Tragic Life Stories, by Steve Duffy
And then we’re right in it. Just ten words in that first line, but what powerful words they are, plunging us straight into the heart of Steve Duffy’s world.
So, what does he write about? Just ordinary people, living ordinary lives but ending up, through a cruel twist of fate, being pitched head-first into bewilderingly extraordinary circumstances – this is what he writes about. Couples just taking the first tentative steps towards setting out on a life journey together, for instance, or a young woman breaking out from her hometown for the bright lights of the city, or a young man visiting the idyllic country home of the parents of his best friend’s girlfriend. Then again, we could be talking about the writer attempting to get himself out of a string of bad luck maybe, or the teenage boy experiencing the thrill of life and punk rock in the heady days of its first emergence, right in the heart of one of its most vibrant centres. These are the characters that Steve invites us to empathise with – and then, just as we get to know them, he pulls the rug right out from under their feet (and by metaphorical extension, ours too).
The thing is, we could easily be any of the people in the nine tales featured in this latest collection from the Manchester-born-but-currently-resident-somewhere-in-Wales writer. Even though a debt is paid to the likes of the classic stories of MR James (evidently a strong influence on Mr. Duffy’s writing), it’s a world we can identify with only too well. Whereas there’s a deliberate distance in James’ tales, of the milieu of the cloistered academic, for instance (and a part of life that has long gone, in part destroyed by the very forces that assailed it in James’ fiction), Duffy brings his landscapes of terror as close into us as he can, sitting them down next us practically. That closeness is brightly comforting and beguiling, lulling us into letting our guard down. It is then, and only, that the threat is revealed: in contrast to James’ world, where the threat was to an ordered but ultimately hermetic existence, Duffy lets us get comfortable, and then rips away the veil of reality, revealing the writhing, squirming putrescence and rottenness underneath that threatens the very stability of everyday existence, without us ever being aware of it.
Let’s take The Fabric of Things as a particularly appropriate example. A young woman, desperate to get out of her native Bridgend, gets her wish when she starts a new job at an office in London. However, right from the start, it’s obvious that it’s nothing like she imagined: work is still ongoing at the building, which worryingly appears to need a constant stream of repairs done to it. This is a major inconvenience to the recently arrived young upwardly-mobile small-town girl, as the builders get in her way and constantly test her patience: but nothing is quite as simple as that. Unbeknownst to her, those very same builders, as annoying and boorish as they are, are doing a vital job: they are there to protect her from a very real threat, literally existing just below, and just on the other side of, the surface.
Then there’s Tantara, where the threat is implicit in the rural/urban and class divide – the country and its rituals are markedly different to the ways and rhythms of the city, and events are centred about one of the rites eternally incomprehensible to the visiting city-folk: the hunt. A young couple, anxious to cement their burgeoning relationship, rent a cottage somewhere in north Wales for a week. The surface of the rural idyll is entrancing and everything the couple wish for, but it hides a dark secret: a secret that, through no fault of their own, they inadvertently get caught up in. And it’s a terrifying mess they get themselves into, a terror that plays on the fears and differences engendered by the evident cultural chasm between country and city. Furthermore, it paints an uncomfortably unsettling picture of the decay behind the idyllic picture postcard stereotype, and is genuinely scary and unnerving.
Equally unsettling and unnerving is Only Passing Through Here, one of the best stories in the collection. Our main protagonist has unwillingly accompanied a friend on a trip to steal antiques from a house, situated deep in the heart of the countryside and the black of night. While waiting for their contact (a young lady), to signal them, an accident occurs, resulting in our unhappy accomplice being knocked over by a car. When he comes to, everything has shifted slightly and his friend has disappeared (inconveniently leaving him stranded), with the brooding house looming alarmingly out of the night. Alarms bells should have been sounding even before the hit and run: there’s that enigmatic house with its absentee owners and there’s no sign of the contact. More than that, when one of the men attempts to get through to the young lady via mobile phone, her voice is distant and distorted by a strange static. The silent bulk of the house is home to many secrets, that much is plain: where is their contact, for instance, or what was source of the light briefly seen in an upstairs window? Where are the house’s owners? `
One more example, in what is already a substantially fine collection. Certain Death for a Known Person is probably the best story here, at least for me. A simple premise of a young man visiting the house of the parents of his best mate’s girlfriend, nestled in the heart of the Devonshire countryside. A fracturing of realities – the young man comes from a poor background and the house speaks of money, comfort and security. He already feels uncomfortable and out of place, and then comes a furthering fracturing of reality in the form of a visitor, a menace from outside the circles of familiarity. Questions of what is real and what isn’t come to the fore, and a snatching away of certainties and verities. Also, a challenge presented, completely unlooked for and unwanted, with a warning that words can be slippery things.
Most modern horror tends to the urgent and in some cases to the frenetic – here the stories take their time, building the atmosphere slowly, deliberately, and only dropping the occasional subtle hint here and there about the true nature of what’s going on. It’s very clear from the style and manner of storytelling the strength and depth of the influence his antecedent James has had on him. While they may indeed be reminiscent of an earlier style of writing, it has the effect of enhancing rather than detracting from their contemporary settings. There’s no reliance on blood and gore: instead, the underlying threads of unease worm their insidious ways into the mind as you’re reading, tickling the fear centres and priming them for the clincher’s revelations. Simultaneously, the everyman characters are real enough that we fall into step with them without thinking. This is understated, undemonstrative writing – but don’t for one minute think that it lacks power, because it has that in bucketloads (read the story The First Time for strong evidence of that… and that’s all I’m saying).
This is the third Ash-Tree Press collection I have read and I am quite simply astounded at the consistency of editorial quality displayed across all three. Without hesitation I can recommend as another essential purchase from this Canadian publisher. I have one or two more of their collections to review – if what I have encountered so far is anything to go by, then I am in for yet more treats!!
Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones