by Steve Duffy
305 pages, PS Publishing
Review by S.P. Miskowski
Steve Duffy’s latest collection is The Moment of Panic, a PS Publishing edition with stunning cover art by Kai Otstak. The stories range over various geographic locations and an eclectic assembly of characters. Yet the author maintains sharp focus with what he calls, in Weird Fiction Review, "a fondness for weirdness that takes place in demonstrably real surroundings."
Given a choice between a whimsical setting and verisimilitude, Duffy chooses the latter and then advances the strange element of each tale to its most drastic, natural conclusion. This is why his stories are so unsettling. We feel that we’ve walked these streets. We’ve followed a map to a once-familiar house. We’ve stared at trees in snow, on a winter’s night, and wondered if the skittering movement between them could be more than an optical illusion. We can almost identify the source of our troubles in that movement, yet we dread the final reveal. This combination of the known and the unknown is what makes Duffy’s stories thrilling to read, and hard to forget.
There are no weak spots in this collection. I was impressed by the author’s craftsmanship and inventiveness throughout the book. More important, I was caught up in the perfectly calibrated "real world" he has created. I’ll try to give you a sense of each story in this volume without spoiling the marvelous plot twists.
A new employee gets a ride to a remote assignment and, on the way, the driver tells him what to expect when he arrives. Anyone can recognize the natural anxiety associated with this situation. But the author takes apprehension a step further. The narrator’s job is surveillance. His targets, viewed from the trailer where he’s stationed, don’t appear to move while he’s watching. And the logbooks on hand indicate that the job may be more mysterious, and more frightening, than he imagined.
With this first disturbing tale, the author establishes how he will examine the lives of his characters. We’re given the measure and the nature of spaces, both public and private, and their significance to each protagonist. Images of people going to unknown or unfamiliar locations recur throughout the collection, along with attempts at gaining perspective by looking at these locations and the people in them from different angles, or captured within a manageable frame (whether a doorway, a window, a mirror, or binoculars). Emotional or mental disorientation accompanies the navigation of strange places, trapping and changing the protagonist, and leaving the reader with a feeling of having made a narrow escape.
"The A to Z"
If you’ve ever dug through an address book in search of a half-forgotten acquaintance, you will understand the loneliness of Hugo during the winter holidays. When he spies a provocative message next to a map in his tattered street atlas, he decides to venture forth and reclaim a moment from the past. He vaguely recalls the debauchery of a drunken encounter with the woman who scribbled in his street atlas. With every step of the journey back to that night, however, Hugo remembers a bit more, and the memory grows less sweet.
"Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed"
Four people sailing a boat at night admire the impenetrable darkness of the water. When they rescue and try to identify a drowning man, they realize how far they’ve drifted from safety."Vulnavia, or, The Mechanical Princess"
Fans of Dr. Phibes, take note. Using the abominable gentleman’s cinematic adventures as a starting point, the author has extrapolated the automated Phibes world and the so-called lives of characters as they might have played out behind the scenes.
"Lives of the Saints"
A teenage girl is sent to live with her aunt and two cousins, who punish and starve her in a sanctimonious effort to curb the bad behavior inspired by a licentious uncle. No wonder the girl’s resulting revelation is based on the religious superstitions of her family. This is a deft portrait of ignorance and obsession forming intellectual boundaries.
"The Rag-and-Bone Men"
Winner of the International Horror Guild’s Best Short Story prize, "The Rag-and-Bone Men" is an elegant meditation on guilt. The protagonist has successfully blotted out the atrocities of war, along with his name and identity. But the agonies of the dead must be expressed, not forgotten.
"Old as the Hills"
A man is trapped in a snowstorm with an odd family, overseeing the coffin of a deceased patriarch.
In a house on a cliff, a wealthy man awaits the arrival of his loving family. Meanwhile the elements of a Christie-worthy murder mystery are deconstructed as we meet each family member.
"A Serious Piece of Metal"
A maniac wielding an axe relentlessly pursues a man through every location in his painfully restricted life.
"Secrets of the Beehive"
A woman moves to a village and becomes part of a social clique there. She falls in love, for the first time, with a man who keeps bees and has a mysterious connection to them.
"The Suicide Wood"
Two young people travel by train and taxi to a remote spot famous for the number of suicides committed there. A beautifully realized story, it owes its reserve and severity to the author’s self-professed appreciation of Japanese horror fiction.
"You Are Now In Bedford Falls"
Duffy mines the dark side of It’s a Wonderful Life for all it’s worth. If you never realized the Christmas classic has a dark side, you need to read this sardonic story of temptation and endurance. I know I’ll be chortling with demonic glee, the next time an angel gets his wings.