Science fiction and fantasy
The Butterfly Man And Other Stories
by Paul Kane
Masques is a gruesome story about a doctor working in the midst of a fast-spreading plague no-one understands. He's consumed by guilt and nightmares about the deaths he's unable to prevent, and this feeling of responsibility is a theme that recurs throughout the collection. This is a razor-sharp story, vivid and to the point.
A Chaos Demon Is For Life takes a black look at inappropriate Christmas pets. When Jacob Campbell's parents summon a demon for him instead of getting him a puppy we know it's bound to end badly, and it's fun finding out exactly how badly things will turn out. Cold Call is another supernatural take on the hazards of modern life, when the tables are turned on a call centre employee who gets plagued by the kind of creepy nuisance calls he inflicts on others as part of his job. There's a certain feeling of poetic justice, but Paul Kane's universe is an unfair one and people often get much, much more than they deserve.
Another highlight is Life-o-Matic, which is my favourite because of its sheer zaniness. Jeff is living the perfect life of suburban bliss with his wife and two children, and all the latest gadgets and consumer goods, which he feels compelled to tell everyone about. But he realises something is wrong when he tries to look his wife in the eye. This is a brilliant parody of the fantasy worlds invented by advertising people to encourage us to buy, buy, buy.
Consumerism gets an alternative treatment in Humbuggered, a twist on the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Eric is a poor charity worker who lives in a grotty, desperate place yet devotes all his time and money to others. He seems too generous and quite a pushover, and his benevolence is not appreciated. This story is as depressing as the original is heartwarming, and it's not leavened with enough humour to get away with such a bleak tone. Eric is haunted by the death of his best friend, Jared, and it's one of several stories featuring guilty British men as the main character. In individual stories that's not an issue, but when they're read one after another the main characters' similarity becomes really noticeable. These characters are also far too likely to see women as helpless victims or sex objects (whether or not they're right in their assessments), and this can be somewhat grating.
However the ideas behind the stories are inventive and interesting. Speaking In Tongues takes the feeling of wanting to bite one's tongue after saying something stupid to its logical extreme, whilst The Butterfly Man is an unusual and moving story about a man who only has a very short time to live. The nicely gruesome Rag and Bone begins with someone hanging like meat amongst a room full of corpses, and just keeps on getting grislier. Then Keeper of the Light plays on our fear of the dark with a tale about a lonely lighthouse keeper. He seems a little neurotic about keeping everything in order until we reach the last nasty twist at the end and it all becomes clear.
This is quite a varied collection in terms of its themes and style. Whether the author is out to shock, to terrify, or to make us cry, the evidence of his versatility and craftsmanship abounds. I would have preferred more more variety in the types of main characters, and one or two of the stories are as gloomy as suicide (and yes, that crops up more than once), but overall there's a lot to enjoy.
26th September 2011
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