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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Last Year, When We Were Young

23rd Aug, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Released in paperback by Satalyte Publishing in 2014, Last Year, When We Were Young is the first, and so far as I can tell only, collection from Australian author Andrew J. McKiernan. It contains sixteen stories, two of which are previously unpublished, though the rest probably won't be familiar to non-Australian readers.

After an introduction by Will Elliott, we get into things proper with "The Memory of Water", a ghost story of sorts. Mara has shunned the ocean ever since, when eight years old, she had a vision of the shark attack death of the father she never knew, but prompted by brother David she attempts to come to terms with her past. It's an engaging story, heartfelt and moving, with elements of sadness and horror, all wrapped up in an intriguing concept of water/ocean memory. We get another and more traditional ghost story with "White Lines, White Crosses". Teenager Ryan is unhappy after his family moves to a new town and gets drawn into the local car racing circuit, but the ghosts of those who have died on this stretch of road egg him on to drive ever faster. At heart it's a story about trying to fit in, about Ryan wanting to be accepted and the peer pressure, from both living and dead that compels him to act as he does. The ghostly elements drive the plot, but at the same time aren't really frightening and the whole story is a tad predictable, albeit the end twist is well executed.

"Calliope: A Steam Romance" provides what it hints at in the title, with the story's protagonist falling in love with a steam driven calliope player and plotting to save her from the circus owner. The story is predictable to a point, but McKiernan does an excellent job of providing a convincing backdrop, with name drops of Maetzel and Babbage adding verisimilitude, and the wealth of the  background bringing the story to vibrant life on the page. In "Love Death" Eduardo has a necromancer bring his dead bride back to life, but the end result is not to his liking, driving him on to another solution. This is an inventive piece, reminiscent in a way of the work of Clark Ashton Smith, with the details of a world where the dead can be brought back to life worked out in gratifying detail. There is a certain lush romanticism to it all that is in direct opposition to the occasionally horrific imagery of the piece.

Marion runs away from home when her husband cheats on her in "The Message" and finds a job answering a phone that acts as a hotline to the dead. I loved this story. It has everything, a convincing and sympathetic protagonist, an unusual idea, and a gratifying resolution as Randall gets what he deserved. There's even an allusion to Hitchcock's Psycho. "All the Clowns in Clowntown" is a wonderfully bizarre and over the top piece, as the circus comes to Clowntown and starts enticing the residents to take to the road, leaving Binko to save his fellow clowns. The invention here is vivid, with a sense of the Holocaust about what is taking place and some lovely set pieces as the clowns are taken against their will, falling victim to the lure of their new masters.

In "Daivadana" a US intelligence officer sent to check up on the activities of a group used to foment discord by his employers discovers that he has wandered into a demonic ritual. Beautifully written and suggestive, this is a story that builds and yet always remains tantalisingly out of reach, entrancing with its vision of the world and the various ways in which people are used by whatever powers that be, including Mark exploited by his father. We're back with the clowns for "The Dumbshow", as M-Troupe try to find their way back to Clowntown but end up arrested for attempted bank robbery with the sheriff's mime daughter the only one who can help them out. This was a thoroughly delightful and charming piece of fiction, fizzing with ideas and bold characterisation, and echoes of The Tempest. A witty and eminently readable piece of work.

"The Final Degustation of Doctor Ernest Blenheim" has surgeon Chris and nurse Clara trapped into helping realise the good doctor's plans, the story leading into a moment of black humour come revenge. This is the sort of thing Dahl would have produced if he had written splatterpunk. Pianist Joe is in love with bar singer Dee and willing to kill the men who abuse her in"Torch Song", but after grabbing us with this emotive scenario McKiernan reveals that the truth isn't quite what we've been led to believe. It's a short story but one with a considerable kick as the carpet is pulled out from under the reader's feet. As the Lovecraftian title suggests, "The Wanderer in the Darkness" concerns the coming of an eldritch being of vast power. It arrives frozen on a comet and the story chronicles the fate of the scientific team that unwittingly release it. It's a fast paced, exciting read, albeit one that runs along entirely familiar lines with little in the way of plot surprise.

"A Prayer for Lazarus" is an original take on the zombie subgenre, taking on board religious themes and ideas of marital abuse, told through the eyes of a child. It's a fascinating and moving story. "The Haunting that Jack Built" is a haunted house story with a difference, as the locals' suspicions of the eponymous Jack fester and grow. I loved the way in which the story builds, the amiable telling with our narrator going from boyhood to adulthood to old man, and the tiny touches of details that help to bring it all to life. In "They Don't Know That We Know What They Know" an interrogator who steals the memories of the dead is hoist by his own petard. This is a marvellously inventive story with a lovely twist at the end, one that provides a rational motivation for the way the terrorists act instead of just showing them as evil.

Set in a post-apocalypse town in the Australian outback, "The Desert Song" has people infected with a biological weapon, but the priest for reasons of his own tries to save them through sacrifice. As with many other stories here, the wealth of invention and cast of characters are what make the story stand out, with the clash of superstition and science at its heart. Finally we have title story "Last Year, When We Were Young" set in a world where people have begun to age at the rate of one year in five days and telling us of the lives of four childhood friends forced into a terrible collusion with fate, the story ending on a real surprise, though I have to admit not being quite convinced by the end game's timescale. It's another moving story, one where we feel for the characters and marvel at the horrible situation in which they find themselves, and a fine note on which to end an impressive collection, one packed with solid writing and more than its fair share of original ideas.




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