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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: R. B. Russell

15th Aug, 2019

Author: Peter Tennant

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Having reviewed a collection of short stories by Rosalie Parker earlier this week, today I'll review a novel and a novella by R. B. Russell, her co-conspirator at Tartarus Press.

SHE SLEEPS (PS Publishing hc, 318pp, £20) is set in 1989 and tells the story of ex-student/record shop employee Lawrence Moore, who has written some lyrics that come to the attention of Richie Young, a faded pop star looking to make a comeback. But when the album The Man in the Wood is released Lawrence finds himself at the centre of a media shit storm, as it is revealed that his songs were based on real events from his past, the disappearance of an ex-girlfriend, a suicide, and a mysterious hit-and-run accident. To make matters worse, Richie's PR people have taken some of Lawrence's personal photographs from those days and used them on the album cover, and they seem more than prepared to throw him under the bus on the understanding that all publicity is good publicity. For Lawrence there are dire consequences, both personal and professional, with the people in his life taking sides. Interest in the record sees the case of the missing girl grow active again, and shit really hits the fan with a return to his home village, when Lawrence finally learns the truth about what happened six years previous, but the knowledge comes at a terrible cost.

This book is described as "A murder mystery with a hint of the supernatural", and I would definitely say that "hint" is the correct term to use, that element focused on the eerie presence of the man who was supposed to have been seen in Prior's Wood before the tragic events, a phantom like figure who presides over all that happens, by the suggestion of his existence casting a different light on everything that takes place. In the end though this is something of a red herring, and the murder mystery is also in part a side issue, given that it only acts as a framing device for the core concerns of the story.

Yes, there is a mystery and we get a suitable resolution, one that is as daunting as it is unsettling, with the killer revealed to the satisfaction of nearly all. In another sense it's all smoke and mirrors. What is central here is the way in which the media turns what is pretty much a non-story into a sensational scandal, the activity of reporters shown as almost vampiric in the way they suck the light and life out of everything and use it just as bloody grist for their mill. Similarly in the figure of Lawrence we have the tormented artist, uncertain of how far he can go, at what point the inspiration of past events becomes simply exploitation, with little regard for who gets hurt or how badly. In this sense both artist and reporter are two sides of the same coin, both claiming to relay the truth, the former through the medium of his art and the other factually, though in this case at least prone to exaggeration, emphasis, spin.

As a backdrop we have the music industry, where a similar dichotomy exists. On the one hand we have Lawrence and his friends, who simply love music, who constantly listen to records and go to concerts. This aspect of their lives is skilfully woven into the narrative, so that we can never for a minute doubt their shared love, even as they argue passionately and fall out over other things. There is a consensus about what truly matters. And the other side of the coin is Richie and his record company for whom, first and foremost, music is a business, a career, and each step has to be carefully calibrated to achieve the desired ends. As Rush put it, "the glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity". Jaded beyond any hope of redemption, Richie doesn't believe in anything anymore except his own fame, and is perfectly happy to use Lawrence, or anybody else for that matter, however he can to get what he wants - another hit record and all that goes with it. This trait seems to permeate Richie's whole existence, with girlfriends who are simply to be cast off and forgotten once they have met whatever need required their presence in the first place. By way of contrast we have Lawrence's various relationships - his inability to let go of the missing Sally Harvey, his love for first Xanthe and then Andy, and the heartbreak they bring. For him they are not disposable, and so he is fated to get hurt in ways to which Richie will be forever immune, but also to experience peaks and highs beyond Richie's limited capacity as a human being, his tunnel vision.

At the end of the book there is the feeling that for Lawrence's friends in Richie's backing band, there will one day come a moment when they have to choose which path they will go down, whether love of what they are doing will be enough to resist the commercialisation of their craft. This is a delightful novel, gripping in its way and posing important questions about the role of art in our lives, then leaving the reader along with everybody else to puzzle out the answers that fit. I loved it.

Music is also important in novella THE STONES ARE SINGING (PS Publishing hc, 159pp, £15). Composer John Dowson lives in a luxury apartment with a magnificent view of Venice, but faces losing this in the divorce settlement with estranged actress wife Ursula. One day he discovers a jacket belonging to an Orville Smith hanging over the railings of his balcony, its appearance there inexplicable. It is the first sign that his reality is shifting, with more subtle changes leading to a revelation about the nature of existence. Contingent with this is the intrusion into his life of Stephen Reed, who claims to have known him from university and drags John into his Venice wide search for a mysterious and elusive woman named Midori Smith, while in another strand John is asked to write the score for a film being created by mysterious director Foscolo. Matters reach a head with a meeting with Midori in which she explains either everything or nothing at all.

This is a subtle work, one that I'm not really sure I entirely got a handle on as far as the conceptual backdrop goes. While the characters and the interplay between them are all done with skill, perhaps the thing that stands out most is Russell's depiction of Venice, the streets and canals of the city, its buildings and open spaces caught in all their decay and beauty, with the suggestion that one quality is contingent on the other. There is a contrast between the fragility of the antique glass that John collects and the solidity of the stones, but finally the realisation that they too are mutable, that reality itself is something fluid and it is only our lack of awareness that prevents us seeing how things change.

Each aspect of the story is fascinating, from Stephen's infatuation with Midori, through to Frederick Foscolo's attempts to catch the soul of the city on film, but they are all window dressing for the main thrust of the narrative, which has to do with that mutability of reality. It is rich in atmosphere and with vividly drawn settings, while the characters are wonderfully realised, with more than enough given to us of John's back story to make him a fascinating individual, and somebody we can like while at the same time aware and forgiving of his flaws.

I liked this book, but at the same time I feel that I need to read it again to really understand it. As is, it felt like a flow of riveting events on the page and to read it was to dip a finger in that river, or perhaps a canal would be a better metaphor. You appreciate the feel of the water, the sense of movement, but all you know of the landscape through which it moves is the distorted reflection thrown back by the glittering surface. Ultimately it's a book where I found the journey intriguing but have yet to form any hard and fast conclusions about the destination. My bad.

As with the Parker collection reviewed on Monday, both these books are available on the PS Publishing website in standard hardcover as above and in signed jacketed hardcover editions limited to 100 copies for £40 and £25 respectively.





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