by Steve DuffyAsh Tree Press
Review by S. P. Miskowski
Certain names in a horror anthology’s table of contents will automatically compel me to buy the book. Steve Duffy is one of those names. His modern tales of horror, with their sardonic observations on the foibles of human nature as it traipses through the 21st century, are a must-read.
So when Ash-Tree Press announced the publication of Tragic Life Stories, a collection of nine recent Duffy short stories, I had to have a copy. Now that I have read it, I have made a decision: No one other than my husband gets to borrow it. No one else can even look at it, because it’s my cherished copy. If that makes me selfish, big deal.
Tell you what. I’ll share a little of it with you, here in this post. Then you can go buy your own copy.
In her introduction Barbara Roden notes the shift that occurred when the author of the book decided to move from his early career ghost stories, which resided in the world of M.R. James’ antiquarian books and fireside chats among gentlemen of letters, to tales of terror set in a world quite recognizable to today’s reader. This choice, combined with an astonishing ear for common speech and a fascination with what makes people do what they do, is a defining characteristic of Duffy’s recent writing. The eeriness of his prose is often achieved by introducing something weird but entirely plausible in a situation that is mundane and familiar.
We have been to these places, lived in these shabby yet comfortable apartments and houses, observed the odd behavior of a neighbor or a stranger and said, “Hm. I wonder what that’s all about.” Finding out what that’s all about is central to Duffy’s fiction and that is why, when it hits home, it stays with you.
The title story begins with a writer, Dan, perusing the shelves of a local bookstore. Emotionally stunned following the loss of a significant relationship and the cancellation of a book contract, Dan is engaging in that most human and despicable habit of the unhappy writer. He is trashing the published work of other authors. As he moves from a spiteful summation of the popular titles in his genre, fantasy, to the non-fiction section, his angry wit sharpens. Most of the non-fiction takes the form of what Dan calls “tragic life stories.” These are the drug and rehab and dysfunctional family memoirs that have proliferated over the past two decades and have won a multitude of readers who like to wallow in another person’s sorrow.
While grinding his teeth Dan meets a woman of apparently boundless compassion, who shows great interest in him and his writing. She also loves “tragic life stories.” Given the popularity of such memoirs, his current state of mind, and his attraction to this new, possibly romantic interest, it seems natural enough that Dan goes home and promptly begins writing such a memoir from the point of view of a horribly misused boy. From this point on, Dan is living a lie. But the power of his imagination may be greater than he thinks.
In “Tantara” we see a couple taking a day trip. Isobel is indulging in a favorite pastime, studying an old church in a country village. Pete is indulging Isobel and fighting both his boredom and his hatred for anyone they encounter who appears to be much more affluent than they are. Following a strange incident on the road, Pete and Isobel stop for a bite to eat and Pete’s enmity is aroused by a celebration of locals, but he soon makes a discovery that turns his hostility to terror.
“Certain Death for a Known Person” is a slightly more traditional supernatural story. A young man is visited by a being who demands a bargain to save the life of someone the young man knows and cares for. As horror fans know, such a bargain always comes with a catch. The beauty of “Certain Death” is in the cleverness of that catch.
Donna is a new employee trying to begin her job and establish a routine, but her desk and work area have been commandeered by a team of repairmen on an apparently endless assignment to correct “The Fabric of Things” in the crumbling building. In this surreal story Donna makes it her mission to create and define her role as an employee despite the strange machinations of the ubiquitous repairmen.
The protagonists of “Nightmare Farm” and “Someone Across the Way” are men who sense that something unnatural is occurring, the foundations of their carefully established lives have begun to shift. Yet they are powerless to fight the effects, let alone discover the cause, until it is too late. They have become who they are through inertia and when radical change comes to threaten that identity, they have no skills with which to meet it.
These stories might be, at heart, unbearably sad if not for the razor-sharp wit Duffy employs in each characterization. He knows these men, knows their yearnings and dirty secrets, and he draws them so expertly that we laugh at their self-delusion while we fear for their safety. They don’t even have the ability to engage in camaraderie with other men. In “Nightmare Farm” Jamie takes his partner’s recurring, scream-inducing dreams in stride, but he is terrified by the prospect of having to kill time with Garth, “an alarmingly bearded man with no detectable capacity for banter.”
“Only Passing Through Here” is a spooky tale of a burglary gone wrong–as wrong as it can get. And “Numbers” charts the bizarre history and tangled myths that attempt to explain inexplicable illness and death in the days before AIDS research provided its own (also unsatisfactory for the human soul) answers.
The crowning achievement of the collection is the superb story “The First Time.” Here memory and middle age reflect upon a breathtaking moment of youthful passion. The boy on the verge of being a man has grown up to be something other than he imagined. He is now haunted by a single act for which he can never atone, and which has altered the course of his life. Despite its supernatural elements “The First Time” is a genre-breaking tale of regret and remembered desire that will linger with the reader for a long time.
Steve Duffy is much loved and widely published, so look for his work in anthologies and future collections. For now you can find a long list of his credits at Goodreads.