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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Secret Language

31st May, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Neil Williamson's first collection The Ephemera appeared in 2006. Skip forward to 2016 and we have his second collection, Secret Language, published in paperback by NewCon Press, with an electronic edition for those who need to save money and/or shelf space. Skip forward another seven years and here I am writing a review of the book.

There are sixteen stories in Secret Language and each has a pithy afterword by the author in which he details how the piece came to be written, where it originally appeared, and sometimes touches on themes. After an introduction the collection opens with "Deep Draw" which marries Hollywood glamour and Greek myth, with a producer telling a story of the early days of his career and a now forgotten star to the barkeep at a posh watering hole, who is other than he appears to be and taking notes in his own unusual way. It's a fascinating piece, one where the concept of story is central, a part of the way in which we make sense of our lives, while the emotions behind the tale of Sandie Laurence, the key to her success, such as it is, offer an intriguingly different perspective on method acting. In "The Secret Language of Stamps" a lodger finds an unusual way of communicating with his landlady while he's away on his travels, saying things that neither of them can admit openly. It's an eloquently restrained and moving account of a burgeoning relationship between two shy people, but ends with sadness and then ultimately horror as the stamps come to signify far more than the landlady wishes for.

The next story is the first of several set in a reality where music is woven into the rhythm of life, making me think of movie soundtracks and, in a less serious vein, the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sheena, the protagonist of "Sweeter Than" simply cannot find a man whose music aligns with her own; in fact she is hopelessly out of tune with everyone. The conceit of a world where everything is a musical is delightfully played out, with rhyming lyrics and the swell of the music as events transpire, but beneath all this playfulness a serious point is being made about how difficult it can be to fit in, Sheena's character rendering her as the permanent outsider, but through no real fault of her own. If 1984 had been a musical the end result might have been something like next story "Arrhythmia", with protagonist Steve as Winston Smith, who thinks there is nothing to life except his job in the Factory and living with his parents, until Sandra introduces him to a new kind of music. As with 1984 it does not end well, and in a sly aside, Williamson seems to hint that the only revolution is the one allowed by those in charge for their own ends, a sop to the downtrodden.

"Pearl in the Shell" is set in a draconian future where every piece of music is copyrighted to the point where writing new songs is virtually impossible, but some still try and the rewards are immense if they succeed. Paolo and his crew create mash ups of other songs, which is allowed, but the big time beckons when they attend the funeral of a songwriter and new material is played. I loved the wealth of invention Williamson brings to the table here, his reinvention of youth culture and the ways in which they use technology, but at heart this is a horror story, a dystopia where big business has blighted every aspect of life. In "Killing Me Softly" a creature from Greek mythology stalks the streets of Glasgow murdering karaoke singers, and a CID officer can only end her killing spree by seizing on her own cultural traditions. This was another fascinating story, one in which the love of music comes across strongly, while at the same time providing us with an unusual murder mystery and a compelling heroine.

A couples' doubts and anxieties are brought to a head by the purchase of "The Bed" in a story that deftly plays with our emotions, hinting at horrors to come, the bed almost a 'stone tape', but in the end only holding up a mirror to mortality. We get savage social satire in "Fish on Friday" with Scotland transformed into a socialist come consumerist utopia and one little old lady throwing a spanner in the works. It's a very clever story, with Williamson playing fair in that he allows his utopians may in fact be correct, raising the question of whether monsters can be well-intentioned.

In "The Posset Pot" we have an unusual apocalypse, with Earth passing through another dimensional version of itself and bubble exchanges of people and matter. The story's protagonist longs to cross over in the probably vain hope that he will be reunited with the woman he loved and lost. It's a beautifully written piece with a deep sense of loss, but what makes it stand out is the nature of the catastrophe, a world in which nothing can be relied on and with only tantalising hints of what is actually taking place, theories and empty rhetoric. The consumerist future of "Pearl in the Shell" appears to have gone galactic in "Lost Sheep", with other cultures exploited for the benefit of the human plutocracy. Black sheep Danny Gibbs is looking to corner the market in new product, but when he encounters a strange spacefaring cult things do not go according to plan. Again what delights here is the depth of invention, the way in which Williamson captures the flavour of a galaxy wide culture ruled over by those who see its diversity as just another source of income and seek to own everything. While entertaining in its own right, the story has a message about the extremes of cultural appropriation that is pertinent to our own times.

"Silk Bones" is the nearest the collection comes to straight out horror, with Ria finding a peculiar ritual that enables her to forgot all the bad things she has done, but only temporarily. The strangeness here is compelling, with the build up to a shocking final revelation handled with real dexterity, Williamson keeping the reader on his or her toes. In "Messianic Con Brio" a woman who has difficulty finding the right partner uses a special wording in her personal ads, with unexpected results. This is a delicious slice of gonzo invention, with convincing characterisation and an ending that feels just right, albeit entirely expected after a certain point in the narrative. At its heart the story is about the power of words, how they can lead to both love and hate, a dilemma embodied at the story's end in the figure of the protagonist.

"Last Drink Bird Head" is the one story in the collection that didn't work for me. It's elegantly phrased, but doesn't really go anywhere, just gives us a word picture of a woman in a moment of crisis. Fortunately at only five hundred words it's the shortest story in the collection. We're back in the world of the musicals for "This is Not a Love Song" with Michael addicted to the work of a particular DJ and the back story telling of how love is linked in to certain technology. Again it's a story where the invention is perhaps even more interesting than the plot, with a wealth of incidental detail that cleverly explains how our emotions can be played on and exploited.

In "The Golden Nose" a man who makes his living via his sense of smell seeks an ancient artefact to enhance this, only to discover that it comes with a curse attached. There are elements of horror to this story, particularly in the way in which Felix's acquisition causes the subsequent unravelling of his life. And yet at the end there is a transformation of sorts, with Felix receiving all the adulation he wished for, just not in the way he anticipated. It's an engaging and cleverly wrought piece, with lively characterisation and a charming evocation of Vienna that adds depth to the story. Finally we have "The Death of Abigail Goudy" with a man attending the funeral of the composer who was once his best friend, where a new work is performed for the first time. It's another clever piece, with Williamson's descriptions of Goudy's oeuvre bringing them to life on the page, making me wish that I could hear her compositions, and at the same time marking the ephemerality of all artistic endeavour. Juxtaposed with this is the story of a friendship, the way in which people drift apart without really meaning too, the things that are lost to time and circumstance. It's a fine end to an excellent collection, one that delights in doing things differently. Let's hope we don't have to wait until 2026 for Williamson's next collection, but if we do then, death and taxes permitting, I have a review slot open in 2033.





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