Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Cranes That Build the Cranes

Jeremy Dyson is best known as one of the comedy team The League of Gentlemen, who some produced brilliant radio and TV series. He is also co-writer of the dark comedy Psychoville*. Dyson is somewhat less well-known as an author, but he has short story collections and a novel, What Happens Now, under his belt. 

The Cranes That Build the Cranes (2009) is his second collection, and the reviews quoted on the cover liken the contents to the work of Saki, Iain McEwen, and Roald Dahl. That's an interesting range of heavy hitters, and gives some idea of the darkness and intelligence to be found within. Of the nine stories, all might be termed weird tales, and most have an element of the supernatural. I found it an uneven collection, but readable and remarkably varied, despite a marked absence of cranes.

For instance, the traditional ghost story, 'Out of Bounds', does indeed belong to the Dahl tradition of the nasty twist. But one might also point out that it's the sort of thing H.R. Wakefield did rather well - setting up a shock in a relatively short tale with a handful of characters. In this case the set up is a boarding school where three boys - one a bully, one easygoing, one an overweight victim - are left during the holidays. It's a simple story but manages to deliver a genuine frisson of old-school spookery.

'Michael' is another tale of a youngster confronting the supernatural, but this time it is a disturbed, self-harming adolescent. Again, a bullied boy is driven to the margins of the everyday in a bid to escape school and home, both equally unbearable. In the countryside he thinks he has found an island of solitude, but then he encounters a mysterious girl who poses a disturbing challenge. This is a subtle horror story that reminds you how it can be done - no blood and guts, but plenty of detail and atmosphere in a carefully-controlled narrative.

Altogether different and more ambitious is 'Yani' Day'. This asks the familiar question: 'What happens if a regular guy gets superpowers?' and puts a very British spin on it. Suffice to say that when a boring, friendless bookshop employee acquires the ability to kill anyone he likes, the result is not hugs and puppies. The overall feel of the story is nightmarish, for all that it's written in a realistic, almost anecdotal style. Dyson is an admirer of Aickman and this shows in the way he blends the utterly bizarre with the very mundane.

The power conferred by money and the callousness this often brings feature in several tales, not all of them supernatural. 'The Bear' sees what we used to call a yuppie seek out an unusual costume for a party that may be vital to his career. In a very Dahlian (Dahlesque?) fashion, he makes the basic error of going to a little shop run by an eccentric old gentleman, and then compounds his mistake by pissing said shopkeeper off. No spoilers, but I wasn't expecting the ending. It's a bit 'Twilight Zone' and all the better for it.

'The Coué' is somewhat reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's story 'The Jar', but instead of the latter's small-town carnival exoticism we are once again in the world of modern British grottiness - it's all 'dirty concrete and breezeblocks'. The plot concerns a dealer who specialises in obtaining unusual items. These curios are not the sort of thing you see on Bargain Hunt. If you know what a Hand of Glory is, you've got the general idea. Suffice to say that our hero does obtain the eponymous item for a client, and wackiness ensues.

Well, that's my take on The Cranes that Build the Cranes. It's the first book by Jeremy Dyson that I've read, but I doubt that it will be the last. Anyone expecting overt comedy will be disappointed, but there's enough grim wit here to keep the average fan or indeed resident of Psychoville turning the pages.

*I am totally wrong about this. See comment below.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Thanks for the review - we seem to have pretty much the same take on THE CRANES THAT BUILD THE CRANES. I'd recommend it, and Dyson's other fiction, to all readers of the blog.

Pedant's addendum: I believe PSYCHOVILLE was the unaided work of fellow LoG alumni Reece Shearsmith & Steve Pemberton.