there’s a real sense of anger in many of these stories; a sense of profound dissatisfaction with the brutality of the status quo, and a desire for things to be other, better.
Lies Of Tenderness by Stephen Volk - A Review
Lies Of Tenderness is Stephen Volk’s latest collection from PS Publishing; seventeen short stories, plus an introduction by Priya Sharma and a generous set of story notes.
And it’s superb.
The collection starts with The Holocaust Crasher; the tale of an elderly man who has discovered a newfound sense of purpose in old age by touring schools and delivering speeches-plus-Q&As to classes of schoolchildren about his experiences surviving the holocaust. The only slight wrinkle being that his number tattoo is drawn on with biro, because he’s an imposter, delivering stories synthesised from studying history.
So much of what makes Volk such a brilliant writer is encapsulated in this tale. For starters, there’s the voice - the narrative is first person, so we’re inside the mind of the main character from the opening, seeing the deceit play out almost in real-time. The man is avuncular and honest (er, well, with us, anyway), and as repellent as his behaviour is, I found it increasingly hard not to enjoy his company. It’s an incredibly accomplished character portrait.
Then there’s the simple brilliance of that core conceit; what makes someone live a lie? And what makes this someone pick that particular lie? One of the things Volk talks about in the story notes afterwards is how he’s especially attracted to stories where it’s, on the surface, hard to sympathise with a protagonist or position; one is left with the impression that in some cases the stories come from an attempt to make sense of the apparently nonsensical.
That tendency is certainly on display in this opening tale, and I was left marvelling at Volk’s ability to generate interest and sympathy for such an on-the-surface unlikeable character, as well as weaving a narrative that I’ve found my mind returning to again and again since I completed my initial read.
It’s a thread that is woven into many of the tales that follow; The Little Gift and Adventurous feature very different takes on adulterous relationships, Sicko takes in a thief who has a date with cinematic history (or, does she?), and Bad Langage is a gut-wrenching journey into the dark side of grief and rage. In many of these stories, people are committing immoral, even monstrous acts; but regardless of the consequences, Volk doesn’t stint on displaying their essential humanity, frailties and strengths, virtues, and sometimes fatal flaws.
Another thing that makes the collection impressive is how these elements sit alongside tales of the mystical and mythical. Agog and A Meeting at Knossos take us behind the eyes of ancient mythical creatures, while The Airport Gorilla gives us a modern mythology to chew on, from the perspective of the titular stuffed toy. And if that sounds funny, well… it is.
Then there are the moments where these modes of storytelling collide (in what happen to be two of my favourite stories in this exceptional collection): Outside of Truth or Consequences and the previously mentioned Adventurous. The former is an absolute classic tale of American crime fiction meets The Twilight Zone, with a twist ending that still makes me grin to recall. And Adventurous pulls off the amazing feat of presenting a central conceit that is gleefully demented and yet manages to be simultaneously hilarious and oddly touching, all at once. And I think the why of how it works is instructive about the collection as a whole; Volk is alive to the absurdity of the situation, but, crucially, never sells the characters short, and their sincerity gives proceedings a quiet pathos that accentuates the comedy.
Two other stories fell somewhat into that glorious Twilight Zone mode, for me; The House That Moved Next Door and Beat The Card Home, though I note there’s elements of that genre of storytelling in Vardoger and even The Flickering Light, in a way. One of the things I enjoyed about the collection is Volk’s ability to move between stories of naturalism and tales of the supernatural (and even mythical); because of his commitment to realism in terms of the characters, as a reader I was never sure which way the stories were going to turn - and indeed with The Flickering Light I found a pleasing ambiguity that left a lingering impression.
Another thread that runs through the collection, in the best possible way, is a sense of Volk’s social conscience. In addition to being attracted to ‘difficult’ subjects and people, there’s a real sense of anger in many of these stories; a sense of profound dissatisfaction with the brutality of the status quo, and a desire for things to be other, better. Elements of this approach abound, but these tendencies are especially pronounced in The Black Cat (which takes on historic racism with a brutal directness, without ever for a moment spilling into prurience) and another personal favourite, Unchain the Beast, which is a genuinely thrilling story that also poses some really tough, fundamental questions about the role of art in the face of brutal authoritarianism.
In summary, Lies Of Tenderness is another absolutely outstanding collection from Stephen Volk, a writer who continues to challenge, to grapple with contentious ideas, and subjects, and who in the process produces work with an incredible range of moods, textures and emotions, but which are united by an exceptional level of quality. It’s an absolute belter of a collection, in other words, and I recommend it enthusiatisically and unreservedly.
A woman parks her car outside a fateful, familiar motel. The last giant of Albion finds connection with a soul not long for this world. A lightning-struck man seeks meaning for his longing and loss.
In this new, startlingly wide-ranging collection, Stephen Volk explores hidden truths and secret wishes, deceit and delusion, the paths not taken, and the pang of dreams unrealised. Proof once again he is “once of the most provocative and unsettling of contemporary writers” – with seventeen tales that break boundaries, and will break your heart.
Introduction by Priya Sharma
The Holocaust Crasher
The Airport Gorilla
The House That Moved Next Door
Unchain the Beast
Outside of Truth or Consequences
The Little Gift
The Black Cat
Beat the Card Home
A Meeting at Knossos
The Naughty Step
The Flickering Light
Story Notes & Acknowledgements
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Corpses briefly reanimate after ‘Twenty Years Dead’ in
I first reviewed Richard Farren Barber back in 2017 and having explored his impressive back catalogue became a huge fan and am always keen to check out his new fiction. Considering he has been published by a host of top indie presses including Black Shuck Books, Crossroad Press, Demain Publishing, and Hersham Horror Books it is surprising that he is not better known. I rarely see Richard’s work being discussed on horror Twitter feeds or Facebook pages and this is a great shame as his novella and substantial short story output ranks amongst the very best in the business. I was so struck by Richard’s work that I featured him in one of my Unsung Heroes of Horror articles for the Inkheist site back in 2019. Click here for a closer look:
Before we get onto the superb Twenty Years Dead (on Crystal Lake Publishing this time) here are some further top tips should you wish to explore Richard’s work further. If there was such a thing as a novella ‘specialist’ then this author qualifies hands down and Closer Still (2018), a tale of a teenage girl haunted by her best friend is hard to beat, beautifully capturing the angst with the terror. I rated this piece so highly we placed it 35th in our top 50 YA novels of the last decade in a huge 2020 Ginger Nuts feature. Back in 2017 his post-apocalyptic thriller Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence was in my top ten reads of the year and in 2019 Richard’s debut novel The Living and the Lost was another top ten choice. Richard has a very restrained style and rarely uses blood, thunder or sensationalism in his horror and this trademark was beautifully captured in his atmospheric novelette, The Coffin Walk.
Sadly, his debut novel The Living and the Lost is currently out of print and I hope it finds a new publisher shortly as it is much too good to be unavailable, interestingly it shares a similar theme to Twenty Years Dead as they both concern the industry of ‘death’. In The Living and the Lost there is a council department which dealt with the spiritual ‘cleaning’ of houses after an individual dies. In Twenty Years Dead there is an occupation called ‘Family Director’, individuals who are paid to put the dead at peace when they briefly reanimate after twenty years, the highly original and core plotline of this new book.
Like Richard’s previous novel The Screaming Dead (co-written with Peter Mark May), the action takes place entirely in a graveyard and on this occasion is set over a few hours. This was such a gripping read I could quite easily have devoured the whole novella over one sitting as it had me totally on the hook for how events were going to play out in the big finish, which the whole night was building up to. Like with The Living and the Lost the author gives very little away on how the supernatural works within the context of the story and in the first few pages the reader is dropped in the midst of a bizarre situation which has a simply brilliant hook to it.
David and Helen are on their way to an isolated graveyard where in the next few hours his father Graham Chadwick will reanimate. It is not explained how this phenomenon has come around and the author cleverly sidesteps any cliches you might expect regarding zombies, flesh-eating or standard horror tropes. If you know the exact time of your loved one’s death then the exact time of ‘their rising’ can be pinpointed twenty years later to the precise minute. The problem is David does not exactly when his father died, so they have to hang around the grave and wait. And wait. He is also (at best) an amateur.
At this point the plot gets very clever, David was very young when his father died and hopes his rising will give him the opportunity to briefly get to know him better, as they can potentially share their secrets with the living. Also, David believes that the ‘professionals’ the Family Directors are rip-off merchants and even though it is not advisable thinks he can handle the rising himself, even though he is not exactly sure what is going to happen. He is rather cynical (and very funny) believing watching You Tube videos have taught him enough! Along the way there is some very entertaining patter with a couple of Family Directors who are in the graveyard on other business, all of which was totally absorbing and helped built up the momentum for what would happen at the rising of his father.
Richard Farren Barber is a highly skilled operator at building tension and developing smart and very readable stories with very neat hooks and Twenty Years Dead is a fine example. David should just have fronted the cash and paid the expert! (but where would be the fun in that?) and instead we have an inept beginner dealing with a situation in which he is way out of his depth, carrying heavy emotional baggage along with it.
After reading this most readers will probably agree that spending the cash on a Family Director is money well spent and that the DIY approach is best kept to furniture rather than restless spirits! Richard Farren Barber’s Twenty Years Dead comes with the very highest of recommendation, turning a great idea into a very readable, funny and chilling page-turner. If you have never tried his work before you will not get a better opportunity to sample his highly original take on life (albeit it briefly!) after death.
Twenty Years Dead