Tom Fletcher, The Leaping (2010)

Reading Tom Fletcher’s short story ‘The Safe Children’ was all it took for me to place his novel The Leaping on my to-read list. Now that novel is here, and it was worth the wait.

The Leaping centres on a group of twenty-something housemates who all work in the same call centre in Manchester, and particularly on Jack, who also has a sideline in writing articles about the paranormal. One day at work, Jack meets – and falls in love with – the beautiful and enigmatic Jennifer, though she warns him that it’ll be an open relationship, as she believes in the free-love ideals of the Sixties. This leads to certain complications involving Jack’s housemate, Francis (who shares the book’s narration with Jack).

Jennifer has recently come into some money after her mother died, and uses it to buy Fell House, a creaking old mansion in Cumbria, where she moves in with Jack. Back in Manchester, the remaining housemates plan a surprise birthday party for Jack – but some uninvited guests turn up, and everyone discovers that there’s some truth to the old tales of werewolves, after all.

One of the first things I noticed about The Leaping is how good a writer of voice Fletcher is. I like the narrative voices to be differentiated in stories with multiple first-person narrators, and Fletcher does this very well indeed.  Francis’s voice is particularly striking, revealing an earnest  personality and an obsessive eye for detail (he lists all his friends’ favourite books, films and music because, he says, ‘the only way of working out the true personality of a person, their true soul, is by their taste’ [42]). Those same character traits are used to brilliant effect later in the novel, when events take a horrific turn.

And it’s the horror where Fletcher’s prose shines its brightest.  The best of his passages about the werewolves are as good as one could wish horror writing to be, as Fletcher captures both the profound horror of having one’s very self undermined and transformed, and the primal attraction of the lycanthropes’ existence. He also gives his werewolves an air of genuine strangeness, which makes even this hoary old staple feel fresh – no mean feat.

Where I think The Leaping is less successful is in its treatment of the larger dichotomy it seemingly aims to dramatise – broadly speaking, that of modern life versus nature. Jack expresses disillusionment with urban life – and, with what he and his colleagues have to put up with at the call centre, it’s no wonder – but the ‘push’ of this doesn’t seem to me to be as strongly felt by the novel as the ‘pull’ towards the wildness of nature. When Jack talks about wanting to run with the werewolves, he does so with a deep yearning that’s woven into the very fabric of his words. But Jack’s comments about city life don’t come close to that, and this imbalance dilutes the impact of the theme.

Even taking this into account, though, The Leaping is still a very good piece of horror fiction. That puts an interesting spin on a venerable motif. After years in the wilderness, horror currently seems to be undergoing something of a resurgence; as long as there are writers like Tom Fletcher working in it, the field is in good hands.

Tom Fletcher’s blog
Kamvision interview with Fletcher

M.G. Preston, ‘Extreme Latitude’ (2010)

A short tale, told in diary form, of a scientist working at a polar weather station, who is slowly driven mad by a constant humming noise. The story works well enough in showing how the protagonist loses his grip on reality, as his diary entries become ever more frantic; but I think it falls down towards the end, because the supernatural interpretation that’s offered doesn’t quite convince, making it hard to accept the ambiguity for which Preston seems to be aiming. Almost there, but not quite.

This story appears in Black Static 16. Read all my posts about that issue here.

Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe (2010)

Given that I rather disliked the two Scarlett Thomas novels I’d previously read (Bright Young Things and PopCo), you might reasonably wonder why I even contemplated reading a third. Curiosity, I suppose — I just wanted to see if I could find one that I liked. And, well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I particularly liked Our Tragic Universe, but certainly I found it a more worthwhile read than those earlier novels.

Meg Carpenter is a struggling writer, trying (and largely failing) to make ends meet with genre novels and reviews of science books. Her latest book for review outlines a theory of how we might all live (subjectively) forever when the universe ends – or, indeed, might already be doing so without knowing it. All nonsense, thinks Meg, and she’s not keen on the idea of living forever anyway. Events take a strange turn, however, when it transpires that her editor didn’t send Meg this book at all – so where did it come from? Is it coincidence, or a sign of higher purpose in the universe? Does Meg even care? Should we?

In some ways, it’s hard to know what to say to a novel that more or less tells you that it’s not going to play ball. There are repeated mentions of concepts like the ‘storyless story’, and Meg comments that she’d prefer it if the universe didn’t have meaning – one can pretty much see where Our Tragic Universe is (or, rather, isn’t) going. This is resolutely a novel of anti-discovery, where the mysteries of the world will not only not be solved, they’ll hardly be investigated; where characters would rather evade their personal problems than tackle them head on (as an example, near the beginning of the book, one of Meg’s friends takes the extreme step of pushing her car into the river to cover up the fact that she’s having an affair); where life goes on, but doesn’t necessarily progress (Meg is supposedly working on a literary novel, but all she ends up doing over the course of Thomas’s book is scrapping more and more of it). But, fair’s fair, we were warned it’d be like this.

As for me, I see in Our Tragic Universe some of the characteristics that irritated me about PopCo and Bright Young Things, notably quite a lot of awkwardly-inserted exposition. But… somehow it doesn’t seem to matter so much this time. I think that’s because the book is so single-minded and open about its intentions (and successful in achieving them) that I’m happy to sit back and let it all unfold. So, I can appreciate that Our Tragic Universe is very good at what it does – as I said earlier, though, liking it is a different matter.

Canongate Books

Tim Casson, ‘The Overseer’ (2010)

Depression-era London: our narrator, Darius, was born into a wealthy family, but is now having to deal with the hard economic times and has taken a job in a factory. He discovers a dark secret at its heart, in the form of the mill’s mysterious masked overseer. Casson evokes the atmosphere of the factory particularly well, and the ending takes the story takes the story off in a fascinating new direction. But the metaphorical underpinning doesn’t seem fully coherent, leaving me with the sense of a story containing two or three ideas that sit quite uncomfortably alongside one another, good though Casson’s writing is.

This story appears in Black Static 16. Read all my posts about that issue here.

Bobbie Darbyshire, Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones (2010)

Friday, 18th February, 2000: a meeting of the book group at Inverness Library. It’s notable because the reclusive writer Marjorie Macpherson is leading a workshop; but three people are making their way to Inverness with agendas that will make this truly an evening like no other. Henry Jennings, a single, middle-aged financial adviser, became infatuated with Marjorie (or, at least, with his mental image of her) from reading her books; now, his chance to meet her has come. Henry’s estranged brother, Peter, has been sent a manuscript of a recent poem in Scottish Gaelic by one Angus Urquhart, with mysterious instructions to return it by hand; as Peter translates the poem, something clicks – could Urquhart be Calum Calum, the subject of Peter’s thesis, whose last known work was composed sixty years previously? And Elena Martìnez also has business with Angus Urquhart, as she believes him to be the veteran of the Spanish Civil War who betrayed her grandfather and brought shame on her family.

Well, this is a very enjoyable book. Bobbie Darbyshire has put together three intertwining storylines that, first of all, are told in very engaging styles. The narration may be third-person, but it nevertheless evokes the different characters of the three protagonists. This happens most strongly in the passages told from Peter’s viewpoint, whose terse sentence-fragments convey a rather irritating personality; but it’s there with the others, too – Henry comes across as essentially a nice man who gets a little too emotionally attached to certain people; Elena’s ‘narrative voice’ is more neutral than the others, but it does capture her hesitancy and feeling of being slightly adrift from the rest of the world, wherever she goes. These voices are highly effective in bringing the reader into and through the story.

But the plot itself is no slouch when it comes to doing that, either. There are some neat twists that reconfigure what we thought we already knew; and, beneath the light exterior, there’s an interesting look at what can happen when a truth you held close to your heart turns out to be less true than you supposed. Love, Revenge & Buttered Scones is a fast, fun read, but not a superficial one. Well worth a look.

Sandstone Press

Steve Rasnic Tem, ‘The Glare and the Glow’ (2010)

A man with a penchant for quotations  (though he can’t always remember who said them) buys some unusual light bulbs that illuminate rather more than he had bargained for. Rasnic Tem pitches the voice of his narrator just right (borderline insufferable, that is), and the tale is short — but it works.

Melanie Tem’s and Steve Rasnic Tem’s website

This story appears in issue 227 of Interzone. Read all my blog posts about that issue here.