As the Sun Goes Down, by Tim Lebbon

as-the-sun-goes-down-by-tim-lebbon reviewGenre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: four stars
Book Review by Paul Kane

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I don’t think there can be too many writers in the horror genre who work as hard as Tim Lebbon. This prolific author always seems to have a novel/novella either out or coming soon (what makes this all the more remarkable is that he also has a day job!). As the Sun Goes Down, however, is his first collection of short stories, following in the wake of the hugely successful White (which won the British Fantasy Award) and Hush (a novel written in collaboration with Gavin Williams). It’s also introduced by a master exponent of this art form, Ramsey Campbell, who likens Lebbon to such greats as Lovecraft, Aickman, Matheson and D.F. Lewis, though at the same time emphasizes that his work is anything but derivative.

The book begins with ‘The Empty Room’, a tale about two young boys who go out to visit a haunted manor house, only to find that it has now gone the way of all things – leaving behind an empty hole in which one of them gets trapped. Combining supernatural, psychological and symbolic terrors, this sets the tone perfectly for the collection. ‘Life Within’ then deals with the subject of life and death, using the experiences of a lad called Simon as its focal point. His nightmares about being born are interlinked with what is actually happening to his pregnant dog Gemma, but the ultimate truth of the situation isn’t uncovered until its shocking double-twist climax.

The title ‘The Butterfly’ refers to that well-known saying about what happens when a butterfly flaps its wings, except in this case it’s what happens when a young girl is mistreated by her callous mother. Little does this woman realize the special bond Mary shares with nature itself, which, in the end, takes its ‘revenge’ in a pretty unique way (think of a nastier version of Jumanji and you might have some idea). ‘Endangered Species in C Minor’ continues the ecological theme by introducing us to a man who thinks he’s the last of his kind. How he comes to terms with this, by confronting other animals with the same problem, shows just how insane he is and how he might not be the only endangered human in the vicinity.

Next Lebbon turns his hand to science fiction, stranding the survivors of a wrecked spaceship on a Dune-like planet in ‘Dust’. One overweight member of the crew is shut off from the rest and forced to watch as the others eat what little supplies are left – all the while imagining that a microscopic alien life force is trying to get in and kill him. ‘Fell Swoop’, on the other hand, depicts one man’s encounter with his ‘other self’, a duplicate who is trying to force him to remember the previous night’s events. It’s not pretty, as you can probably imagine, and at times it does get quite surreal.

Then ‘Recent Wounds’ reveals what happens when a restless husband who ‘craves the truth about reality’ finds a strange rock in a local forest. The normality of his day-to-day existence is juxtaposed with the peculiar influence this stone is having upon him, leading to a denouement that leaves wide open as much as it clarifies. Another couple’s relationship is put to the test in ‘The Repulsion’, this time as they take a holiday break in order to put some spice back into their love life. And they’ll find spice all right, but it won’t be what either of them was expecting…

‘Unto Us’ is a chilling little story about a man who discovers the body of a baby hidden in a wall of his house. Instead of reporting it, he disposes of the remains himself, something that will come back to haunt him and his barren wife later. This is followed by ‘The Last Good Times’, which transports us to a time where ghosts are a fact of life, and silently tag along with loved ones wherever they go. So you can imagine the trauma a widow might go through when her dead husband suddenly appears at the foot of their marital bed, preventing her from moving on and forgetting about the past.

The dear departed feature heavily in ‘King of the Dead’, too, another fantasy in the mold of Lebbon’s ‘Curves and Sharp Edges’. When an invasion fleet of monsters attack the peaceful isle of Blede, its ruler is forced to take drastic action and calls upon the talents of his three wizards…with devastating consequences. Then ‘Recipe for Disaster’ presents the tragic experiences of three connected individuals in the form of a kind of universal cookery guide, bringing events to the boil before leaving them to simmer gently, forever. And we’re back in zombie territory again for ‘The Beach’, a nasty snip best summed up as Romero does Love Story – without the ‘happy’ ending.

In ‘Reconstructing Amy’ a distraught widower keeps finding various dolls that remind him of his wife which, when put together, build up a picture of their lives. Then comes my favorite story in the collection, a novella called ‘The Unfortunate’. The sole survivor of a plane crash discovers he has been helped out by a quartet of angels, who have also bestowed upon him the gift of good luck. But, wouldn’t you just know it, there’s a price to pay – something he finds out when their sinister purpose is made known to him. A circular narrative helps this reach a satisfactory conclusion (for us, not necessarily for the main character). Finally, ‘Bomber’s Moon’ sees an old man recalling an incident that happened in his childhood during a Nazi bombing raid, an incident that has plagued him ever since…

Obviously short stories are a different beast altogether to novels and novellas, but it would seem that Lebbon is equally at home writing both (just as he seems to be able to straddle the genres of horror, fantasy and sci-fi with little difficulty). The characters come across as well-rounded individuals, in spite of the lack of space necessarily allocated to each, and the settings are wholly recognizable ones…at first anyway, before the author begins to tweak reality in his own inimitable fashion. The more graphic scenes (‘It’ll happen to you, too, the bug lady had screamed at him, pus dripping from her lips, insects fleeing her body as if they already thought she was dead…’) are neatly balanced out with some truly spine-tingling moments, where you’re not really sure what’s out there but are afraid anyway (“There’s something down here with me,” he said… “Something alive, but…It touches me. It reaches out of the dark and touches me.” ), and also with insightful observations on the human condition in general (‘Once, they had made love in the woods. That was when they had been in love, not simply each other’s bad habit.’).

If publishers like Night Shade continue to bring out quality editions like this one (complemented by some really gorgeous artwork from Alan Clark on the slipcover), then the future of horror looks set to be a glowing one. So don’t let the sun go down on you, get your hands on this collector’s item ASAP.

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