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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Dead Letters – edited by Conrad Williams: a review

Dead Letters – edited by Conrad Williams

Review by Gary Fry


This book comes with good pedigree – editor Conrad Williams knows a thing or two about writing himself – and its hook is certainly appealing, a collection of tales focusing mainly on misdirected items of mail. I read the whole thing in linear fashion, presumably as planned, and here’s what I made of it.

Many of the stories share a similar notion, that of a letter or package arriving at a house it wasn’t intended to be sent to. While this leads to some repetition across all the entries, it’s certainly interesting to see how different authors develop the plot point in varied directions.

I have to say that my favourite story here was Ramsey Campbell’s ‘The Wrong Game’. It’s the author at the heights of his powers as a prose stylist, with an extended sequence set in a hotel which displays every trick and literary technique he’s developed over such a long career. By the time we reach the menacing figure lurking at the heart of the piece, so much atmosphere has been evoked that its appearance works wonderfully. That’s one of the secrets of Campbell’s work at its best: accumulation of detail. This is truly a tour de force.

Other tales I admired included Lisa Tuttle’s wonderfully sour love story ‘The Hungry Hotel’, which builds with all the author’s typical mastery and ends with a claustrophobic set-piece that fully resonates with the tale’s theme. Adam Nevill’s ‘The Day of our Lives’ involves quite a different kind of relationship, a much more parasitical one, but has no less unsettling imagery to inflict; some of the hinted-at descriptions of violence which occur linger in the mind, and the piece has all the grubby qualities of an old English movie, set in rundown towns among the mentally unsettled.

Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘Over To You’ is one of the author’s suggestively weird pieces, its reflexive central character growing increasingly bewildered by subtle role inversions. Those well-versed in the genre all know about this first-person narrator – it’s one to which MMS returns again and again – but that’s no bad thing: if you have such a great voice, use it that way.

In Joanne Harris’s ‘In Memoriam’, memories acquire a concrete presence in the form of pesky moths, a telling metaphor in a tale packed full of the past’s capacity to haunt. The last few lines elevate this pungent piece, making it one of the punchiest ghost stories I’ve read in a long while. Nicholas Royle’s ‘L0ND0N’ documents what was undoubtedly a tragic recent event in the independent literary community, all wedded to fiction as multi-layered and enigmatic as anything the author has achieved in the past. Its psycho-geographies and displaced imagery build to a genuinely weird conclusion, one which will reward a reread or even several.

Another firm favourite was Nina Allan’s wonderfully elusive ‘Astray’, a story about missing siblings and those who are left behind. It’s a delicate piece, with parallel cases explored in pitch-perfect, non-chronological order, all of which makes the closing passages the more resonant. This is more excellent work from one of the finest newer writers in our field.

Steven Hall’s ‘The Green Letter’ attempted something different in terms of its telling – successfully so, I think – while Alison Moore’s deceptively brief ‘Ausland’ details the adventures of a particular voyager with more impact than its weight might lead you to expect. I also enjoyed both Claire Dean’s delicate ‘Is-And’ – so quiet that you have to listen very carefully – and Muriel Gray’s more robust ‘Gone Away’, with its similar interloping source of menace.

A few tales in the book didn’t strike me as effective (although I sincerely didn’t dislike any). A sucker for Mythos fiction, I think I’d hoped for a little more punch from Andrew Lane’s cleanly written ‘Buyer’s Remorse’, while Christopher Fowler’s invasion tale (‘Wonders to Come’) was quite heavy on technical detail and shoptalk (punchy ending, though).

In total, this is a very strong anthology with an interesting hook, and the editor has brought together a varied collection of fiction concerned with such themes as loss, communication, the past, other people, and history. I can hardly resist calling a book about the mail first class. But at its best, that’s just what it is, and I heartily recommend it.



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