Peter Atkins is one of genre writing’s lesser-known gems. If his name is familiar, it’s most likely in connection with another famous Liverpudlian writer, Clive Barker – the two are, in fact, very good friends, plus Atkins was responsible for the Hellraiser II, III and IV scripts, a continuation of the Barker-directed Hellraiser film (itself based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart). This association is not entirely a surprise, as the two writers share a similar sensibility of brilliant invention, a love of the fantastique and a poetic lyricism as well as a hometown. At times it’s almost possible to believe that they’re literary twins who were separated at birth. This should not be taken to imply that Atkins doesn’t possess his own unique voice. If anything, the spectrum of work shown off here is broader and his palette more lyrical than Barker’s, veering away from the latter’s visceral oeuvre, but nevertheless possessing the same power and majesty, as well as being marked with a uniquely Atkinsonian literary voice.
This collection of fourteen stories is a treasure-trove of unearthly delights, crammed into book form – Atkins’ imagination strays far and wide across genres, and the canvas on which he paints his pictures is infinite. Science-fiction, fantasy, horror and even hints of noir consort effortlessly and seamlessly, while the style of writing is contemporary and hip, yet beautifully lyrical. Themes may appear familiar but Atkins wrenches them out of cosiness by twisting the narratives in unexpected ways. What’s more, his pacing is such that the reader is willingly led along the pathways signposted by him, but inevitably the destination expected and the actual point of arrival are significantly different.
The shifting perspectives of ‘Between the Cold Moon and the Earth’ deliberately disorient and displace, but at the heart of this surreally-inventive (but preternaturally precise for all that) tale is a nasty truth that, even clothed in poesy and crystalline language, is heart-breakingly sad and moving. Here, a young man is surprised when he meets a (female) friend he hasn’t seen for a while, late at night on the shore of a small lake in a park. The fluidity of narrative and scenario, allied to the girl’s lack of certainty, conceal darkness in a blanket of denial and longed-for escape. ‘The Cubist’s Attorney’ wanders into the realm of the absurd, simultaneously delightful and sinister, hopeful and dangerous. Just who are the three sisters Chinchilla, Diamante and Sam, who appear at the attorney of the title’s office, to hear the reading of their Cubist father’s will? Are they avatars of the angelic or the demonic? And just what is the gift that they’ve been asked to give to the attorney? Fantasy also predominates in the short ‘Aviatrix’, which plays on one man’s fear of flying. Contained within are some brilliant descriptions of valium-induced dream-states and abject terror, but simultaneously there’s more than a hint indicating that something else is going on here, which Atkins cleverly foreshadows right from the beginning of the story.
‘Intricate Green Figurines’ is one of two stories that perhaps come closest to the definition of ‘horror’ and utilises a device very much like the Lament Configuration in Barker’s The Hellbound Heart, where an object (or objects in this case) acts as a gateway into some other realm, from which unpleasant entities are inadvertently summoned. A recently deceased musician’s girlfriend ‘acquires’ a curious set of figurines, which she hopes to sell but when our narrator brings over a possible buyer for them they are met by a trio of very much out of place characters leaving the ex-girlfriend’s flat. Nothing much is said about these three in terms of description, but it’s enough to unsettle and disturb. The other story, ‘The Show Must Go On’, is a cleverly devised take on that tired old trope, the zombie plague story, but it’s also a telling critique of today’s media and entertainment landscape – this is definitely one of the best stories in the collection.
There are two serials included here too, one involving a Doctor Arcadia and the other a feisty lesbian by the name of Kitty Donnelly. Both are quite heavily spiced with the exotic and fantastic. The former features a species of reality fixer if you like, Doctor Arcadia, a kind of Dr. Who of the occult and mysterious. In the first of the two tales, ‘Doctor Arcadia’, he and his assistant Mister Sweets are asked to exorcise the library of a lady called Nancy, and it’s told in the form of verse – and very cleverly done it is, too. The format lends itself to a certain disorientation which only goes to emphasise the temporal and spatial displacement prevalent in the tale. In the second, ‘Frumpy Little Beat Girl’, our laconic hero tackles a case of realities bleeding one into the other, leading to some very unfortunate side-effects, for which he needs the help of a bookshop assistant, the same frumpy little beat girl of the title. Both are excellent little romps featuring slices of reality as seen through a weirdly distorted lens.
Kitty Donnelly, the ‘star’ of the other serial, has a seriously bad habit of getting into big trouble, the sort of trouble that involves not just unsavoury characters but unsavoury entities. Luckily, she’s a resourceful heroine, and manages to get out of seemingly impossible scrapes more than intact. The first two tales (‘Stacy and her Idiot’ and ‘The Girl in the Blue Volcano’) were satisfyingly pulse-pounding and involved affairs, but the original-to-the-collection final tale, ‘Dancing Like We’re Dumb’, didn’t quite match the other two in intensity, perhaps because it felt a little too formulaic following the first two.
In a collection as consistently inventive and strong across the board as this one is, it’s difficult to point to standout stories. What it does show above all, however, is that the best writers are those who take the base material of what’s gone before, wilfully dissolve it and then set about recombining it into something absolutely new and marvellous. It isn’t difficult to see where Mr. Atkins has done just that, but here we witness him working truly wonderful alchemy on that undifferentiated material, which results in literary gold.
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