Gary Fry is a new British writer who edited two of last year's stand-out Brit-horror anthologies—Bernie Hermann's Manic Sextet and the British Fantasy Award-nominated Poe's Progeny. He is primarily a short-story writer of what Ramsey Campbell describes in the introduction as "sociological horror," although if anything, his horror is psychological (Fry has a PhD in psychology), the very antithesis of gore-fests such as Clive Barker's Books of Blood.
Fry made his first sale in 2003—and while the eighteen stories in The Impelled cover the last three years, most of them are even more recent than that range suggests; six of the stories were published last year and two more this year, while six of the stories appear for the first time in these pages. Add to that his two British Fantasy Award nominations (albeit as Best Editor), and his rise has been rapid.
His prose—like that of many mainstream authors—strives to create a sense of discomfort within the reader, either by using a less-than-sympathetic protagonist, or a clash of personalities, amongst other methods. But whereas mainstream authors use discomfort as a substitute for plot, Fry uses dissonance to supplement plot. Fry's narrators are often picky pedants, and it is easy to visualize their nostrils flaring against the coarseness and loudness of modern life.
"The Impelled" is the opening story, and Fry immediately stakes out his ideological territory. Amid the spiritual wasteland of industrial Yorkshire, his opening dialogue quotes Poe's imp of the perverse as a metaphor. By the end of this story of a woman's growing suspicions of her brother's behaviour, metaphor has become literally manifest. That same sense of a feeling of spiritual malaise in the contemporary world informs the next story, "Single Hit." Angered at being name-checked by a former pupil in a rap song, a retired teacher visits him backstage to exact revenge. Its final outcome is unexpected, and the plot clever, although I'm unsure whether getting backstage at a concert is as easy as Fry would have us believe. In contrast, "Pulp Friction" lifts the mood, and although the plot of a writer's fictional world taking on a life of its own has been done before by everyone from Asimov to Schoenfelt, Fry carries it off well.
Many of Fry's protagonists are ill-at-ease with everyday life, and he often picks adolescent schoolboys buffeted by the tides of hormones to narrate his stories, such as the psychologist protagonists of "Kiss and Tell," about a life warped by witnessing a murder, or the curious doppel-gangland experience of "Illuminations." Over and again, awkward adolescents, over-protective mothers, and abusive fathers appear together in stories like "Now and Then"—a Yorkshire version of Groundhog Day, and another of Fry's early stories that didn't quite work for me—and the excellent "The Trip," where all the now-familiar characters are present.
Also present is Poe's "imp of the perverse" which reoccurs in the narration of a middle-aged man revisiting a seminal childhood experience, or "nuclear moment," as the narrator terms it. In writing short-shorts, Fry often uses info-dumping to depict his characters, rather than take the space available with longer pieces—"the imp of the perverse" seems to me to be shorthand characterization, opaque to those lacking Fry's training in psychology, and a convenient peg for irrational behaviour.
In "Myself: A Fiction"—one of the best stories in the collection—an aging playwright stages an autobiographical play, only to find the original cast re-appearing. Also outstanding is "Illusio," where the father is for once the central protagonist, while "Home from Home" probably justifies Ramsey Campbell's assertion about "sociological horror" more than any other story in the collection. It's a teeth-grindingly uncomfortable examination of a student's first visit to his girlfriend's parents for the weekend, in which the characters behave more like sociological archetypes than individuals (I can't say more without blowing the plot).
As his work has developed, so Fry has moved the overt horror to the background, preferring to concentrate instead on mood, until the horror is almost—but not quite—out of sight. So early vignettes like "Inside Out," and "Peeping.com," about the nightmares behind the twitching curtains of suburbia, seem clumsy and overwrought compared to the later, dry-as-dust "0.05," with its study of mass murder via statistics. The exception to the trend of Fry's fiction improving with experience is "So And," his first published sale. The reader's discomfort when confronted with Fry's prose is never greater than here, where the reader is confronted with the orders that good men will obey, even when they know that they are morally wrong. The definition of horror as "when bad things happen to good people," married with Fry's interest in psychology are never better demonstrated than here.
Fry's stories also improve as they get longer, and the MR James-esque "The Haunted Doll's House" is one of the outstanding stories of the collection. A little girl whose parents are separating notices parallel bruises on her Ken and Barbie dolls, and in an attempt to force them back together, turns the tables so that what she does to the dolls influences her parent's behaviour. The story is genuinely creepy, without once ever threatening to descend into ketchup horror. Another James-influenced story is "The Sunken Garden," in which Fry marries the traditional Victorian chiller with an examination of the traditional view of witches, to unsettling effect.
The collection ends with "The Unmoored," a novelette which is the pick of the book. Fry takes us on a weekend camping trip up onto the Yorkshire Moors in the company of three students, a cynical neo-Thatcherite whose goals are flash cars and flashier girlfriends, a romanticist who dreams of returning to an Eden-like existence, and their everyman leader, still grieving over the death of his girlfriend. It ends the collection on a high, and hints of Fry's outstanding potential.
Some of the discomfort that I alluded to earlier stems not only from the narrative, but also from Fry's predilection for using as his protagonists working class people desperate to escape their roots, but who appear to be merely petty snobs. This trend probably isn't noticeable in single stories over a period of time, but read cumulatively in quick succession, the effect becomes tiresome. Not strong enough to be actively dislikable, they nonetheless failed all too often to engage my sympathies, with the result that the weaker stories in the collection often come across as intellectual exercises in idea generation and plotting, rather than actual finished pieces.
Those who like their horror stories to be cool will enjoy The Impelled, and as a first collection in a (I hope) much longer career the completist will also want this book. But for me, The Impelled came maybe one or two years too early, and has a few too many makeweight pieces to rank as a truly front-rank collection. Competent? Yes. Outstanding? Sadly, only occasionally.
Colin Harvey is the author of the novels Vengeance and Lightning Days, as well as the prize-winning story "The Bloodhound." His novel The Silk Palace will be published by Swimming Kangaroo Books in September 2007; read about it here.
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