Latest news: my new book -- the novella MENACE -- is available now!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Spooky music by John Stones

A very old friend of mine -- a composer called John Stones -- recently read my novel CONJURE HOUSE and felt inspired enough to write a short, moody piece of music based on it. I've used this as the basis of an equally moody promo film for the book. We'd both be pleased if you'd take a look.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Spectral Book of Horror Stories -- review by Gary Fry


Edited by Mark Morris


Review by Gary Fry
We all love a good horror anthology, don’t we? Yeah, sure we do. Those of us old enough to recall the great days of horror – 70s and 80s – will fondly recall thumbing through gaudy paperbacks, seeking tales of decapitation and swimming pools full of acid. Such tales “got there first”, imprinting the genre on our juvenile minds the way goslings follow mother-goose. Flashbulb memories, right? That is, shattering flashbulbs, whose fragments violated our eyes, rendering the world henceforward splintered and edgy.
So much for waxing lyrical. All of this is a preamble to a review of an anthology that seeks to reinvest the field with some of this gaudy darkness, those stomach-pit frissons. And who better, I ask you, than Mark Morris to bring it together? More than anyone I know, Morris celebrates the joy of youthful encounters with speculative fiction. He’ll basically kill you if you say a word out of place about Dr Who. And why the hell not? We all have our passions, and what’s a passion if not for singing (screaming?) loudly about?
Anyway, this is where this book is coming from, a collection of the great and the good, the new and more senior scribes currently at work in the genre. So let’s see how the editor and his able accomplices did, shall we? Can they give me that peerless rush I experienced while reading so many gruesome tales as a lad? Here goes, one tale at a time…
It’s no secret that I’m one of Campbell’s biggest fans, but I’m no apologist. I never find his work less than interesting, but have reviewed anthos in the past in which I’ve found stories by other authors as effective. So it goes. But on this form, there’s nobody like him. Another of his tales of “the comedy of paranoia”, this one elucidates the experience of mental disintegration in all its common absurdity. Like the work of R D Laing, it shows how easy it is to lapse into egocentric thinking. There’s a bit of the central character in all of us, I’d wager, and that’s what literature is about: identifying such behaviour, making sense of it. Hilarious and painful, and more importantly, a brilliant start to the book.

A canine tale of terror and a cuttingly cruel one. Littlewood taps into the dynamics of familial tensions, involving miserable maiden aunts and their common misanthropic love of dogs. You’ll start out think it’s one character who’s the villain but you’ll be wrong. Quite a nasty ending, but it rings right.
A wonderfully aloof tale, with a spinsterish prude taking lodgings in the home of a vulnerable landlady. Again, there is sleight of hand here, with those characters you initially consider harmless taking on sinister undercurrents as things develop. The prose is Rendellian, with many a deft insight into human relations (for instance, being simultaneously drawn to and repulsed from others), and the ending is a Sartrian nightmare. Powerful story.
Sorry, guys, didn’t quite get this one. It’s short and punchy, but I fear its point was lost on me. If I’m missing something, forgive me.
A fine depiction of incipient old age. Tem’s slippery prose slips back and forth, from past to present, inside and outside, elucidating a chilling portrait of a “creature” that will surely one day haunt us all. I enjoyed this one a lot.
One of McMahon’s recurring motifs: punitive parents haunting their offspring way beyond the sell-by-date of childhood. There’s a scene involving two backseat passengers that chills deep down, and I did wonder whether the author might have ended the tale there. There are more passages at the end, which, for me, might have been cut, but that doesn’t mean they should be for you. We’re all different. Overall, though, a pungent piece.
A great traditional tale in the Oliver mode, drawing on either actual or convincingly invented history to spin a sinuous yarn. This one involves witches and magic, with the events effectively depicted by the distancing narrative of ye olde English. Maybe the introducer could have returned at the end, to round things up, but a minor matter. Oliver is as witty and arch as ever.
Really loved this literary, delicate and insidious story. I can imagine a lot of trad horrorheads asking what it’s doing in a Pan-style book, but they’d be wrong. It has all the tropes of a classic tale of terror and its quietness is a just a scream that never reached the mouth. Chilling last line.
Shearman writes so slickly that the reader is carried effortlessly along, whatever the subject matter. In some writers, that can conceal an absence of substance or a deficiency in plot, but I’ve yet to come across a Shearman tale which didn’t interest me or stir me or even shock me. There are some images in this story that get right to the gut, and that’s just the job in such a collection. Good stuff.
Williams documents the trials of learning a craft with almost obsessive attention to detail. As a musician myself, I understand the complexities of all those fucking chords and how, even though Clapton just stands there smiling, your fingers can end up in spaghetti plaits while fingering only a C. The story itself? Well, it relies on a clever allusiveness that may be lost on some, but I rather enjoyed it. It has the usual busyness of Williams’s prose, the masterful craftsmanship in literary mode he wittily bemoans about music in the tale.
I felt this was quite a slight offering from Smith, certainly by his usual high standards. There’s nothing here to dislike, but it just didn’t feel weighty to me.
Had a lot of fun with this one. Hodge’s depiction of an artist taking a review literally is quite merciless, but then becomes something rather more sinister, as some dark force is unleashed and lingers beyond the final page. The distancing effect achieved by using an on-looking narrator adds impact, a vision of insanity or something worse than that through a lens of logical reason. Solid piece.
This is the kind of story E F Benson might have written for the anthology. The tale of an ambiguously benevolent femme fatale, it raises questions about the personal and the collective, about whether what’s good for the person is good for the world, and vice versa. Compelling.
Another tale I simply “didn’t get”. Its strange language and brief events were kind of lost on me. If I’m missing something, please let me know.
A superb story of dark American shenanigans, with witchy, satanic episodes and a descent into uncivilised territory. Of particular note for me was the tale’s clever structure, the way Youers knew exactly how to pace the piece and reveal key confessional material with a variety of narrative techniques. I enjoyed the hell out of this one.
Another of Probert’s fun tales of officialdom in the form of some door-knocking rep bearing a clipboard and a bunch of unusual requests. I guess this is the book’s token comic tale (you know, like the golfing episode in Dead of Night), but I think Probert has done better elsewhere. I’d have encouraged him to submit one of his usual nasty body-horror delights.
Tuttle rarely disappoints and this compelling story of truth and reality – a tad Lynchian – certainly entertained me. Its LA setting and wry Britisher bewilderment only added to the appeal. Great last few lines.
And how about a touch of the enigmatic? Better ask Royle to contribute then. And contribute he has! This is a wonderful story, weirdly comic and then viciously serious. Its domestic scenes, daily events and rooting among a home’s common detritus, are set aside images of…oh God, just read it. It goes bone-deep.
OK, other than the Marshall, the Moore, the Youers and the Royle, Campbell’s tale reigns supreme here…but what’s this? A novella by Volk, you say? Right let’s give it a go, then... And hell, if the author doesn’t turn in a tale to equal any of those just mentioned. It starts out a tad tame, just a soap opera depiction of domestic life in the 70s, with a nuclear family engaged in all their usual quirks and tensions. But then, with the introduction of the outré element, it deepens into something quite compelling, a story positively thrumming with interpretative possibilities. Volk’s prose here is disarmingly giddy and homely, loaded with common working class phrasing and many a casual cliché. But that’s all deliberate, you see. He’s trying to make this seem like your life, dear reader – the one you enjoyed (if “enjoyed” is the right word) when you were a kid, when daily anxieties induced you to turn to the dark… In short, this is a fitting ending to a book that seeks to recapture the pleasures of that period of life, eight years old (or thereabouts), with all the evils of the world awaiting you…and nothing to save you from the explosive night.
And so there we have – the whole book. How did Morris do, in this, his first editorial outing as custodian of dark nostalgia? I’d say it was as good as any antho I’ve read in a while. Of course every book like this has its strong and weaker parts, and hell, some of these can be ascribed to personal taste (some folk might love the Fletcher and Laws, for instance). For me, the collection has six world class stories (Campbell, Marshall, Moore, Youers, Royle and Volk), a bunch of great ones, and the rest are rarely without interest. That makes it a really worthy book, in my view, and no fan of our beloved genre should hesitate to grab a copy.


Friday, July 4, 2014

Silent Voices by Gary McMahon -- a review

Silent Voices (Concrete Grove part 2) by Gary McMahon            

A review by Gary Fry

The first entry in the Concrete Grove series is a pretty strong book, including one multi-strand set-piece that’s among the best things I’ve read in the genre for a long time. So I came to the next of the trilogy with high hopes for more of the harrowingly real stuff.

Silent Voices is, however, quite a different novel from the first. It’s quieter, more restrained, and takes its time to yield its qualities. We’re familiar with the set-up, reminiscent of King’s It. Adults (three guys) revisiting a childhood grief; it’s as much about biographical detail and character development as horror events, of which, in the early stages, there are few. But the three leads are so well-drawn, you won’t worry about that, even if you are a plot-seeker.

I sense McMahon exploring some biographical material in this book, particularly in the character of Marty; his “incandescent” rage has a whiff of lived experience about it, a no-bullshit tone it’s probably impossible to fake. That’s always been the strength of McMahon’s work at its best; it bleeds passionate involvement in life, the powerful and often violent frustration that arises when what should be good times (being rich, dating a model, being a family man, etc) are blighted by corrosive memories which “get in the way”.

That’s basically what this book is about. The story leads back to the concrete grove, including an episode in the Needle (a venue at the heart of the area) in which lots of metaphysical episodes occur, instinctive depictions of character rendered metaphorical and delineated in tangible symbolism. These are complex intuitions, and I’m not sure a reviewer can rationally unpick them when the author himself seems to be relying on nous, gut feeling, a “feels right” chain of imagery and turns of phrase. All I can say is that it all works well and is memorable, so there’s certainly more to this book than mere horror-y frights. Captain Clickety (those many masks) and the Underthing gain power from such thematic resonance and strong characterisation. It’s all damned good gear.

On a more prosaic level, the book possesses richness in terms of sense of place and minor character. McMahon isn’t content with just sketching in a pencil background for his folk to move through; he adds copious detail, making venues come alive. Although a ruthless, market-oriented editor might have asked him to cut a sequence involving a guy (Simon) going to a café (“Why do we need to know what’s on the table, for God’s sake? Cut those lines about the fucking sugar bowl, for Christ’s sake!”), that editor is a fool. It’s stuff like this which give the book its lived dimension, contributing accumulatively and inexorably to those effective final scenes. Similarly the little observations of people in their daily milieu – the barmaid singing along to a jukebox, the bored-looking waitress with vacant eyes, et al. This is, like, verisimilitude, man, and sets the author apart from those who care merely and more about event.

Event is important, of course, and Silent Voices doesn’t welsh on that. While some may think a lot of the book is set-up (and in a way, it is), it’s the quality of character delineation that shines through, keeps you reading. I had an issue with one character – Brendan’s wife – late on in the book. !!!SPOILER HERE!!! She’d been sending Simon loads of info about the grove, and yet in hospital with her sick son, she wishes he’d never come back there. Well, you know, she was partly responsible for that. !!!SPOILER OVER!!! But on the whole, the people in the novel were its finest quality, especially Marty, whose soul positively stains the book’s paper.

All in all, this is a fine second entry in an ambitious trilogy and I certainly look forward to the third. When McMahon parties in his native north, he’s hard to beat.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Bones of You by Gary McMahon -- a review

The Bones of You by Gary McMahon
Review by Gary Fry

The superb cover of this book reminded me of the recent film Sinister, which is a real favourite of mine, and so I greatly looked forward to something of similar persuasion. Here we have a male narrator, whose life is troubled, and who moves into a new home to start a new life. It’s a familiar narrative technique, allowing us to join him at this existential juncture and see how it all goes. But it isn’t going to go well; we all know that. This is a horror novel.

McMahon spends the opening half of the book lining up all his dominoes, bringing them tumbling down in the second half. There are great descriptions of working, recreational and interpersonal life. The author has a real gift for documenting the minutiae of everyday life, the nuanced tensions arising between people, private concerns conveyed by body language, etc. It lends the outré proceedings a convincing backdrop.

I really liked the way the darker events were hinted at, building slowly and intriguingly. And while the bogeyman (well, in this case, bogeywoman) is kept offstage for much of the book, there’s enough suggestive material to hold the reader’s interest. I guessed at some plot events, but was surprised by others. That’s the way it should be when an experienced reader meets a tricksy writer.

The finale is suitably grisly, involving – NO spoilers here – an abandoned house and folk rather less than dead. If I had one complaint about this, it was that the “purpose” of the “villains” was rather hackneyed, but that’s only a minor issue. McMahon seems less interested with the mechanics of plot and invention of new tropes than with delineating character and their interactions, using horror themes as way of exploring them, like strips of litmus paper dipped in the genre’s acid. And on this point he’s always superb.

This short novel’s greatest strength is the voice of the narrator. Educated, world-weary, by turns poetic, it lends the story a real depth and detail. We get to know every aspect of his troubled life, his hopes, regrets and struggles. McMahon’s prose is addictive. It’s rhythmic, chatty and pared to the bone. I tore through this book in less than a day, and that was why. Coupled with a thoroughly satisfying mystery and a sinister conclusion, we have a fine, lean horror novel, maybe the best kind there are. I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Best British Horror 2014 edited by Johnny Mains -- a review

Best British Horror 2014 edited by Johnny Mains

Review by Gary Fry

I have a story in this book, but I’m going to review it anyway. I was intrigued by what new kid on the block Johnny Mains would do with the Best-Of format, and am delighted to report that I was impressed. Knowing what I know about the guy, I expected stories from the harder hitting side of the genre – the gory, the brutal, the monstrous. But no, here we have a very varied collection of fiction from a wide range of publications, as many that are subtle and suggestive as the alternative. Let me take each tale one at a time.

Opener “When Charlie Sleeps” by Laura Munro is rich in allegorical possibilities, with the suggestively named Charlie a small creature existing in the bathtub of a rundown haven for women on the run. Its tawdry London setting forms a suitable background for this pungent tale, whose private events penetrate the macro situation, with hints about the personal having wider implications.

In “Exploding Raphaelesque Heads” by Ian Hunter we have a body-horror story of the first order, with one of the most stomach-clenching sequence of brutal images I’ve read in some time. Punchy, doesn’t outstay its welcome, and finishes on a suitably sour note.

Anna Taborska’s gaudy “The Bloody Tower” is fun to read, with some twisty-turny plotting and riotous events. So many things happen that it feels like a novella and that’s a good thing.

Ramsey Campbell again demonstrates his remarkable range of invention and literary methods in “Behind the Doors”, another of his ruthless depictions of a man’s mind coming to pieces over some ostensibly harmless event or object – in this case, an Advent Calendar. I particularly loved the digital figures on the alarm clock, just another example of how the author brings to sinister life to stuff we all see on a daily (well, nightly) basis. The story ends on a note of deep pathos.

“The Secondary Host” by very typical of John L Probert, with B-movie imagery and educated protagonists inhabiting some distant place and turning it all inside out. Its brutal finale is memorable in that broad-brush, gruesome way I’ve come to inspect from the author, and the prose, as ever, purrs.

Muriel Gray’s “The Garscube Creative Writing Cube” is a flippant piece of fiction with an unlikeable character doing what those kind of guys do. The final scenes are predictable, but no less impactful for that.

Then there’s my story, about which I’ll say nowt.

“The Doll’s Hands” is another of Adam Nevill’s weird urban landscapes, with the reader put inside the head of some deranged, malformed entity. Very weird, but never less than powerful, and the accumulative effect of having the “people” here described in piecemeal fashion gets stronger by the page.

Thana Niveau’s “The Guinea Pig Girl” is a brilliant attempt to transfer unpleasant cinematic imagery into prose. The author achieves this by clever choice of detail (for example, the thing at the end responding to a tapping on the floor) and a cool style of writing which remains clean while the events get redder and redder. A highlight.

The title of Elizabeth Stott’s “Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers” is evocative enough, but married to such a chilly tale, rich in metaphor, we get the whole package. I found this relationship story powerful and complex – another highlight of the book.

Kate Farrell’s “Dad Dancing” is enjoyable enough, with some nicely judged humour and Amisian dialogue. But I’m not sure it did enough that was new to make it a favourite of mine.

Similarly perhaps, Stephen Volk’s decidedly unpalatable “The Arse-Licker” is, ahem, an acquired taste. Not my kind of thing, but some of the prose was great. Its ending seems to transcend the unpleasant events earlier, becoming some kind of metaphor for modern business mentality.

Talking of prose, Tanith Lee offers the most exotic writing in the book. “Doll Ra Me” is an enjoyable read, whose inclusion here is understood, even though the plot did little for me. A prose-poem, perhaps.

D. P. Watt’s “Laudate Dominum” impressed me with its casually artful prose and antiquarian adventure. It had an air of Dahl’s “The Landlady” about it, with some suitably grotesque organic imagery. Good tale.

In Marie O’Regan’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” we get the traditional ghost story, which of course every representative collection of horror must have. And this was a thoroughly respectable entry, nicely done and heartfelt.

“Namesake” by V. H. Leslie was another surreal relationship story, a spiritual companion to the Stott and no less enjoyable. Its imagery was pungent and evocative.

Another highlight of the book for me was Reggie Oliver’s superbly delicate “Come into my Parlour”, a story with all the suggestive power of an M. R. James story. Those last lines are brilliant and transform a carefully orchestrated sequence of events into something special. Quite wonderful.

Mark Morris’s “The Red Door” does what I’ve seen this author do many times before, finding an image so weird and ostensibly nonsensical that it seems to make absolute psychological sense in context. Its overall effect is reminiscent of some of the stuff in the author’s hard-to-acquire first collection CLOSE TO THE BONE.

“The Author of the Death” by Michael Marshall Smith is the anthology’s meta-narrative, with suitable allusions to Derrida et al, and a characteristically casual yet unsettingly offbeat depiction of characters who are exactly that. It has Amisian fun with the literary process. Made me smile – several times.

Now then, here for me is the book’s finest tale: “The Magician Kelso Dennett”. A truly brilliant piece of stagecraftery and power, with a final segment which drives the whole story deep down. I was hypnotised. Volk is a great writer of prose and not just dialogue (which we’d expect, natch).

Robert Shearman’s “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” is the compelling story of two siblings and their decidedly perverted childhood ritual shifted into adulthood. The author’s chatty, omniscient narrative is perfectly suited to this material, with a chilling last few lines. Fine piece.

The book ends with a heartfelt tribute to Joel Lane from Simon Bestwick and then a story by the great, much-missed author. A nice touch from Mains.

So how did the new kid do? Very well, I’d say. I was most impressed by the very representative range of horror on display here. I defy other readers to identify a single subgenre missing. That’s not easy to achieve and must have taken a lot of reading. But the efforts have borne baaad fruit, and what we have here is a nicely rounded chronicle of horror this year, with a number of genuinely classic tales. Not much more for the fans to ask for, is there?

UK? Buy here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Best-British-Horror-Johnny-Mains/dp/1907773649/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1403118234&sr=8-1&keywords=best+british+horror

US? Buy here: http://www.amazon.com/Best-British-Horror-Johnny-Mains/dp/1907773649/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1403118275&sr=1-1-spell

Sunday, May 18, 2014

DARK FATHER by James Cooper -- a review

Dark Father by James Cooper -- a review by Gary Fry

For me, novels are a bit like football matches. I consume plenty, and on the whole they're entertaining, with the occasional stinker along the way. But once in a while a real classic comes along, and that's what keeps me watching/reading. It's like the variable reinforcement of gambling, and it's worth ploughing through the merely good to get to the likes of, say, Germany/England 2001, or Stephen King's Misery.
This is all a clumsy way of saying that I recently read a book that I consider (to mix metaphors) one of those treasures, those jewels. I'm referring to James Cooper's Dark Father, a novel about to be released by US outfit DarkFuse. Now, I know James personally, have shared beer and curry with him, and I guess that might make some think I lack objectivity in this review. But believe me, simply reading the novel will quickly dispel any such concerns. It grips from the get-go and doesn't let up.
It's essentially three stories running in parallel, and your task as the reader is a) to piece them together; and b) to endure their savage episodes. The book is certainly dark, often brutal, and yet golden-threaded by an earnest line in characterisation. The characters are tender, bruised, realistic. The common theme of each tale is abusive men, with the women and children in their lives fighting for survival. It's so grippingly near the knuckle, the book remains clamped in your hands.
I needn't go into the plot, the three story strands. I think that's a boring way of reviewing a book. All I will say is that it's more than compelling trying to figure out how these narratives come together at the end. Meanwhile, you'll be hooked by great set-pieces, including a torture scene in a stable, a recurrent psychiatric transcript, a kidnapping, a deeply troubling extended sequence involving red paint, and much more. This is truly dig-beneath-the-bone disturbing; it gave me a feeling similar to Michael Haneke's Funny Games (without the postmodern tricks). At one point, I felt as if every character couldn't be trusted, a paranoiac and punishing effect.
In short, I loved this very real and personal book. It does what the best dark fiction should do: conjure terror from plausible episodes, from characterisation that rings true. That's harder to achieve than many might appreciate, but there's no danger here -- or rather, plenty of the stuff. Once you start, I'm convinced that you won't end until James did. A great, great book.
UK readers: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dark-Father-James-Cooper-ebook/dp/B00IRJ0PM4
US readers: http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Father-James-Cooper-ebook/dp/B00IRJ0PM4

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Pretence by Ramsey Campbell -- REVIEW

The Pretence by Ramsey Campbell

A review by Gary Fry

Back in the 1960s, the American sociologist Erving Goffman published a number of books that demonstrated just how constructed everyday life is, how common encounters with other people and the social world around us involves strategic monitoring of behaviour, tacit knowledge of cultural rules, and appropriate presentations of selfhood.

Of course Goffman was only “quantifying” / theorising what sensitive people throughout history have always believed – that human existence is an invention enacted on the hoof, almost like in a stage-play. Here’s some geezer called Shakespeare, back before we modern folk got a handle on all this stuff:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts […]

Etc, etc.

And so it’s no secret that everyday life is all a bit of an illusion, brought into being by common purpose and mutually convenient consensus. It’s a bit scary when you think about it. You, me and everything around us are lent meaning only because we conspire together during social engagement to make it so. Scary, yes, but not particularly surprising.

Ah, but wait a moment. What if more than that was at risk? What if the very nature of being had the same inherent instability? Well, now we’re getting into more troubling territory. Because you see, in this scenario, not only does society potentially not exist in any organic fashion, but everything does. The mountains around us, music, our families, language – just chemicals and atoms. What do you think? A scarier prospect?

This seems to be the focus of Ramsey Campbell’s latest novella. I say “seems” because with Campbell, nothing is quite transparent, which of course makes for decidedly more satisfying unsettling fiction. There are hints that the experiences, er, experienced by lead character (Derek) Paul Slater are symptoms of the State in which he lives. He’s interrogated by immigration officers, the police, his boss; he believes and timidly insists that he’s more than just an accumulation of demographic facts – isn’t he? Yes, that has to be true: after all, he feels most alive when in the company of his family, his charming wife and two children, or while listening to the original version of Beethoven’s symphony number 6, “The Pastoral”. But as an endless sequence of troubling perceptions involving erasure, blankness, decomposition burden his life, Slater begins to tacitly question the nature and structure of his world.

This is a Campbell novella, and so expect the usual delicate language, the “conspiracy-theory” anagrams, the inexorable accumulation of detail, the ineffably disturbed ancestral background (possibly even the origin of Slater’s experiences). Like his work in The Kind Folk, Campbell cranks up the hallucinatory prose, offering subtle distortions of daily events with relentless defamiliarising descriptions. For example, putting butter on toast actually renders the piece of bread utterly blank. Switching on windscreen wipers brings a world back to life that was previously in danger of becoming nothing at all. The loss of sight from a mountaintop of a distant motorway leaves its onlookers detached from the security of the social, from consensual reality. These and many other common experiences are persistently transformed into threats of negation, of the imminent dissolution of the fabric of existence.

I’ve often thought music the most resilient of the arts. By which I mean, painting can be ineradicably bastardised by the visual media, mangled beyond recognition (the Mona Lisa improves her smile to sell toffees). Similarly, language in the form of great works of fiction has the same vulnerability to postmodern assimilation (when Oliver asks for more, he could be asking for anything – hell, make it toffees again). But music – ah, like a butterfly fluttering across some battlefield, it’s not so easy to capture. Its inherent elusiveness – no imagery or words to grapple with – defies easy corruption. While any fool can wield a paintbrush or a pen, music has its unique demands and remains the domain of human expertise.

Now, I have no idea if Campbell meant it this way – The Pretence is a work of art, and not a textbook, folks – but for me, the choice of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky et al as representatives of human expressions of chemical reality is quite telling. Composing is the mode of creativity both closest to our hearts and furthest from our minds, the hardest to dispel, to “explain away”, to quantify. And so Slater’s struggle to sensibly arrange composers’ CDs in the shop in which he works is like the scientist’s battle with the quantum nature of being, the way it evades categorical definition. He’s told to play music in the store that will please its customers and not necessarily educate them. At home, he watches another work of art made from these works of art – Disney’s Fantasia – and this feeds into his ongoing perception of the world, as all art should, whether original or sensitively adapted (ballet, film, etc). By contrast, the decontextualised derivations of ringtones and commercial jingles (just the tune, just the “good bits”) are persistent irritations – if you will, mounted butterflies.

Basically, I think, (Derek) Paul Slater is, in part, occupying Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, the mass mediation of social referents. But as I implied earlier, with Campbell, there’s something else at play. Not only a fundamental instability in society, but also in the organic cosmos. Reading him makes you feel not only dislocated from everyday life, but also from the chemical tissue that constitutes you and everything around you, whether manmade or natural. He makes you feel like everything might dissolve in a heartbeat.

I suspect I’ll need to read this book another few times to deal with all its delicate complexities (I ask myself what is the significance of the two cars, an Astra and a Viva – both sound stellar, somehow…). What I offer here is a range of thoughts jotted down while reading, in the hope of stimulating you, dear review-reader, to grab a copy and see what you make of the whole, enigmatic affair. You’ll find familiar Campbell themes here: troubles with highly organised daily life (technology is always a big one, the Dark Grinning); visits to schools to see the children perform (see Midnight Sun for similar); a majestic finale on a mountaintop (The Long Lost?). But you’ll also find a completely new weirdness, a command of craft, a refusal to be transparent, and a challenge to those lamebrains who simply enjoy a “good tale, well told.”

Hey, try this instead, losers: it’s a great mystery, artfully narrated.