The Devil In Me, by Christopher Fowler

the-devil-in-me-by-christopher-fowlerGenre: Horror
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: fourhalfstars
Book Review by Paul Kane

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‘Ian McEwan used to mine a similar seam. Fowler does it better.’ – Arena

‘Ghoulishly irresistible.’ – The Times

‘The stories are just the right shade of black to have considerable appeal. As weird and wonderful as ever.’ – Bookseller

For a while now Christopher Fowler has been consciously veering away from the traditional horror story, with interesting results. His latest collection, the second from Serpent’s Tail after Personal Demons (and his seventh altogether), shows just how far he’s come with his labors. As he acknowledges in the introduction, there are echoes of horror in the tales (‘The genre still appeals immensely to me…’), but The Devil in Me is packed with unique stories that could hardly be quantified as horror at all – though thankfully Fowler still sticks to his familiar urban settings and draws his characters so well you feel as if you might well bump into one on the street someday….

The first story is a sort of indirect follow-up to ‘Thirteen Places of Interest in Kentish Town’, however this time we’re ‘At Home in the Pubs of Old London’. Taking each pub one by one, and describing them as if to a tourist, Fowler slowly weaves a web of intrigue around an artist who chats up girls (and boys) in these watering holes. You may see the end coming but it’s still a wholly satisfying one. As is the climax of possibly my favorite story in the collection, ‘Crocodile Lady’ – which centers on a teacher’s search for a missing young boy on the London underground. Tiny, but brilliant, observations keep this real – especially those about children in the boy’s group and the everyday experiences of people in the profession generally (‘Kids who sit in the front row are either going to work very hard or fall in love with you…’). You’ll also be curious about the name of the title, but I’m not going to explain it here… All I’ll say is that it’s probably not what you think.

This was my second reading of ‘The Look’ (it first appeared in the BFS publication Urban Gothic – see review elsewhere in this section), and it did nothing to alter my original opinion. All about the fashion industry, or more specifically the models involved, this is a telling commentary on a huge social problem today: the prominence of superficiality beauty. ‘Rainy Day Boys’ on the other hand is a black comedy that had me laughing out loud in places (at lines like, “Acting is not a job, it’s just showing off…” “It’s a respectable adult profession.” “Oh yeah? You were a spoon.” “A dancing spoon!”). A comedy of (t)errors confined to two flats, involving a nail, yoga, and a dead body, this is Hancock meets Hitchcock – with a liberal dash of Porridge for good measure.

While in ‘The Beacon’ a father who has lost his son decides to get on the internet, with surprising results. A very poignant piece, and a character study of the best kind, this also has much to say about technology’s place in our world today. I’ll bet there are many older people out there who’ll be able to relate to the initial hassles of the computer set-up as well. This is followed by ‘Come On Then, If You Think You’re Hard Enough’, where teenage exploits come back to one man in the present as he’s having dinner in a restaurant. A meditation on life, and how in some ways we change but in others we always stay the same.

‘The Torch Goes Out’ could definitely be a snapshot of our future, where borders are the norm within cities and class divisions prove as much a barrier to happiness as location. Then in ‘Something For Your Monkey’ we’re treated to a lighter story about a public relations rookie sorting out the lives of stars in his care (“He’s had a face lift. I don’t suppose he can close his mouth without opening his bowels…”). You get the feeling that this may be based on Fowler’s own first-hand knowledge of the biz; and only the names have been changed to protect the innocent…except there are no innocents.

My second favorite tale is ‘Living Proof’, in which a freelance writer is commissioned to do a biography of a businessman. The deeper he digs into his client’s background, though, the more inconsistencies he finds… Whereas ‘Sex Monkeys’ is a thoughtful piece about attitudes towards sex and love. One of those moebian tales the author does so well.

The penultimate story, ‘Eighteen and Over’, is another film-inspired addition, and is quite unusual in that it’s made up almost entirely of directions to cut scenes from a movie submitted to a classification board (‘Reel 4, 11 Mins. War Montage Sequence. We are particularly concerned about reality being blurred with fiction in this montage…’). It says everything that needs to be said about the contradictory nature of censorship and the stifling of artistic freedom, whilst still retaining a certain ambiguity at the end. Lastly we have ‘Seven Dials’, concerning the lives of a watchmaker and his daughter, and the inheritance that should rightfully be hers.

Fowler fans can breathe a sigh of relief, because this collection is everything you could want from the author. Smart, streetwise, poignant and at times disquieting, it’s a fitting testament to the continuing development of one of this country’s greatest short story writers. Go on, be a devil and indulge yourself

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