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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 80/81 DOUBLE ISSUE OUT NOW!

The Late Review: Behind You

5th Oct, 2022

Author: Peter Tennant

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Released in 2017, Behind You (Sentence Press tpb) is Ralph Robert Moore's fourth collection and contains eighteen short stories and novelettes, five of which previously appeared in the pages of Black Static. One of those five (from #54), opener "Not Everything Has a Name", is a story which has a brilliant curtain raiser, with the contents of a wardrobe being used to illustrate the course of a relationship. After that we get the interplay between two characters, hard bitten Ben and young girl Sheila, whose twin brother is implanted in her stomach as a non-communicating face. She has a solution to this problem that involves Ben fighting off the ravenous entities that come to feast on the life spark of a child dying in hospital, but things don't quite go as we, or Sheila, expect. This is typical Moore, with numerous references to food and copious sex, plus an assured understanding of his character's psychology and a disturbingly off kilter take on the paranormal, all capped with a delicious end twist. "Men Wearing Makeup" (from #46) gives us the story of Chris, off on a forest hike with his abusive boss, who then stumbles across an encampment of clowns and learns about 'red stew'. It's a gloriously unsettling piece, with Chris at first winning our sympathy as an obvious victim, but then tarnishing his martyr's crown by taking on his abuser's traits to get out from under, while in the depiction of the clowns Moore makes them as sinister as anything to be found in the oeuvre of Stephen King, almost another race with their own rituals and sense of besieged brotherhood.

Social worker Claire is confronted by a ninety year old woman who is presenting as pregnant in "Even the Cops Didn't Make Jokes", but the reality of Hannah's situation is something else entirely. While what happens with Hannah is both horrific and, ultimately, perhaps hopeful for the world, the true horror of the story is embodied in the dilemma of Claire, badly beaten for trying to help others, constantly fighting to stem a tide of shit and let down even by those she ought to be able to count on for support and help. It is, perhaps more than any other story in this collection, a sad story, a story that tells it as it really is, with the weirdness simply throwing real life into terrible contrast. Black Static readers first encountered Moore's work with "All Your Faces Drown in My Syringe", another of the author's trademark off kilter ghost stories. Molly keeps giving birth to babies resembling past people from the life of boyfriend Roger, who believes he is haunted and has a unique way of disposing of the babies' essence. It's as odd as a story can get, and with the involvement of babies will make most readers uncomfortable, the narrative tracking the course of a relationship, with plot beats that surprise the reader.

To my mind the weakest story in the book, "Nearness" tells of the child Coriander and a mysterious bird that intrudes upon her life and may, in fact, be the spirit of her dead mother, but everything here felt a little too oblique for my liking, with too much that was left unsaid and little for the reader to get a solid handle on. We're back on form for "Ghosts Play in Boys' Pajamas" which tells of the abusive relationship between two young boys, with the ghost used as a pretext for much of what takes place. It's another story that disturbs with the very ordinariness of the situation, the superbly realised and eminently believable interaction between Tom and Peter, with their parents entirely oblivious to what is taking place almost under their noses. The supernatural element is ambiguous and perhaps, probably, not present at all except as a spur to Peter's action and Tom's compliance, the story pitching us forward to another end note that leaves everything teetering on the brink of collapse. I loved it.

In "Trying to Get Back to Nonchalant" Hal's relationship with Nora is mediated by the actions of daughter Jasmine, who keeps insisting that her dolly has cancer and requires desperate action to ameliorate its effects. On the surface this is a story about how a relationship is predicated on the need to win over the desired partner's child, but Jasmine is a truly creepy little girl, and again Moore catches us off guard with a sting in the tale that, while unexpected, with hindsight seems entirely appropriate. Moore finally jumps the shark, in more ways than one, with the delightfully absurd and absurdly delightful tale that is "The One Who Always Gets to Sit in a Chair". Written in the second person, the story's never named protagonist runs afoul of the local bigwig with dire consequences, the end result something like the Kafka version of Sharknado. It's a story with absurdity woven into every impractical image, but at the same time tells us something of the nature of power and the helplessness of the little folk who finds themselves in its sights.

A man's affair with his dental hygienist is derailed when they encounter a giant "Beast", the story surreal and more than a little out there. In a way it shows that normal concerns continue despite the eruption of the outré into our petty lives, that like the protagonist we have no real conception of what is important, or knowledge of how to seize the opportunities that become available to us. The surreal is also key in "Grappling with Urine", which opens with the protagonist in the toilet discovering that he is now a man and continues with him using grappling hooks and rope to reach an undusted spot on the ceiling of his rich friend Adriana's house. It's compulsively readable and at the same time absurd in what is happening, the ways in which outrageous events are taken for granted, with an obsession with sex shown in the story's conclusion.

Priests try to protect a young boy from the security services in "You Dry Your Tears If They Don't Work", the story disturbing for what is not said, the sense of something terrible going on in the background, with reports of rioting coming in over the television and in Carlos' tale of his strange encounter with two women and their spider, the hints of some form of contagion. It is an intriguing piece, one that sucks the reader into its world, only to leave him adrift with no compass or direction home. Dharani is besotted with Andy, a nerd who at first doesn't seem to notice her and stays loyal to girlfriend Cheryl, and will do absolutely anything to have him for herself, including threesomes and getting pregnant. Meanwhile lurking in the background is vampire "Pickle Juice", who is used by these people to get a cheap thrill or sense of peace, only things blow up in their face. Saturated with sex and occasional hints that this world is emphatically not our own, this may be the most unusual vampire story I have ever read.

In "Zombie Betrayal" we meet argumentative couple Roomy and Baboo Burda, stars of Euro-horror flicks, and while her husband is in the toilet Baboo tells a journalist all about her relationship with director and makeup maestro Nei, and the tale of his 'infamous' last film. Moore pulls off a rare trick here, adopting a Eurotrash sensitivity to his material but at the same time producing a moving love story, one that perhaps more than any piece here celebrates the physical as well as the emotional side of love, shows that they are two sides of the same coin. It takes material beloved of horror aficionados and, while respecting the source, does something far more than simply shock or sicken. I loved it, and would definitely rate this story one of the highlights in an overall stunning collection. Next up we have the book's one science fictional foray. "Occult Life" draws comparisons between a man having a colonoscopy with his scientist wife drilling for life on Jupiter's moon Europa, and along the way giving us strong hints that their relationship is on the way out. It's a clever story, one that draws the reader in and misdirects us, before showing its real concerns, and offers a scenario with which, despite the off world setting, many people will feel able to identify.

Zac is in a relationship with an older woman, but when an old friend of hers comes back he learns about "The Goldfish Trick" and things can never be the same again. This looks like going down the erotic fiction path, but Moore reminds us of what he's really all about with the broom handle incident. At bottom the story is one of people deciding what they really need from each other and how to get it. As a way of underlining the artificiality of their relationship, Zac and Amelia live on a film sound set, while bubbling away in the background is a strong subtext about misogyny. "The 18" reveals to a man who constantly sees his dead wife on the television and in the street that there are only eighteen different people in the world, with the rest all duplicates, at least as regards looks. It's a fascinating metaphysical conceit, but one that is eclipsed by the very real human concerns and needs of the story's protagonist, who ultimately realises that there are only two people, him and the wife he is mourning, him and everyone else.

A form of zombie plague has beset the world in "Our Island", and elders must explain the situation to the young. Bleak and terrible in its vision of the future, and yet with a strand of hope running through the narrative, this was a superb story, one that takes a leaf out of the Romero play book and uses the zombie trope as a metaphor for rampant consumerism and depletion of resources. Finally we have a modern take on Kafka with "Big Inches" in which border guards search for contraband with such zeal that eventually they dismantle the world itself. There are powerful undercurrents here, about how reality is shaped to accommodate our beliefs, even when it results in our own undoing, much in the same way that a story can be edited. It was the perfect end to one of the finest collections of short stories of recent years.

 

 

 

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