I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to set aside a dedicated area of the website for the writing I’ve done between my (first) graduation way back in 2012 and 2016 when I landed my first secure writing position. Which is technically ghost-writing so I don’t think I’d be allowed to reproduce my work here even if each assignment wasn’t thousands of words long…
Not including my uni literature essays (which are often really just glorified book reviews IMO) I’ve written a number of reviews early on in my freelancing days for sites that seemingly barely saw the light of day before disappearing. On more than one occasion, they swallowed my work along with it on their way into the digital abyss, and so I certainly learned a thing or two at the time about backing up my work. Thankfully most of it still survives, and in order to prove that I actually do have an extensive (albeit sporadic) writing history, I’ve decided to upload them all here as a sort of portfolio.
I’ve organised the reviews by genre to the best of my ability, with the exception of my more recently written comic reviews here – they range from new indie releases (with a surprising quantity of them having a vampire theme) to a rock-star-comic-book-crossover series to the new X-Files and both the old and new Twilight Zone.
Modern Scottish Fiction
“The Ossians” by Doug Johnstone (2008, Viking)
“The Ossians” is the tale of an up-and-coming band’s chaotic and unpredictable tour round Scotland, fronted by the equally chaotic and unpredictable Connor, who largely experiences everything in a drink and drug addled haze. Connor is portrayed from the very beginning as unreliable, flaky and incredibly frustrating for everyone else in his life – but somehow, charming enough to be able to keep them around for the long run.
From the beginning, each chapter opens with a choice band lyric, for example: “I know that we’ve been drinking / But I’ve had a great idea / Let’s drown this land tomorrow / Let’s wash it all away.” This allows the story to quickly descends into a tone of cynical nihilism which pervades the entire narrative. Early on, Connor and Kate, twin brother and sister (and bandmates) scrutinise what it means to be Scottish today. In Connor’s opinion, after centuries of history, Scotland is summed up, in a decidedly unimpressed tone, by “Tartan and golf. Whoopee.”
Yet this is enough to awaken a sense of exploration which leads to a succession of disastrous pit-stops along the way, punctuated by bizarre events and ruined gigs, frequently by hecklers and dodgy characters, but mostly by Connor’s torment at the hands of a blackmailer who has him on a leash in the form of a mobile phone. This secret Connor keeps from the rest of the band, so they are not fully aware of the sheer extent of his troubles, which become exacerbated quickly in the days to come.
While alienating his girlfriend Hannah, the “responsible” one, the experience brings together his sister Kate and fellow bandmate Danny, who are forced to look on as Connor spirals further down into self-destruction – all while being followed by a mysterious figure – a dedicated fan or something else..?
Culminating in Connor going on the bender of a lifetime and getting lost in the Highlands, in a desperate “pilgrimage” to the mythical lake Ossian, somehow he has enough of a revelation, about himself and his native country, to pull it together straggle behind his bandmates onto Glasgow, the last leg of their tour, and ultimately to be their swansong. It is not entirely clear what the “revelation” will mean for Connor, or even what it is exactly, but being in such a dire situation in the middle of nowhere is enough to make him think twice about everything. He returns to the band then they play one last time. Of course, they go out with a bang, and they return to their hometown and disband in peace, at least for the time being.
Overall “The Ossians” would seem to be a wry cautionary tale about young people – or a young person – who get caught up in themselves and the idea of something, rather than the reality. While the tour of Scotland provides the allegory of exploration, ultimately the relentless – and often vain – search for a sense of identity can only last so long, and as things wind down to a close, Connor realises his own limitation, and the “Scottish question” remains open for the asking.
“The Trick Is To Keep Breathing” by Janice Galloway
“The Trick is to Keep Breathing” is a fragmented and revealing insight into the mind of a young woman, and reluctant narrator, who does not really want to let you know how she is really thinking or feeling, putting a brave face on everything.
The narration is consistently dispassionate, simply observing and describing everything in her “average day” as she goes along. Signs materialize out of nowhere, giving no real indication of where she is, or is going, and lists offer more of a sign of the order in which she tries to keep everything. She doesn’t even want to let you know her real name, only later on revealing it as Joy, or Miss Stone.
Clues being to creep in that she is troubled deep down. A mural she sees in passing is described as having a traditional family with a “snake-green lawn”, and the way the words are written often resemble a thought process, non-linear but far more revealing of how she’s really feeling. The first interaction in the story comes from a health visitor, which is the first external “evidence” that she is suffering from an unspecified condition, the nature of which we can only glean from more clues further one.
Dissociation pervades the narrative. Being in crowds makes Joyce “depressed… As though I’m trapped in a coop full of hens for the slaughterhouse.” When she does talk to other people, the conversations read almost – and in one case exactly, like a script, showing that she sees herself as simply performing a role which she has to keep on playing. Her best friend is away on holiday for the duration of the story, sending by post her own fragments of a lifestyle which Joy can only imagine from a distance.
The first full “conversation” has only one side, when she settles down to read a magazine, and the horoscopes and advice columns and articles all promise something which Joy somehow feels she doesn’t deserve.
She begins to have flashbacks, which initially seem vague and detached, as if they are fragments of a dream, but soon it becomes more obvious that they are flashbacks of memories, and of one in particular, which contains a past tragedy. Some time ago, she had begun an affair with a married man, and from the flashbacks which continue throughout the story, she really did love him and was loved in return. One dark day, he drowned on holiday and, retrospectively, we can see how Joy was once a happy and life-loving young woman, and one who, if anything, followed her heart to a fault, finding the love she wanted and needed in the wrong place, yet placing no blame when the tragic ending came.
Yet somehow she pushes on with the “play”, finding her way to a place where she is perhaps not quite happy, but can keep going on with her life, with the implication that maybe one day, if she’s lucky, happiness will follow on its own.
Janice Galloway has a way of putting thoughts and feeling down on the page which are far more telling than doing so in the “conventional way”, which show the confusion which the narrator often feels when they see themselves as being separate from everyone else. “The Trick is to Keep Breathing” walks the person reading, in the narrator’s own way, through the precise nature of the things they have to do just to keep going.
“All Made Up” by Janice Galloway (2012, Granta Books)
“All Made Up” by Janice Galloway, is the second part of an autobiography of the author’s early life, and this edition focuses on her teenage and young adult years, forming her identity.
The first edition, “This is not about me”, recalls her unconventional and often bizarrely comic upbringing in Saltcoats, Ardrossan, by her single mother and her semi-present and volatile older sister Cora. Galloway became familiar with family conflict and strife – and the family curse of feeling shame – very early on, but proved herself resilient enough to simply keep her head down, and in a book most of the time, as a means of coping.
For the most part, this continues into her adolescence; crammed into a tiny council house with her mother and sister for constant company, their clashes in personality are amplified even more, because if anything, she becomes even more “bookish” than before, in direct contrast to the other women in the family who are more at home with the TV always on, and usually an argument going on. Chided for trying to learn things which are “above” the family all the time – “who do you think you are?” is a common refrain – she continues nonetheless, and by the time she reaches Ardrossan Academy, she acquires more outlets for her inner life.
In attending a school which seemed to be equally progressive in its curriculum and quality of teaching, young Janice seems to flourish, especially, in her learning of music (joining an orchestra) and Latin (which she claims can lend all the more meaning to almost everything in life) and appears to be in short, a star pupil with a promising future.
However, this being the early seventies, when society was becoming more permissive towards young people than ever before, Janice too would become more rebellious and daring in turn, doing things which were frowned upon a generation before, such as having boyfriends, skipping school, and more controversially, harbouring an ambition to become a composer or a scholar in Latin, which girls still “didn’t do” in that day.
Despite all the trouble – from family and otherwise – that is flung her way, she evidently never loses interest in her studying and her strong love of learning. In any case, the sharpness of her memory – to retain so much minute detail of what had happened decades before writing – has to be nothing short of remarkable. The writer who Galloway would later become can be seen in the conversational yet elegantly written tone which helps to form this portrait of complicated teenage life.
The Year Of Open Doors – A Scottish writing anthology (2011, Cargo Publishing)
The Year of Open Doors is an anthology of modern Scottish writing, with the input of writers from various social and cultural backgrounds, all of who make up the nation that Scotland is becoming. Each story offers a personal glimpse into the life of a modern Scottish person, although since there are so many stories, I will highlight a few in particular which stand out in a unique way.
The anthology begins with an open door “theme”, in the story, “One Year The Door Will Open” by Ryan Van Winkle, in which the narrator compares himself to a door, with which he has certain things in common. The door, he says, is painted and repainted constantly throughout its “life”, in ways that often reflect the mood of the people dwelling within, such as “argument red, family yellow, divorce brown”.
In “Omu Prin & Me” by Daibhidh Martin, a young man visiting a remote area of Scotland encounters an older man with a tragedy in his past, his wife having been swept away by a rip-tide, but who still manages to find joy in life (“I was enchanted, watching a sixty-year-old man dance so carefree. The older man has tried to come to terms with it by building a gate from pieces of debris he has found washed up on the shore – a poignant symbol of trying to bring back the spirit of his wife, and also a reflection of how things from far away places can find their way to one’s home.
“Playground Rules” by Doug Johnstone (who has already become a prolific writer in Scotland) is another story tainted by tragedy; a young father takes his son to his first day at school, while coming to terms with causing the death of his wife in a car accident shortly after the son was born. Until this point he and his son had been coping, as he says that “We were in our own unburstable bubble back then,” before this day. Before long, the harsh re-integration into “society” proves too much for the father, as he realises that he can no longer shield his son from “real life.”
A clash of cultures is portrayed to provocative effect in “Colin’s Nation” by Anneliese Mackintosh, in which a white Scottish mother routinely takes her daughter to be looked after by Indian immigrants after school, with the father of the family repaying the girl’s parents with samples of their national cuisine. This time, the mother invites the Indian family over in a gesture of hospitality, only to make the faux-pas of preparing an elaborate feast for them during Ramadan. Some underlying tensions, however, emerge during the interaction between the young girl and the family’s young boy, who end up – during their innocent play – bringing up their ancestors’ shared history. Most tellingly, the topic of “Colin’s Nation” (meaning “colonisation”) serves to draw a sharp divide between children, who might have gotten along perfectly fine otherwise.
The last story in the anthology, “A Snake Drinks Water And Makes Poison, A Cow Drinks Water And Makes Milk”, by Kevin MacNeil, is a heavily impacting account of a Scot on holiday in Indonesia; incidentally, in the area which would be worst affected by the 2004 tsunami which swept right across the areas in the Indian Ocean.
The Scot in the tale is initially just one of many other people of various nationalities, all there on vacation, until natural disaster strikes, and forces strangers to join together in order to survive. The narrator of this tale spots a young girl, and without a word of introduction, sweeps her up and runs away with her to safety. This is indicative of the potential to transcend national boundaries, even if people don’t typically choose to do so except in dire circumstances such as these.
“Dodger” by Terry Pratchett (2012, Doubleday Childrens)
“Dodger” is the latest and highly anticipated new book by Terry Pratchett; but unlike the brilliantly fantastical writing for which he has become renowned and known by, this offering reads more like a wry crime caper through the underbelly of Victorian London.
The story is told (in third person) mostly through the eyes of the young boy known as Dodger, having earned the name by moving quickly, which with the kind of life he leads is in fact necessary.
Although a drastic change in direction for Pratchett, his typical sense of satire – and a tendency to never convey anything too seriously – are ever present throughout the story. Clearly an homage to Charles Dickens from the start, Dickens – known as “Charlie” even makes an appearance as a supporting character, and in his interactions with Didger, adding something of a “meta” quality to the whole thing. Even a sneaky “Can I have some more?” is rather knowingly put in there…
Furthermore, despite Victorian London being notoriously unforgiving of those down on their luck, or otherwise fallen on bad fortune, Dodger is helped out by a few forgiving people; firstly the maid of the household he is part of for a short period of time, and then by Solomon Cohen, a devoutly Jewish and street-wise man with a habit of saying “mmm” constantly. It is not long before Dodger focuses his attention on an unfortunate young woman known only as “Simplicity” who falls foul of some shady men and whom he takes it upon himself to help to save.
Simplicity, however, remains a rather vague character, about whom we learn relatively little. She shows some resilience which lend her a slightly stronger presence as the story goes on but, unfortunately, her character is never really developed in a satisfactory way (perhaps in itself an echo to Dickens’ tendency to underwrite female characters in his writing?). Indeed Simplicity, near the end of the story, appears to be subsumed into another similar character known only as Serendipity, who appears to merely replace Simplicity.
However, this is otherwise a well-written and witty tale. Despite being typically “Pratchett-style” in the way the characters are conveyed and how the story seems to unfold almost randomly, it is clear that Pratchett has done research into the reality of Victorian London, and indeed it reads in a sufficiently contemporary way that the story could almost be read as a comical take on what could very well have been written at the time.
Well worth a read whether or not you are a Terry Pratchett fan.
The Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor (2004, Vintage)
About a decade prior to today, Irish author Joseph O’Connor released the historical novel Star of the Sea, combining fact and fiction in an innovative way to create a tale – a collective biography – depicting the harrowing journey undergone by Irish immigrants escaping the terrible famine ravaging the country. This period in history would come to be widely known as “the greatest social catastrophe of 19th century Europe,” as described in a review of the novel upon its release by Terry Eagleton. Such was the immense scale of human loss and sacrifice.
The main event in the narrative – the Star of the Sea voyage – takes place in 1847, with the details of various passengers’ life stories continually emerging. These eventually combine to create a collage of human experience within the context of “History” which manage to be every bit as evocative, as if it were written –or compiled as the case seems to be – into a present-day diary.
The voyage of the Star of the Sea to America became infamous as one of the most deadly of those many that attempted a similar path across the ocean, claiming lives relentlessly throughout the journey – with a cruel irony, some even before the journey had begun.
The “menace” of the impending journey is established early; the “viciously black water which could explode at the slightest provocation” already sets a dangerous and foreboding atmosphere. A dark figure – the Ghost, or the Monster, as he is described in the passage, whose real name is Pius Mulvey, stalks the decks, adding menace to an already apprehensive atmosphere. “He seemed to carry an indescribable burden” – that burden being the “mission” he was being coerced into undertaking at some point during the journey.
Then we meet the troubled couple, David and Laura Merrdith, and their nanny Mary Duane, all of whom are linked in more ways than what it appears to be on the surface. It transpires, unfortunately not surprisingly at the time, that David had been propositioning Mary, but simply to watch her undress and nothing more. It is not clear whether Laura realises what occurs between them but they become an almost normally squabbling couple; “Abusing each other had become a kind of pantomime,”
David soon comes to blows with the claiming-to-be enlightened and self-promoting American, Mr Dixon, who takes a fashionably liberal stance towards the plight of immigrants and the ongoing slavery which was rife in America at the time; ie., “Treat a man like a savage and he’ll behave like one”. This certainly contrasts heavily with the virulent extracts from the magazines, but even here there seems to be a scale of discrimination. However, soon even Mr Dixon veers slightly from his supposedly liberal agenda, to comment on the many troubles Ireland was facing at the time, saying simply that “its nom de guerre is Laissez Faire.”
Inevitably, the class system was going to infiltrate Irish society, if not in legal terms then certainly in attitude. Ships at the time would be holding these people together for great lengths of time, so many would revert back to the familiar class system in order to reassure the passengers that not all law and order was lost at sea; that this happens on a ship with primarily Irish people, most of whom are merely trying to survive, is in itself worthy of note.
It soon emerges that Mulvey, his brother and Mary Duane have a history; Mulvey, rebelling against taking the priesthood like his brother, got involved with Mary Duane, resulting in a sort of “love triangle”. When Mary ends up in “the family way” as it was called back then, Mulvey leaves abruptly, with Mary soon suffering a miscarriage. Shunned by the Mulvey brothers, and by society, she was forced into prostitution for some time before being adopted into the Merridith family as a nanny.
However, it is Pius Mulvey who perhaps has the darkest story to tell; after the “incident” with his brother and Mary Duane, he essentially goes “on the run”; he goes to the city, eventually ending up in London, and ending up in a life of crime, keeps going under new aliases to fit in. However, his past does not get left behind completely, as shady acquaintances blackmail him into carrying out another murder on the Star of the Sea – the intended victim being David Merridith – before reaching the shore.
Just as the ship was so unbearably close to shore at home, problems begin to arise as the ship draws tantalisingly close to the American shore. Immigration issues mean that the ship is not allowed to dock and allow its passengers to disembark, so technically, while the ship is so close to shore, it and everyone within is still subject to the laws of the old country. People continue to die, and others in desperation – just as before – leap off the ship and swim to shore.
Furthermore, Mulvey has been carrying the burden of his past and the task he’s been assigned for some time, continually “speaking at an angle”, prompting him to actually warn Merridith of the plot, saving his life initially and absolving himself of the responsibility, yet someone else ends up taking it upon themselves to kill Merridith, giving a tragic foreshadowing quality to someone saying not long before, “one of them would never set foot in Manhattan,”
The Star of the Sea had become a prison, and by the end of the journey, in the literal sense. A prison which, those who did survive, grew more determined to escape; when that day finally did come, the fates of the characters on board the Star of the Sea proved to be variable. After the death of her husband, Laura Merridith and her sons try to repair and restart their lives in the New World, while Mulvey ends up not being able to escape his past entirely, as he ends up being caught and murdered quite gruesomely, putting an abrupt end to his troubled life of crime. Meanwhile, there is the unexplained disappearance of Mary Duane – she embarked upon the New World never to be seen again. Hints of her whereabouts, and possible identity, crop up all over the country, but no-one can be sure that it is in fact Mary, because she disappears again just as quickly.
Even in the time since this novel’s release, there have been far more Irish authors approaching the subject of their nationality, and its troubled history. Joseph O’Connor has articulated this traumatic time in Ireland’s history, using fact and fiction in turn, where they are deemed necessary. Possibly the most “true-to-life” example, if not entirely anchored in fact, of life on board the “Star of the Sea” in the deadly winter crossing of 1847, as there is likely to be.
“Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka (2015, Penguin Modern Classics)
“Metamorphosis” (1913) is most likely the best known short story by Franz Kafka (1883-1924), which explores the possibilities of a physical transformation. Its stark narrative style is what makes this particular story all the more striking.
The story begins, innocuously, with the statement that Gregor Samsa has been transformed overnight into a giant insect (as can happen). What immediately follows this revelation is simply an inner monologue of someone becoming accustomed to such a transformation. Describing how his new limbs “waved feebly” in his helpless state, his thoughts turn almost immediately to his job, and how he will manage to get there today.
Before long, the people in his life begin to show up, demanding to know why he is not making an appearance. His family demand to know why he is not awake and fulfilling his duty of going to work and bringing in an income (he is the sole breadwinner for the whole family). More bizarrely, soon his boss turns up, also demanding to know why he hasn’t shown up on time. Soon, we gain an impression of just how “put upon” Samsa really is in his everyday life, in which he is, apparently, merely a cog in the societal machine, chained to a home, and to a workplace, “where the smallest lapse was greeted with the gravest suspicion.”
Although he dreams of telling his superiors where to go and quitting his job altogether, Samsa accepts that this is not an option, and that his main priority should be to get out of his “present fanciful state” and return to normal as soon as possible – but mostly to appease his boss and his family.
When, eventually, his “state” is made known to them, their reaction is, of course, one of horror and revulsion – but not at all of concern for the young man. They now treat him as if he is merely the creature that he has become, but do concede to feeding him and rearranging his room to suit his condition out of a reluctant obligation. However he is essentially banished from participation in the family and is shooed away. Succumbing to his unfortunate condition, he becomes ill and dies, which with a cruel twist of irony, becomes the only way he, and his family, are able to gain any respite from the situation.
Although surreal in its premise, Kafka’s narrative style, combining realism with marked nonchalance, manages to explore the probable aftermath of such a transformation in the real life of Samsa. In narrating the quiet reflections of Samsa in his state, more is revealed about the “rat race” of working life, and the extent of the depersonalisation it can cause.
“Metamorphosis” certainly manages to epitomise, in a relatively short space of time, the definition of “Kafkaesque.”
“Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino (1997 Penguin Classics)
The author of Invisible Cities (1972), Italo Calvino, is known for writing stories that do not immediately resemble “real life” as it is commonly experienced, and this is a prime example. The traveller is someone we ultimately come to know little of in a personal sense, except through his stories to come, which are quite out of the ordinary. Even the all-conquering emperor Kublai Khan does not have much, if any, story devoted to himself, as the focus falls in favour of that which is greater than either of the men.
Nevertheless, upon the traveller’s return, Kublai Khan listens to the Venetian traveller Marco Polo recount his tales of many cities, all different in their own ways but with common themes running through each one. He is often disbelieving but has no choice but to take his word for it because he has tried and failed to understand the workings of any city he has conquered, and how to stop them going to ruin.
Marco Polo does provide Kublai Khan with physical evidence of his travels, but it is the vivid way in which he describes each city that eventually makes Khan believe.
“When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city” – however every chapter in this book describes a different city anew, so it would be virtually impossible to describe every one without narrating the whole story. A few stand out in their strangeness, such as the ever-changing city of Eutropia, in which people change their role within the city at regular intervals so things never remain the same, and the city of Octavia, which is suspended on a spider-web between two precipices and everything is very physically precarious and hangs by a thread, literally.
There are frequent philosophical musings which emerge here and there, such as when Khan learns of the importance of a city’s structure to make it whole. However, it soon becomes obvious that Marco Polo is describing a facet of the city of Venice in each tale of a city, and indeed certain common themes appear in most of the cities, such as the canals, the ancient architecture and the thriving communal lifestyle.
Marco Polo continues to describe more cities, each becoming stranger than the last one, Kublai Khan grows determined to find such a city, and in his mind begins to build a model city from scratch, made up of the various parts of each other city, and he eventually produces an atlas of cities which, it is not entirely clear, were drawn from knowledge or from description. Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan that there is only a specific way to gain access to each city, and it is not always the obvious way.
Each city is invisible, apparently, to everyone except the honoured traveller who gets to see, or at least envisage, each one, but it is this vision which leads, simultaneously, disbelief on the part of the listener, and a compulsion to try to recreate the vision.
“Mind Café – a short story” by Lizzie Ford (2010, Kettlecorn Press)
This is a short but very poignant story, with a subject which can be picked up on right from the beginning. It is a middle-aged woman who, having had a severe car accident when only aged 24, is left paralyzed and is narrating her experience as a “thinking vegetable.”
It is soon clear that she has been this way for a long time from the way she speaks of how “(the nurse) treated me like she did any other piece of furniture” which in itself highlights the obvious tragedy of such a situation.
However she does not invite pity; in a consistently wry tone, she introduces her own imaginary refuge called the “mind café” in which she continues her career in writing and chats with people she knew from her “former life” who are now visitors, and who in reality aren’t able to hear her side of the conversation. It transpires later that one of her visitors has invented a device that allows her to communicate partially by blinking.
As youthful ambitions are recalled, it is all the more tragic that these never came to happen, and people come and go from her life, while she is forced to remain stationary for the rest of her own.
By the end of the story, she is isolated from human contact even more, her only comfort being a priest who reads her the Bible, one story in particular she appreciates because “he was the one poor soul whose life was worse than mine,”
Although we are discouraged from feeling too sorry for this woman, it becomes inevitable to acknowledge that what is taken for granted can be so suddenly taken away, from a relatively new author who already shows a good deal of promise.
“Telescope” by Jonathan Buckley (2011, Sort Of)
Telescope is an insightful recent novella, told from the perspective of Daniel, a man who has suffered from a severe disfigurement all his life, which forces him to become a recluse, relying on the kindness of carers who are up to the “challenge.”
The most recent candidate is Ellen, a kindly but take-no-nonsense kind of woman, who barely flinches when seeing him for the first time, and with many a life story to tell – leading Daniel to explore the narrative of his own life.
The tragedy of Daniel’s condition is apparently in snippets of detail from his childhood, when passed around several baffled doctors and largely shunned by society – inducing fear and pity in passersby – until a rare few see through to his personality, and become part of his life.
Yet his family are united and largely accepting of his condition, and through Daniel’s reminiscences we are told lots of other interesting stories about their own lives, and how they intersect with each other over time.
One prominent member is his sister Celia, a free-spirited and restless woman who moves from country to country (and man to man) in a bid to find a sense of stability.
There are his nephews, Peter and Freddie, who grow up to, unfortunately, each to become damaged in some way. There are his parents, who followed their own roundabout path towards finding each other, settling down, and sadly eventually succumbing to ill health and the stress of the circumstances which were to come.
There is Ellen herself, who has also been unlucky in love, but manages to find her backbone and get out of a loveless marriage. Each family member is shown, in their own way, to be capable of being strong.
Indeed, in the telling of these stories (which take up most of the narrative) it is almost as if Daniel is living vicariously through them, and notably dwells little on the details of his condition, seeming to prefer referring to it in background detail rather than making it the focus of the story.
The title of the story is only explained clearly near the end, when the older generation laments the unfortunate reality of ageing; that it is like looking at youth through a telescope (in which youth appears closer than it really is), whereas for the young, looking at the older generation is like looking through the wrong end of the telescope, in which case ageing seems so much further away. For Daniel, perception has been a problem all his life, whether it’s people’s perception of him, or his own perception of life, having to live it with a very rare disability.
Overall this is an interesting read with no clear “moral of the tale”, which doesn’t try to elicit pity on behalf of the narrator, but merely goes to show that everyone has their difficulties in life, and that sometimes, these stories can be told more clearly by someone on the “outside.”
“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 has become something of a classic, not only for “hard-core” fans of Ray Bradbury, but among many others who see the world going down the path of doing away with the written word, lest it offend anyone. Sixty years on, what Bradbury saw the future as being – in spirit if not in the literal sense – does not seem too far-fetched if one considers this to be the age of Dumbing Down.
The action beings with Guy Montag, a “fireman” on the job, which is basically to hunt down, and burn, any books that may still be in existence. The very first line is “It was a pleasure to burn.”, and Bradbury evokes a strong image, saying that “he strode in a swarm of fireflies”, and when he meets an unusual, and highly inquisitive, teenage girl on the walk home (walking home, in itself, considered a suspicious activity), Montag furthers the anti-hero image by saying ““Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.”
But it is not long before, through the girl’s persistence, he is given pause for thought, and begins to wonder just why his job is of such vital importance. The first major indication of something gone amiss is when he has to take his wife home from the hospital, who has apparently attempted suicide, but is given drugs so that she has no memory of doing so. Realising that he, and his wife, may be less than content in their (allegedly) idyllic book-free existence, he begins to question everything more outwardly. But it seems that Montag is the odd man out in this case, from the robot Hound which blindly follows orders (“It doesn’t think anything we don’t want it to think”) to his colleagues, who are adamant that they are performing a public service (“Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”)
When his wife, and the mysterious young girl (also allegedly) disappear without a trace, and after a traumatic job assignment in which a woman is burned along with the books she tries desperately to hold onto, Montag decides enough is enough, and goes on the run, in a quest for any literary knowledge, any “texture of information” that may remain.
Bradbury, wryly and shrewdly, depicts a not-too-unrealistic world, in which books are seen as the enemy, rather than the ally, of the moral progress of human civilisation. Written not too long since a time when much book-burning was in fact taking place, Bradbury effectively draws attention to the notion that a totalitarian approach to the censorship of knowledge may lie in wait in the not-too-distant future.
Modern Horror Fiction
“In the Shadow of St. Anthony” by Andrew Hernon (2015, CreateSpace)
This is a story peering into the lives of a group of residents of 1980s New York (culturally Italian), who are only casually connected at the beginning but who all, in some way, become entangled with a dark presence haunting the area.
Although this is a “self-named account of… Tommy Santalesa, the neighbourhood wiseass” it is almost equally about Frank, his bandmate in an outfit deemed to be “the next big thing” on the music scene; Anne Marie, Tommy’s love interest who won’t give him the time of day; Amy, Frank’s love interest who mysteriously goes missing; Cynthia, the veterinarian assistant who is in love with Myers the veterinarian; Lucchese, the neighbourhood “dark horse” and a literal dark force which follows the residents around, even taking some of them captive, as evidenced in the very first chapter of the story. This dark force attaches itself to Frank, traumatised by Amy’s disappearance, and takes on the form of an attractive woman, who turns out to be a vampire. It is a novel which is, equally, part coming-of-age tale and part horror story.
This is author Andrew Hernon’s second novel, and appears to be inspired by his New York upbringing – at least in as far as the story’s setting. The unpretentious writing style allows the reader to better imagine the lifestyle, dialect and emotions of young people at the centre of the emerging punk rock scene. The narrative seems rather disjointed in the first half of the novel, with the supposedly connected characters’ almost completely unrelated storylines, which risks derailing the main plot, but eventually everyone comes together to search for Frank – especially Tommy – when the former falls victim to the vampire. The novel could also use a little editing, as words are missing here and there and some words are often repeated, but they are few and far enough not to distract too much from the story. Furthermore, despite being a rebellious tale encapsulating both elements of horror and youthful rebellion, there is a distinctly religious presence throughout, with the literal shadow of the parish of St. Anthony looming in the area, and a priest who seems to seriously have something against Lucchese, seemingly watching everything he, and perhaps everyone else, is doing. The themes of vampirism and Catholicism would initially appear to clash but they both deal with the strong superstitions which many of these communities would have.
IN THE SHADOW OF ST. ANTHONY connects several people within a community in a dark tale which preys upon a common fear of dark forces, and is an ideal read for those who are interested in horror, vampire mythology and 1980s American culture.