The novella is alive and well, if the quality of offerings in this collection (edited by the prolific horror author Gary McMahon) are any indication. Genre fiction is well served by this story length, as it allows plenty of scope for characterisation whilst not causing the writer to struggle to maintain a sense of dread or suspense over the course of a novel.
Opening the collection is ‘Blues Before Sunrise’ by Joel Lane, one of the stalwarts of the British small-press, and this tale effortlessly embodies everything you expect to find in one of his stories. The Midlands he depicts is like a character in itself, every sight, sound and smell evoked with exquisite detail in melodious prose. The story follows Simon, an aging, alcohol-dependent guitarist, who’s hoping to get his old band back together for one last shot at the big-time. The events are tinged with melancholy, and a certain ache for times long-past for Simon, which adds an element of the unreliable narrator to his recollections. The author’s passion for music is at the core of the story and, if any criticism were to be levelled, it would be that these references, which will no doubt delight contemporaries of the scene and era, are draped over a slight and rather straightforward story. However, it is good to remember that sometimes it is the journey that’s important and not the destination and, in Joel Lane’s hands, it is certainly an enjoyable ride.
Although the setting for ‘Wild Acre’ by Nathan Ballingrud, in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, is in stark contrast to Lane’s setting, their respective protagonists share some of the same motivations and fears. Ballingrud’s story concerns Jeremy, a construction manager whose latest project has been subject to vandalism and so, with the assistance of two trusted employees, he decides to stay overnight at the site to catch the perpetrators in the act. They get more than they bargained for. This initial scene, and its horrific outcome for Jeremy’s workers, is the catalyst for the main meat of the story, in which Ballingrud examines the themes he is really concerned with. Jeremy carries a heavy burden of guilt about his reaction on the night of the attack and, although the authorities have made certain conclusions, exonerating him of any wrongdoing, his personal and business affairs begin to deteriorate. It is here where the story really cranks up and rises well above initial impressions of what the story is about. Indeed, a deftly handled fight scene, in which Jeremy’s extreme reaction is the physical release to the emotional stress he is under, is far scarier than the earlier attack, because the writer nails the fragile state of Jeremy’s psyche to such a degree the reality of it shines through and makes for hard reading. Jeremy, like Simon, longs for a period in his life where things were much simpler and decisions easier to make. The reality that this is a misconception, brought on by the pressure he feels in the aftermath of the trauma, is perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the story.
Reggie Oliver’s ‘The Dancer in the Dark’ provides a more leisurely pace and offers something of a respite after the preceding emotionally-laden stories. Set in the world of theatrical production, it is an ensemble piece with a collection of eccentric, beautifully realised characters. The interactions of the cast, some of whom are quite hideous, is at the heart of this quiet ghost story, and the theme of nostalgia is pushed centre stage here, as fading stars bicker and back-stab in the vain hope of one last moment in the spotlight.
Kaaron Warren’s ‘The History Thief’ initially takes an altogether more whimsical approach to the ghost story, one which warrants comparisons to the work of Neil Gaiman, before taking a turn which is both unexpected and genuinely unsettling. Alvin is dead: he knows this because he is able to watch his undiscovered body slowly decompose into the carpet of his lounge. He’s a ghost, unable to move on until his physical form is laid to rest. This state is not without its benefits though, as he discovers that he’s able to ‘steal’ people’s history by touching them which, as well as enabling him to see their darkest secrets and desires, also renders him temporarily solid and able to interact with the world. This power leads to some interesting scenes as he unearths serial killers and bigots in an attempt to put his ability to good use. Ultimately the gift proves to be his undoing, in an ending worthy of Roald Dahl.
‘Night Closures’ by Paul Meloy is the stand-out in a near faultless collection. It is the haunting story of an unnamed boy, travelling through the 1980’s of his memory. This will strike a chord with any reader who grew up in this period of BMX bikes, Panini sticker albums and the A-Team. It is an abstract evocation, thick with nostalgia, and as such the story collects together many of the themes of the foregoing stories and serves to make this piece an excellent culmination to the collection. Meloy trusts the reader to fill in the narrative gaps which give the tale an ethereal tone and in return, due to the sheer beauty of the prose, the reader trusts the author will draw these hints and inferences together into a satisfying conclusion. It is a trust that Meloy does not squander, as the heartbreaking revelations are sprung on the reader, leaving the endpapers of their book tear-stained.
Visions Fading Fast is a tremendous collection of five superbly executed novellas, from a selection of the most accomplished writers of the short form currently working. Whilst each story is individual in style and execution, shared themes and ideas make this a tightly constructed whole.
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