Esseintes, he is content to leave real life, and living, behind...
The Mutt Who Knew Too Much (A Benji Spriteman Story)
Another shaggy dog tale, and an entertaining one. Should the author ever tire of writing his brilliant darker stories, there's potential for a proper Benjii Spriteman series, for a career based on writing such tales. One can easily imagine how popular they might become.
He Destroyed His Image
Echoes, perhaps only audible to this reviewer, of The Machinist. Travis has such mastery that even the rare text he types IN CAPITAL LETTERS has a chilling effect beyond the anticipated frissons of 'No Trespassing' and the like - it feels like the reading of headstones...
I'm struck, again, by the inversion of familiar worlds - the commonplace, the workplace - the author conjures. At his whim, the graffiti mentioned in Idle Hands stands revealed as Boschian; here, the graven letters, the 'killer' phrases ('head count') suggest Pointillism bearing the soulless stamp of industrial design.
Betty catalogues her victims like WWI fighter pilots chalked their tallies on the flanks of planes.
This light tale is also dark - it has all the implicit horror of what the police call a 'domestic', a term casting even murder amongst the small-time petty woes of society.
Betty, at her sewing machine, seems to me to be a figure from a Varo painting, sinister and all-knowing. Her men never learn, for all their toilet training...
Dragging the Grate
A puppet theatre of the creative mind - skeletons in the cupboards, the shuttered house inside your head that contains all that has been, all that will be...
We writers walk the killing floor of imagination, of fictive creation, on our way to The Office where our work is finished-off. We lose a little of ourselves each time we create but we gain something too - the company of our ghosts.
Ode to Hermes #54
Drunkeness, insanity, regular descents into the Underworld chasing dubious inspiration and elusive Muses - hey ho, it's all part of the writer's life. Add a dash of absinthe in the guise of Créme de menthe, and you're good to go... mad. Typing exercises, 'write what you know' lectures from the pseudo-intelligentsia, advice from the well-meaning - all worthless and wretched because no-one can write for you. And no-one can write like John Travis; a superb collection from a fine writer who has yet to reach the peak of his powers.