Thursday, 23 March 2023

THE FACES AT YOUR SHOULDER by Steve Duffy (Sarob Press 2023)


Excellent cover illustration by Paul Lowe

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher and am an old friend of the author.  This review contains a few spoilers.

In this introduction, Steve Duffy points out that the novelette - there are six here - offers the author a chance to build atmosphere and develop characters in a way shorter tales do not. He also concedes that M.R. James didn't need the long run-up but (rightly, I think) sees this as a mark of the man's brilliance. Whatever your view, though, this book is certainly substantial. Here are half a dozen strange worlds in capsule form. They all resemble our own a little too closely for comfort. 

'The Oram County Whoosit' is set in the 1920s and concerns one of those splendidly Fortean oddities, a creature found inside a lump of coal. The narrator is a young press photographer, but the tale's hero is older - a reporter combining elements of Ambrose Bierce (no slouch at a tale of horror), Jack London (there's a backstory about the Yukon gold rush), and possibly Fort himself. The Whoosit is the title is initially thought to be an oddity that will bring fame and fortune to its finder, a coal miner in a small town. But it turns out to be less than co-operative.

The story has the characteristic Duffy qualities of solid characterisation and period detail. Small-town America has arguably supplanted the Gothic castle or English country house as the most likely place for weird stuff to go down. And this one doesn't disappoint - the gradual revelation of a distinctly Lovecraftian situation gives it all a Stephen King feel, without ever tipping into pastiche.

'The Soul is a Bird' is set in the US during roughly the same era - between the wars, a giddy, gilded age of social upheaval, and the birth of modern celebrity culture. A 'mom and pop' diner on the Califorinia coast is the setting for a strange confrontation between what two American dreams. One is conventional, all about honesty, love, and courage, with a hard-working, sensible couple just trying to get by. The other American dream is embodied in a couple of villains and a Hollywood star who roll up in a big yellow Dusenberg. 

The story begins gently but gradually escalates as the excitement of having a genuine movie star in the diner is replaced by fear when it becomes apparent that something is wrong. I was slightly reminded of Fritz Leiber's story 'The Girl With Hungry Eyes' though here the situation is reversed - the supposed siren is the victim. The climax carries us from weird violence to an even weirder disappearance, which is reminiscent of key scenes in the previous tale. Oh, and there's a parakeet. 

'In the Days Before the Monsters' is a cautionary tale par excellence. Steve Duffy's knack for combining the esoteric with the mundane is to the fore as he traces the origins of a sudden dinosaur infestation in London. This recalls a Doctor Who adventure from the Seventies - cunningly entitled 'Invasion of the DInosaurs' - but instead of sci-fi gizmos, it's all down to a mysterious black stone that grants wishes. There's a fine X-Files episode about the problem of wish-granting things/persons, because we all know it never works out. But, of course, if we had our chance we'd give it a try, wouldn't we?

The story is rich in detail with a slight whiff of Indiana Jones gone wrong. The stone is kept in an ark by an order of monks. This is de rigeur of course, but does raise the question, why not just chuck it in the sea? Or bury it somewhere and not make a map? But that would spoil the story and of course evil objects do have a way of being found despite the best efforts of men to lose them. Anyway, the stone (and its mysterious attendants, who recalled to your humble reader Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan for some reason) end up in the hands of a small boy. Hence, dinosaurs.

We're whisked back into the past and back to the US of A for 'The Psychomanteum', an excellent title and a fascinating concept. Victorian spiritualists thought sitting in a darkened room with mirrors helped bring one closer to those who had 'passed over'. But in this case, things are more complicated. It's 1942 and a family are forced to make a long road trip from Baltimore to the Deep South. Uncle Beau, fighting in the Philippines, is attempting to get in touch. His sister, a faded southern belle who married beneath her, is desperate to use the psychomanteum she and Beau built as youngsters.

The story is set at Christmas but there is nothing merry going on here. The tumbledown plantation house, the hideous legacy of slavery, and the decadence of the old Southern 'gentry' are the backdrop to a hideous revelation. The tone is cool, making the horror all the more effective. There is nothing visceral here, but what the boy finds at the heart of the psychomanteum is truly haunting and has a crazy Gothic credibility.

'The Lion's Den' was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. It's the story of a zookeeper, in the modern sense i.e. someone who spends a lot of time watching CCTV for signs of trouble among the people, not the animals. One day, however, the narrator is not fast enough and a young man climbs into the eponymous enclosure. But what happens next is the opposite of the gory denouement the reader - well, this one - was expecting. 

The story is enigmatic, strange, and a bit reminiscent of Machen's 'The Terror'. The author notes that it was partly inspired by elephants rebelling against their captors/tormentors. However, the situation in a zoo in an unnamed provincial city is not exactly one of rebellion, and all the animals are affected. The sense of something ominous, wondrous, and world-changing getting underway is powerfully conveyed.

'Futureboro', the final novelette, rounds things off nicely with a tale of the past - and the future that people once dreamed of. The eponymous miniature town is an exhibit at the New York World's Fair, which was held in 1939. Futureboro is a kind of mechanized diorama, with miniature commuters whizzing around between homes, workplaces, and the baseball stadium. Visitors stand around the edge of a domed enclosure and observe the amazing planned community via those coin-slot binoculars. 

Everything seems hunky-dory at first, but as time passes, things start to go wrong with Futureboro. Violence breaks out, graffiti recalls the political extremes seen in Europe, and nobody can figure out who is to blame. The narrator's mentor, a sensible old engineer, has a few theories. Then, as war breaks out across the Atlantic, Futureboro meets a grim fate. Is this a horror story? Yes, but one rooted in the gap between aspirations for a brighter future and the bloody reality of history.

A book this good really needs no recommendation from me. But it is nice to see Steve Duffy between hard covers again. Long may his fascination with the byways of history and science continue.

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