by Christopher Fowler
(Warner, 412 pgs, p/b)
This is a collection of 21 short stories, collated by the author himself, spanning his career to date. Fowler is a writer who specialises in suburban terror stories, shot through with the blackest humour. Fowler's vehement introduction (in which is rips into the 'fake' Dickensian high street of Rochester in Kent) sets out the author's somewhat cynical take on society and how it likes to present itself and its history. (It would be interesting to see Fowler's take on some famous events in Britain's past.) What follows are brief excursions into sometimes the slightly odd and sometimes the deliciously insane and surreal.
A story about a visit to the dentist is typical of Fowler's approach. He'll take an everyday occurance and take it into a direction best only visited by those with a sound constitution. In this instance, he goes way over the top (even by his standards) and the piece is less a 'story' than an exercise in describing gore in fine detail. I knew the resolution to Master Builder because I'd seen the American TV movie that was based upon it a few years earlier. Perfect Casting is a predictable, sub-Tales of The 'Unexpected' entry lacking both an explanation and any sense of suspense - one wonders why Fowler chose to include it?, and the gloriously-titled Norman Wisdom and the Angel of Death, fleetingly reminded me of the film The Young Poisoner's Handbook.
South East London crops up frequently in these short stories, and Bad Day at Black Rock features Abbey Wood and Blackheath - both of which are stations on my daily train journey into work and both of which (as if by some weird fatalistic twist) I passed through as I read the story! Bad Day at Black Rock is a fine example of Fowler at his best. Better than most here because the tale is more personal, seemingly drawing more directly from his own childhood. One suspects that aspects of this short story are actually true. It's also one of the least 'fantastic' entries - grounded as it is in the real world of attending secondary school in the suburbs. In marked contrast to Bad Day... is the superb Chang-Siu and the Blade of Grass - set in ancient China, perfectly showcasing Fowler's impressive ability to write in strikingly differing styles.
Thirteen Places of Interest in Kentish Town not only boast a brilliant concept but is tremendously clever and very witty. It is written as one of those travel guides you pick up from local tourist offices that guide you past historical local buildings while providing some detail on their earlier uses and occupants. Without saying too much, this unexceptional document gradually points to an extraordinary sequence of events that one might not suspect from the seemingly innocuous exteriors the reader passes by. Thirteen Places... is one of the best short stories I have ever had the pleasure to read. There are a handful of duds in this collection and with a total 21 stories running to over 400 pages the weakest ones could easily have been lost to the benefit of the book as a whole. At the same time, there are some remarkable entries here that fully justify the praise heaped upon this great English writer.
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