Now, from Parallel Universe Publications, a publishing house owned by another of those original Pan authors, David A Riley, comes Craig Herbertson’s new collection The Heaven Maker and Other Gruesome Tales.
“What I am less sure about is the figures: Strange, ethereal silhouettes like crucified saints crowding the door frame; tormented angels grasping outwards, begging me to enter.”
Another short one is Spanish Suite, concerning Paul Brown, a travelling rep for Cameron’s Sweets who’s been sent to tour the Continent with the intention of extending old man Cameron’s boiled sweet empire across
Mulholland is not just a character grown out of the Bellport school stories but Craig’s narrator, his guide to the story, an earth to channel the source material. In Not Waving Lotte reveals to Mulholland how she remembers her childhood holiday with a boy called Rin in a small French village in the perfect summer of 1973 in the house rented by her parents, Le Manoir, a rambling building perfect for children, cluttered with books (which her mother observes cynically were probably never read, being intended only for show) and the discovery of a case full of ‘real’ books, detective thrillers, which meet with her mother’s approval. The top floor of the house is uninhabited, and there is of course one door which is locked, no key to be found. This is a strikingly mature story; at risk of sounding too fey, it’s bewitching, full of colour and light, and brilliantly told. It’s also quite horrible and, as with many of these stories, will stay with you some time after reading.
The Navigator poses the question: If life is a journey then can a car trip be analogous to Dermott and Jane’s marriage? As the countryside gets less and less familiar, the smug feminine voice of the GPS begins to grate on Dermott’s nerves, and he’s convinced he knows a better route. Why do they design these systems with female voices anyway? It’s just asking for trouble when a bloke’s behind the wheel.
But Anne doesn’t need a GPS as she cycles home after her massage session, in Steel Works. The massage has left her feeling relaxed but with senses heightened and all a-tingle. Her surroundings take on an almost hallucinatory quality. But why does the familiar site of the old steel works, belching smoke and shattering the night with flickering light, fill her with such disquiet? And why does she seem compelled to approach it? This brilliant little gem of a story poses more questions than it answers. Are we reading about a mind shattered by abuse or does something even more monstrous lie in wait for her? This one reminded me by turns of the writing of Thomas Ligotti and Robert Aickman and, days after reading, it remains disturbingly fresh in memory.
The Anningley Sundial: "As he turned from the door a rather peculiar thing happened. He had left the mezzotint face up on his deal table during the transaction. Perhaps it was simply a trick of the lights but it seemed for a second that something ran swiftly across its surface. Nobody is really fond of insects on their table and Mulholland was hardly an exception; but his impression when he reflected on it was that the thing he had seen was not after all an insect but something that bore an uncanny resemblance to a tiny shambling figure; a figure of disturbing appearance that one might observe in a series of frames in a creaky old silent film."
“M R James was always a favourite,” writes Craig, “and I sent Mulholland scurrying after him in 2011…”
Now personally, I’ve quite a strong resistance to stories in the M R James style. I must stress that it’s a personal thing; sometimes for my own amusement as I read these stories I imagine bands of rioting football fans rampaging through all those cosy studies, throwing dusty bottles of port into glass-fronted bookcases and scattering glowing coals from the grate across priceless Turkish carpets, trashing, smashing and generally not being nice to everything that clutters up the story. Truth is, this sequel to The Mezzotint isn’t half bad. Every time I decided I was going to pan it, I found I was stumbling into another passage like this one: “In the instant where the snow sprayed to left and right Norton’s moving hand gave an illusory movement to the carved surface of the podium. What he saw was a large Pholcus phalangioides, known by children the world over as the ‘daddy-long-legs spider’. As a child he had never been terribly frightened of this ungainly creature with its long fragile legs. As an adult he had become aware that this was the spider that ate other spiders. Not a pleasant thought; and in that second the grotesque thing had seemed to move. In the half shadow Mulholland leapt back and then almost in reaction, craned his head forward and saw how much he was mistaken. “He saw before him, the surface of a sundial; the ‘spider’ merely the long radial lines and crabbed markings of the hours.”
The writing in this story is frequently so exquisite that it leaves me with my personal prejudices in a bit of an awkward place. So what would you say? Leave the writing to speak for itself, I guess.
Leibnitz’s Last Puzzle