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Book Review: The Parts We Play by Stephen Volk

“Stephen Volk is gradually earning the label as a master of the British horror short form. If ‘Monsters in the Heart’ gave us a glimpse of this excellence, then ‘The Parts We Play’ has blown the screen door wide open.”

There seems little left to add about the quality of writing Stephen Volk has produced on the big and little screens. But in recent years it’s his narrative fiction that has been gathering a lot of new attention. From his acclaimed novellas Whitstable and Leytonstone to his short story collection Monsters in the Heart and works between, Stephen Volk is fast becoming one of the most established writers of short form genre fiction in the industry.

The stories in this new collection certainly have a British feel to them and more so a Welsh one. The mannerisms and kitchen sink horrors evoke memories of Chetwynd-Hayes along with Aickman, though the small town situational horror surely has toes dipped in Ramsey Campbell territory.

The collection opens with a Hollywood story: ‘Celebrity Frankenstein’ is a twisted retelling of the Shelly classic set in the modern word of reality TV. It lifts the curtain on the practices and sacrifices people will go to clutch at fame. This is a monster movie where the real people behind the mask are us, the viewer and the contestant. It’s a disturbing tale written so well the reader could easily imagine it as a report in scandal sheet. If you like horror that makes you think about the world and the part you play in it, ‘Celebrity Frankenstein’ is up there with the best.

The second story ‘Bless’ is the stuff of nightmares behind the nightmare news. There is so much subtlety and emotional punch in this story that the brutality of it almost sneaks up and grabs the reader from behind. The best writers of any genre are those who can give us characters we can sympathise and hate in equal measure and continue to follow their journey. ‘Bless’ is such a tale and Stephen Volk uses all the tools in his writing box to chisel it out. Be warned, this is the sort of horror lurking in the doorways of your local shopping mall rather than the coffins of the crypt.

‘A Whisper to a Grey’ is one of the stories involving folklore in this collection. A tale that takes a small amount of time to seriously get into but the slow start is worth the wait. The first-hand account strengthens this retelling and could convince the most skeptical reader it was a true story. Volk has a natural and easy rhythm when working in the first person and ‘A Whisper to the Grey’ is evidence of that skill. It would just be a curious folktale if written any other way.

‘The Arse-Licker’ is a standout story for obvious reasons. The title alone should pique any readers interest and the story itself will not defy those initial reactions. Everybody knows an arse-licker. The friend who goes the extra mile in hope of being loved rather than just being a good mate. The teacher’s pet too willing to be mocked by the other students in pursuit of affirmation. Or more likely the one person in the office too keen to look good for the boss. That’s where Volk’s tale takes place. The overzealous office bod bending over backwards in the vain hope of being wanted.

Of course, this is horror and tales of the weird so nothing is straightforward. While the story builds with an almost tongue-in-cheek humour, (was there ever a more apt pun?), the conclusion and denouement slide quickly toward the horrific as you would expect.

Stephen Volk’s excellent novellas mentioned at the top of this piece will prove this writer holds enormous love for the early to mid-twentieth century genre filmmakers. ‘The Peter Lorre Fan Club’ is littered with such rich detail of the man and his career that you’ll be treated to this love once again. Two old school pals are reunited with kaleidoscopic memories of their childhoods. The dominant alpha stomping his boot on the childlike innocence of the friend who still holds the love of cinema close to his heart. The two hander is played out with a nervous call and response that does nothing to prepare us for the devastation that awaits.

‘Certain Faces’ questions the aesthetic of humanity and the costumes people are born to wear in their lives. In many ways, this story reads as a warning to the curious, an urban legend that should be adhered. Or urbane legend possibly. Again, it’s a story of what lives behind the headlines and what lives people cultivate inside their heads. While ‘Certain Faces’ deals with art and the diffusion of aesthetic it doesn’t rely upon the façade of people, rather it delves into the darkened rooms at the back of our lives. Smashing the brick and mortar, rubbing acid into the canvas and asking the questions that bubble under the surface of people’s lives. Stephen Volk spreads out a police station worth of mugshots of the human condition for us to examine. The over confident, the self-reliant, the lost, the bored, the self-obsessed, the confused and the lonely. This is a lament, a story full of sorrow where the deepest grief is saved for those who still live.

‘Matilda of the Night’ once again dips into British and Welsh folklore. Another tale of decay in a world of the living. This story creeps into the mind and sets up camp long after you’ve finished. It was another tale that takes patience to dig into but once again the rewards are quickly on display for all to enjoy. Of all the stories in this collection ‘Matilda of the Night’ is the most cinematic, or televisual, and sits easily next to Volk’s screen writing work.

‘The Shug Monkey’ almost seems out of place in this collection at first. A Dickensian styled romp of creatures lurking in the backwoods of Cambridgeshire. A folktale creature deep in the collective subconscious that developed a life of its own. This is a tale to read by the fireside on an autumnal evening. A story full of old companions you think you have met before. An adventure taken straight from the books of your youth. Only not as cosy as it first appears. Volk twists this subgenre with such ease and skill it’s a triumph. You may be forgiven for going back and reading ‘The Shug Monkey’ from the start again and enjoying this delicious slice of brilliance.

‘Wrong’ is a story that would sit easily in an Amicus Portmanteau film. A stripped back first person account of a strange event that coloured in his early life. This story isn’t as flourished as many others in this collection. It doesn’t dig too deeply or ask many questions either. Yet that’s kind of the point. It’s a tale you may hear from an old acquaintance after the pubs have emptied and the night draws long. ‘Wrong’ does hold up a compact mirror to society and asks why it feels it has the right to be so judgemental though. This is the quickest read of the collection and that is not to say it is weak or thin as it is neither of those things.

‘The Magician Kelso Dennett’ on the other hand is a longer read and multi-layered throughout. If a magician such as Kelso Dennett has honed the art of sleight of hand, then Stephen Volk has the parallel skill in fiction. Never believe what you see no matter how convincing to the eye. The construct of the story is as embellished as a Derren Brown magic event or a David Blaine public stunt. It takes confidence to weave a story with deception, deceit and trickery while being honest throughout. That’s not to say this is a confidence trick of a tale. It’s more of a magic telling that keeps you wondering where the rabbits are hidden and how the lady is no longer chopped in half. If the trick isn’t real, then can we be assured the magician even real?

That brings us neatly to the final story in the collection. ‘Newspaper Hearts’ is a sublime Guy Fawkes tale that is full of fireworks of anger, bonfires of grief and pennies on the eyes of the dead. A quaint story you’ll think at first. Another tale where Volk ropes the reader in with comfortable persuasion unleashing the manic and mayhem like a dripping tap in the night.

Many people will identify with the events surrounding this tale. The collection of firewood, the building of fires, the construction of poorly made Guys to go pleading for money in shop doorways during November. Thankfully however most people will not identify with the madness that burns under the scrap wood of this tale. Again, it’s an examination of the human condition and how that makes people who they are. The parts we play in the events in the lives of others. When you look back at this collection you may feel something similar. You may wonder how your actions changed other people’s lives. How your words, your ideas and your beliefs shape not only yourself but everybody that meets them. There could be no greater title for this collection because each story is a part of everybody who will read it and at the same time each is a part of the greater story within. The story of how humans are the real monster at heart and sometimes even when they try not to be they still send terror into the lives of others. And while Guys burn on bonfires throughout the British Isles, the ending of ‘Newspaper Hearts’ will burn in your mind.

Stephen Volk is gradually earning the label as a master of the British horror short form. If Monsters in the Heart gave us a glimpse of this excellence, then The Parts We Play has blown the screen door wide open. Who knows what horrors will escape through that door in the future. Whatever they look like Stephen Volk will make sure they stay with you awhile to keep you company in the darkness.

ANTHONY COWIN

 

Publisher: PS Publishing
Paperback: (339pp)
Release Date: 15 September, 2016

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