Saturday, January 02, 2010

Fry, Mindful of Phantoms (2009)

Gary Fry, Mindful of Phantoms. Gray Friar Press, 2009. Pp. 276. ISBN 9781906331078. $26.00 / £14.99.

Reviewed by Terry Grimwood

Supernatural fiction tends to be gathered together into a general, rather messy pile made up of vampires, monsters, blood-stained fang and claw, crazed, demon-possessed killers etc. In some bookshops it is even dumped into the same out-of-the-way dark corner as science fiction and fantasy. Okay, there are overlaps, and long may they lap over, but for me the ghost story is a separate entity, a sub-genre replete with its own mores and tropes. The ghost story is rooted deeply in human emotion. Ghosts themselves often wander the earth because of unfinished business, unresolved love, justice to be done. Ghosts are seldom demon-possessed killers or in need of flesh, blood and souls to feed on. Ghosts are that part of us that cannot be fed or touched, our souls I suppose, the intensely emotional part of our makeup that has somehow survived and needs to fulfil one final purpose before rest can be found.

Gary Fry’s Mindful of Phantoms fits this definition perfectly. Here you will find the lingering and often dangerous remains of human emotion made manifest and explored classically through the medium (no pun intended but it is a neat one don’t you think?) of the ghost story. Fry himself is an author who fascinates me. I often feel that there is a lot more going on in his work than meets the eye, that there are layers to be peeled away before the real text can be laid bare. It is in the ghost story, therefore, that Fry’s explorations of the human condition find a good home.

So, to the book itself. Mindful of Phantoms, a clever title, another neat pun. The cover art, suitably dark and unsettling, is the work of the author himself. The edition I read, a handy sized and pleasant-to-handle hardback.

There are 18 stories in all, none of them overstays its welcome but all are long enough to fully develop character and theme. These characters are realistic, people you could meet on your way through life, builders, teachers, newlyweds, the old and the young. They live in this world, in houses like ours, in streets like ours. And, importantly, their motives and pressures, their emotional souls are like ours. What they want are the normal, the mundane and necessary things that make life work. Indeed, it is these everyday needs and desires that form the foundation on which the supernatural element is built, giving the stories three solid dimensions and delivering a hefty emotional jolt to the reader. None of the of the protagonists are tiresome ghost hunters or mindless gun-carriers and, importantly, none of them are the standard angry, alienated small press loner-loser. Something I found refreshing about the collection because more and more I want to grab Mr Small Press Hero, tell him to pull himself together, get a job and make up with his long-suffering girlfriend.

The opener, ‘School of Fought’ sets the tone nicely. Acted out in a private boarding school it has all the elements of the classic ghost story, an old building, a dark secret seldom spoken about but buried in the shallowest of graves and justice still to be done. It also reveals an M R Jamesian ambiguity that permeates most of these tales and one that, for the most part, works well because the glimpsed, the imagined monster is always more frightening than the full-on horror.

‘Black Dogs’ takes us into more subtle ground where the ghosts may be real, or they may be imagined. Whichever they are, they are certainly no less unsettling. Yes, it is a tale of shadows and lurking menace but it is also an examination of family politics, of father-and-son love and this is what gives it its strength. ‘The Tree House’, ostensibly a tale of possession, also considers family tension as seen through the eyes of a young boy who is given the gift of a tree house by a shadowy benefactor. In ‘On the Wings’ a young lad struggles for acceptance in that most terrifying of all jungles, the school playground. He chooses his friends badly, and his own talents and strengths suffer as a result, he finds cruelty coiled in himself, and all the while something dark and monstrous is circling about him. A real monster, or a manifestation of his own guilt and frustration? Or both? Again, questions and no comfortable answers, one of the great strengths of this book.

Among the longer stories is ‘Unfriendly Fire’ which features an aging and recently widowed academic who is seeking some peace by the sea. He is an affable character, and, in the end, an unlikely detective, because a chance encounter leads him into yet another of Fry’s simple-yet-complex mysteries. It represents the slightly lighter side of the collection, a side that includes ‘The Price to Pay’, the tale of an unpleasant Estate Agent who finds more to a property than its prime location and suitability for the DIY enthusiast. A gang of builders take centre stage for another entertaining slice of darkness in ‘Figure of Fun’. Having spent the first twenty years of my own working life on building sites I found this bunch realistic and engaging, and the ghost/spirit/evil force original and truly menacing.

I have a pair of favourites; I know normally I go for one but I can’t decide between the two. The first is ‘Man’s Best Friend’ in which a woman who has fled from an abusive relationship discovers that escape is not as easy as she would have liked to believe. There is a tightness to this story and, again, that out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye M R James ambiguity, which heightens the sense of dread and arouses the got-to-finish-this curiosity of the reader.

‘Index of an Enigma’ is the other Tel’s Favourite. The tension between husband and wife, suspicion, self-pity and a vivid I've-been-there descriptions of the dreaded professional conference gives this tale its edge. I was quickly connected to the protagonist, and, even though I didn’t like him, was along for the ride and not willing to get off until I’d seen it through.

On the down-side, some of the prose was a little clumsy and clunky, but this was a small price to pay for the journey. When he is flying, Fry’s style is individual and interesting. He is able to engage the emotion, he takes you with him and there is enough unpredictability to keep you once he has you. Also, there is a tendency for the ghosts (real or imagined) to be glimpsed in a similar way, a face at a window or a figure lurking among the trees and so on. I know this is gives a phantom its menace, its shivery, half-seen fearfulness, but I would have liked a little variety in the manifestation department.

Having said that, it in no way detracts from the excellence of this book. Mindful of Phantoms does what a collection of ghost stories should do. It removes the soul, the glowing, indefinable part of ourselves we call our emotions, our needs, and gives it form. It is sadness and loss and danger. It is uncertainty.

It is good.

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