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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

ALBION FAY by Mark Morris -- a review

Albion Fay by Mark Morris – a review by Gary Fry      

I’ve been a fan of Mark Morris’s work since the 1980s and have always admired his delicately balanced combination of clean, evocative writing, headlong storytelling, and realistic characterisation. More than anything else, Morris’s fiction is hugely readable, the prose possessing a hypnotic power which allows the author to achieve genuinely gripping scenes and even moments of high terror.

Morris has written some long books – his debut Toady was a monster – but I’ve always been drawn to his less frequent shorter work, especially the rare story collection Close to the Bone, which was one of my favourites as a youngster. Anyway, when I heard he’d written a new novella I grew excited. The novella is my favourite horror form, and if Morris could deliver here, well, it could be a great experience.

And it was. Albion Fay is a narratively complex, highly suggestive work, with a dark mystery at its core which belies the familiar social mores Morris depicts so well. The story of a family’s holiday and its long-term aftereffects, the novella is narrated by Frank, son of two warring parents and twin brother of Angie, a girl who’ll end up dealing with these domestic tensions in a much more strident way than her sibling (though perhaps with no less psychological devastation).

Our intrigue is aroused from the off, with adult Frank attending a funeral at which he clearly feels uncomfortable. Then the backstory, told from his possibly imperfect point of view, begins to unravel, with many a traditional creepy plot device – spooky old house, caves nearby – which never develop in the way the conditioned horror reader might expect.

And that’s all to the good. Indeed, as Frank – both his younger incarnation and his older fretful persona – relates dreams and impressions, the nature of the Fay – age-old fairies, but not the kind cherished in the collective public consciousness – is slowly revealed, acquiring sinister characteristics and disconcerting motives.

I really liked this refusal on the part of Morris to spoon-feed the reader any interpretations. The whole novella is a kind of Aickmanian enigma, left for us to figure out, with more than enough hinted-at materials to spook and unsettle. The main event turns on what sister Angie experienced one day while exploring those caves alone, but Morris holds his secrets at a tantalising distance, a trick which – among many other things – allows for a creeping, shadow-packed conclusion.

Thus far, all good. However, I did have a slight issue with the book. As I’ve said earlier, one of Morris’s gifts lies in his ability to conjure to the page convincing characters. His people are just like you and me, recognisably embedded in daily life and speaking in the turns of phrases which characterise specific eras (the 70s, 80s and 90s are Morris’s particular speciality). Albion Fay is no exception:  the kids speak like kids, the adults like adults.

But…well, it’s the father, you see. He’s just kind of unfailingly meanspirited. Now, I’m not suggesting that blokes like this don’t exist – Lord knows, having grown up in a similar social bracket to this family, I’ve seen quite enough of his sort – but I do feel as if Morris needed to explore in more detail the reasons for his dishonourable marital and paternal behaviour.

I mean, why did the mother marry him in the first place, let alone bear his children, if he was such an obvious shit? Okay, so maybe he wasn’t always this way, but that doesn’t help us understand what has changed since. Does he really do what he does because – as implied by the text – he doesn’t get much action in the bedroom? Maybe so, but it would have been useful to understand why the wife had grown reticent in that regard.

All in all, this is just a minor strand of the book, but in light of how it ends, I found it an important one. As it stands, this character comes across as a bit of a stereotype and I think the novella deserves more than that.

But don’t let me suggest that this mars the impact of what is a powerfully insidious book. The complex narrative structure is handled with seamless aplomb; the prose is as delicate and evocative as a watercolour painting; and the events stack up with bewildering implications. It’s a sterling performance from one of horror’s most consistent practitioners of spooky, well-written, scary gear. So, required reading, I’d have thought.

The book can be ordered from Spectral Press: https://spectralpress.wordpress.com/2014/12/02/albion-fay-by-mark-morris/

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