Genre: Horror Anthology
Publisher: Wildside Press
Book Review by Paul Kane
Have you read this book?
It seems incredible, I know, but this is the very first multi-collection of stories from the pen of editor and dark fantasist Steve Savile, even though he has been writing for ten years now. Perhaps this is because, as the author says, he considers himself more of a novelist (The Secret Life of Colours) than a short story writer, in spite of the fact he delights in the form and has an obvious flair for this type of storytelling. Or maybe it’s because he’s been waiting for the right time, for the right stories to lock together as a loosely connected ‘road map’ of his soul. Because the fifteen tales presented here span the entirety of his career so far and show just how much his work has developed in that relatively short space of time.
The collection starts off with ‘Angels in the Snow’, in which a photographer has a chance meeting with a woman who might be ‘the one’. Needless to say, it doesn’t work out quite as he’d expected and she ends up helping him exorcise some of the demons from his past, with a little assistance from her watchmaker father. This is followed smartly by ‘Memories in Glass’, taking the simple premise of a man mourning for his lost lover, a lover he effectively killed by pushing her under a train, and twisting it beyond all recognition – until you actually begin to share in his insanity.
‘Painting Blue Murders’, however, is one of those stories that creeps up on you unawares. Confined to a prison cell, one convict is forced to tattoo faces on his bunk-mate’s body and listen to how his life of crime began (watch out for that last paragraph – it’s a killer). I read before and absolutely loved ‘Remember Me Yesterday’; a second encounter has done little to alter my opinion. This story of a man who’s losing his memories bit by agonising bit is quite simply a classic and should be read by anyone who’s serious about the genre. After this comes ‘The Fragrance of You’, about a children’s illustrator who attends the funeral of a writer he really admires. It’s here that he meets and gets involved with the writer’s daughter, who has a strange habit of vanishing at night-time. It’s all to do with a fable her father was working on before his death and how, in the end, curiosity always proves our greatest enemy.
Then in ‘The Last Picture of Summer’ two women pass the time at Cafe Gramunken (The Grey Monk), eyeing up potential victims. Slowly their history is revealed to us and we discover that they teamed up at school (ala Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures) in order to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting world. ‘And So Yearns the Sparrow’s Heart’ details the bizarre bid for freedom of one young under-dweller who’s now come of age. Will he make it to the city above before the other feral children track him down? More significantly, will he ever get the opportunity to spread his wings and fly? These questions, and many more, are answered herein….
‘Icarus Descending’ (first published in the Enigmatic Variations chapbook of the same name, alongside ‘Remember Me Yesterday’), changes the mood yet again, spotlighting the volatile relationship between two brothers and a female friend/lover. Expect tragedy and surprises all the way in this complex, almost dreamlike, character-driven piece. ‘Better Than You Know Yourself’ is possibly my second favorite story in the anthology, if only for its clever twist ending. A passer-by tries to talk down a suicide jumper from a bridge, little realizing the consequences should he succeed (I guarantee you won’t work it out till the author lets you in on the ‘joke’). Turning to ghosts, next, and ‘In Darkness, We Sleep’ illustrates admirably the price you pay for advancement in the workplace, particularly if you stay behind after hours for illicit sex with a co-worker in a haunted office.
‘Byker Burning’, conversely, is a hard story to describe – it must simply be experienced, just as the main character experiences all the things that happen to him when he ‘turns over the stones and sees the moss and scum underneath’. A modern reworking of the Frankenstein myth is probably the best way to sum up ‘Playground of the Broken Hearts’, though, in which a gutter-born genius plays god in an effort to create another family for himself. While ‘Stranger Loves the Blues’ is similar in tone to ‘Memories in Glass’, taking you right inside the head of a headcase – a former psychiatrist himself – who is now being observed from behind a two-way mirror.
Fans of Gabriel Rush from The Secret Life of Colours won’t want to miss ‘Send Me Dead Flowers’, in which the Harry D’Amour-esque private eye is hired by a Chinese mystic to follow a young girl. But, being the professional that he is, his suspicions are soon aroused – leading to a full-on action zombie finale. Finally, the last entry, ‘Meek’, concerns the exploits of a killer labelled ‘The Salvation Savage’, who is attempting to see the world through the eyes of the young – quite literally – and building up an army of damned souls in the process. Shocking, and all-too believable, it makes a fitting full stop for this breath-taking collection of tales.
I think the thing that struck me the most as I was reading this book was the way Savile manages to link all the stories together somehow; indeed, many flow into each other like oil on the canvas of some larger picture. This is possibly due to the recurrence of certain themes and motifs (angels, drowning, suicide, spiders, psychopathic urges…). But whether it was intentional or not, it’s to be applauded as it adds another dimension to what is already a very intoxicating reading experience. Savile’s descriptions of character (Gabriel watched her ease into her servant girl routine…zooming in to focus on her dark, deep brown eyes, her ink-stain eyes…She had a face made to smile, he thought.) situation (We met in a pub in London, at a reunion for a college neither of us attended.), and place (in particular Stockholm, where he now lives: Stockholm is a city that doesn’t come alive until it’s dressed in a second skin of snow…) are also worthy of note, bringing each and every one of these journeys to life.
At times you might find yourself a little confused, especially when reading stories like ‘Icarus Descending’, which uses jump cuts and less than chronological remembrances to build up only a sense of the story. But then this is a collection that should really be read at least twice (preferably more) in order to get the most out of it. And it also must be read in order, don’t forget that. In any event, there can be no disputing the fact that Savile conjures up the most unsettling of visions, whether they be subtle or downright gruesome (I defy anybody, male or female, to sit through the ‘dichorectomy’ description without wincing) and infuses the pieces with an emotional depth and intensity that’s entirely his own. He also treats us to a tour through his influences for each segment, which turn out to be just as enjoyable as the stories themselves – from his reminiscences about almost ‘making it’ a decade ago, to the time he read out ‘Meek’ to a class at the school where he teaches, and they walked around for weeks afterwards thinking he was a psychopath.