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Black Static


The Late Review: The Cranes that Build the Cranes

19th Jan, 2022

Author: Peter Tennant

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The Cranes that Build the Cranes (Abacus pb, 220pp) by Jeremy Dyson won the Edge Hill Short Story Prize in 2010, the year of its publication, and now twelve years later it's getting reviewed by me. It's an eclectic and delightfully odd selection of short stories from a writer best known for scriptwriting chores on League of Gentlemen (a TV show I have never seen) and Ghost Stories (a film I've seen twice). I found it reminiscent in many ways of the early work of Ian McEwan in the short form, particularly the inventiveness and exuberance.

Opening story "Isle of the Wolf" has a wealthy man purchase an island and hire an architect to build him an impregnable house, one surrounded by elaborate traps to deter any intruder, but when the feared intruders arrive David Spotpal learns that there are worse things to fear than unspoken enemies, such as loneliness. It's a fascinating piece with a slow and engrossing build up, a wealth of ingenuity on display in the nature of the traps that are planted in the landscape, with a subtext that reveals wealth alone as inadequate to secure physical and emotional wellbeing, albeit this message is somewhat undercut by the borderline sentimental note on which the story ends.

In the surreal and fantastical "Yani's Day" a bookshop worker gains godlike power, but all he wishes for is to be placed in charge of Waterstones. On one level this is the ultimate tale of employee revenge, but made all the more effective by Dyson's glorious use of misdirection in the opening pages, with their metaphysical mystery element, and perhaps finally the story is about godlike power not being equalled by a godlike ambition, Yani becoming instead of a universal and unifying deity the literary equivalent of a Greek god with his own sphere of influence, though these limitations are self-imposed. Running through the story is a strong element of humour that places everything else in a different context, with aspects of absurdism peeping through the bones of the narrative.

A lowly accountant is invited by one of his celebrity clients to become a member of the mysterious and exclusive institution known as "The Challenge Club" only to find that he is the butt of a long and elaborate joke. The story deftly dissects our obsession with celebrity and class, with protagonist Crabbe's snobbish aspirations warring with his lack of self-worth, only to find how unimportant he is to those he looks up to and envies. With happiness as the best revenge, he ultimately finds that he doesn't need the kind of society that the Club offers, that he will find his own level and welcome everyone. You could make a case for this story fantasising the political aspects of socialism and meritocracy, with the latter found very wanting.

The "Out of Bounds" tunnels beneath an exclusive private school prove too tempting to three boys left to their own devices, but for one of their number things turn deadly. With its bullying alpha mule (typo intended), the three boys are well delineated, while the atmosphere of dread associated with the tunnels and pit beneath the school is wonderfully captured, bringing a certain sense of wariness to the reader, albeit the end twist is a little too 'as expected'. In some ways it reminded me of the film Slaughterhouse Rulez, though without the attendant silliness. This is probably the closest Dyson comes in this collection to a generic old style horror story.

In the explicit and playful "Come April" a prostitute specialising in blow jobs gets to deliver the happy ending to crown them all when ancient monks seek her services. It's a wry and amusing story, one that takes traditional values and turns them on their head, equating sexuality and the divine or spiritual in an off the wall manner, with the story's opening sallies reading like reviews from the pages of a publication aimed at kerb crawlers to add a degree of verisimilitude.

A collector and dealer in obscure and esoteric objects acquires "The Coue" with dire consequences. Like "Out of Bounds" this is another story that treads close to familiar ground for the horror aficionado, dealing with the theme of a cursed object in a modern take on Jamesian themes. There are many delights here, such as the character of protagonist Charlie Thoroughgood and his strange relationship with his partner, his love of antiques and curios, the more obscure the better, the use of the internet to acquire information and the horrific nature of the 'monster' when it is finally revealed, all of which help the tale to rise above its rather obvious and well-worn plot antecedents.

In "Bound South" a young man on a train learns the story behind a rather intimidating house they pass on their journey, the tale of a wealthy clergyman and his attempts to convince his straying daughter of the error of her ways. The end twist, with its revelation of the raconteur's identity, is something of a horror genre cliché, but the journey to that point is fascinating and thoroughly engrossing. The character of our protagonist, his hopes and fears for the future, and the romantic streak that 'contaminates' his nature, is perfectly realised on the page, as is the period and setting of the story, with its hints of something terrible lurking in the wings of the narrative and ready to jump out at us at the most inopportune moment. Central to it all is the philosophical battle, with Christian fundamentalism pitted against Darwinism, and Dyson able to make even the most abstruse philosophical arguments grip the reader, these taking on a horrific dimension in a story that ultimately reveals to us how a man's better judgement can be swamped by grief and misfortune. I loved it.

Outcast Danny is beguiled by a girl he meets while out biking near the woods and who offers to take him to see "Michael". On the surface this is a story that has familiar horror genre tropes, the dead girl who lures a vulnerable boy to his doom, but at the same time the power of the narrative lies in the things that are not said, and the sadness of Danny's life that makes him such an obvious victim.

Finally we have "The Bear" with a lawyer who has just made partner seeking an unusual costume to make an impression at the firm's bi-annual party, and finding rather more than he bargained for. It's a story that feels entirely predictable, but at the same time delights with the quiet, measured telling, with sparkling dialogue and powered by the hubris of a man on the make, all of it leading deftly to the final mystery.

Accompanying these exquisitely formed stories are equally accomplished selections of artwork by Hannah Berry that capture the essence of each tale in black and white. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and look forward to reading more work by Jeremy Dyson. 




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