Splinters by Joseph D’Lacey is somewhat of a special short story collection for the eco-horror author. Not only does this mark his first short story collection – and what better way to commemorate the occasion than a limited signature edition from Timeline Books – but it’s a collection which spans eleven years serving as a portrait of the man as a writer (Joyce reference intended). As one might expect the collection is a diverse one covering a wide spectrum of subject matter and yet it is punctuated by common themes throughout, such as ecology, mortality, fear, self-discovery and altered realities. But is it any good? Let’s find out.
The collection starts strong with ‘Lenses’, a slab of voyeurism with a Hitchcock-cum-Peeping Tom meets found footage vibe. And whilst we’ve seen this sort of tale before – take for example the fantastic ‘In The Colosseum’ by Stephen Volk, in The End of the Line – it is distinct and strong enough to stand its ground amongst its fictional peers. Although the first two pages may be considered a little too slapstick for the overall tone of the story, this tale grounded in real life horrors is overall an enjoyable read. To detail the specifics of the story would be to reveal some of its mystery but think of it as a collage of surveillance and mistrust; if it were a film its presentation would be akin to last year’s V/H/S. Perhaps on the strength of ‘Lenses’ D’Lacey will consider a return to human horrors alongside the vampiric and fantastical which he has recently favoured.
‘Lights Out’ taps into the age-old fear of the dark. Whilst this is initially told from the perspective of a child suffering from night terrors the tale gives a little too much detail when describing protagonist Joe’s interpretation of the monster early on. To have left this to the reader’s imagination would have been to enrich the experience – although granted, D’Lacey doesn’t say this is indefinitely the only thing under the bed; there is enough subjectivity to leave a lingering sense of dread. That said the ending is a little weak and there isn’t much in the way of originality. Enjoyable enough, but certainly not a standout.
‘Altar Girl’, on the other hand, is one of the must-read stories of the collection. In the same vein as Let’s Go Play At The Adams, Right to Life and The Woman this is horror in as much as it is about ordinary people in horrific situations. Similarly there’s a thread of tension throughout which slowly ramps up-and-up-and-up. The story focuses on Sophie Cambridge who lives a mundane and ordinary, albeit miserable life, with a couple of children and an unhappy marriage. After an incident, which will remain nameless as it’s somewhat of a spoiler, her luck turns around and her life is near-perfect – for a while. But as is typical of the human condition she begins to desire more and it’s this greed which sees her downfall and a misery which greatly exceeds her initial complaints. The story is at its best when the protagonist is at her lowest point but it is at its worst moments later when a supernatural element is reintroduced which goes some way to resolving Sophie’s misery. That being said ‘Altar Girl’ is a good story but it had the potential to be a great story. It ends with a fizzle rather than a bang, and that is perhaps the real tragedy.
‘The Quiet Ones’ has at its heart an interesting narrative about a hired government-heavy who monitors a secret colony. Its slow pace and mundane nature mean that this tale will divide readers. The simplicity, predictable twist ending (was it even intended as a twist?) and relative lack of anything actually happening may leave you cold, unsatisfied and a little indifferent. Similar charges could initially be thrown in the direction of ‘The Mango Tree’ a simple cautionary tale which reads like one of Aesop’s fables. Yet repeat readings are fruitful and reveal its true nature; engaging, punchy and tinged with tragedy.
On the other hand ‘The Unwrapping of Alistair Perry’ demands your attention. In this classic body horror tale, D’Lacey plays with the notion of unravelling different layers of the self and takes it to its – not quite – logical conclusion. The concept, of which little detail will be divulged for fear of spoilers, is both interesting and ambitious but ‘The Unwrapping…’ is marred somewhat by its implausibility. Whilst one must allow for a suspension of disbelief when reading the weird it’s the clichéd version of what it is to be a woman written from a man’s point of view which really hinders this tale. Admittedly the narrator is male but his adolescent interpretation of women is neither endearing nor engaging nor original. The story is worth reading and wouldn’t look out of place in a collection of bizarro or The Mammoth Book of Body Horror.
Armageddon Fish Pie and collection closer The Food of Love both revolve around the apocalypse. This familiar D’Lacey trope has been seen – or at least hinted at – in almost every D’Lacey novel and the craftsmanship shines through as he tackles these stories with a sense of confidence and bleak beauty which doesn’t materialise as fully in the lesser short stories. Armageddon Fish Pie follows a man in the near – apocalyptic – future as he prepares for his final days on earth. As we follow his thought processes, concerns and worries (or lack thereof) we are forced to confront what we would do in his predicament. We are also reminded that when it comes down to it it’s the simple pleasures of life – the home comforts – which are the best. That and our family. Which leads us nicely into ‘The Food of Love’, a Romeo & Juliet, nurse-meets-doctor love story with a fatal bite and unhealthy obsession with cheeseburgers. Just read it.
Which brings us to the two standout stories of Splinters – skipping past the body horror fest which is ‘Kundalini’ and sci-fi portmanteau ‘What They Want (What Aliens Really, Really Want)’ – ‘Son of Porn’ and ‘Rhiannon’s Reach’. Completely different in tone and united in their excellence. ‘Rhiannon’s Reach’ is hands-down the best tale; a thought-provoking story which explores the fear of drowning, the enormity and expanse of the ocean and the chillingly finite nature of our own existence. ‘Rhiannon’s Reach’ takes an early life ocean trauma and the impact which it has on our protagonist’s later life. D’Lacey’s ocean horror is a slow burner which ramps up the pace and fear at just the right moments without becoming a Jaws clone or reducing itself to a cliché. By contrast ‘Son of Porn’ tells the tale of Nutbuster McGooch who is by his own admission “born of porn”. This is the literary equivalent to Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Orgazmo. Whilst it may cause some controversy for describing sex in some of the crudest and most over-the-top ways, it has many laugh-out-loud moments and is intended as pure comedy. And as an outlandish sex-com it most certainly succeeds. D’Lacey may have been gunning for the bad sex award in Blood Fugue but this time around he’s splooged all over the page; look out for those stuck together corners. This is a limited edition book after all.
Splinters may be a mixed collection but it’s its variety which makes it worth exploring. Sure, it isn’t overtly horror all of the time and it probably won’t strike gold with every story, but it does provide both a selection of wholly different stories and a map of D’Lacey’s progression over the last eleven years as a writer. And for that, it’s well worth checking out.