Georgina Bruce on a collection of short stories by Ray Cluley
‘There are things men say, and things they don’t,’ says Tom, the narrator of ‘Sideways’, ‘and sometimes we get it wrong.’ What men say, and what they don’t say, and the ways in which they get this wrong, is an important concern of many stories in All That’s Lost (2022) Ray Cluley’s fine new collection from Black Shuck Books. What is a man, these stories ask – a son, a father, a husband? A predator? A victim? Cluley offers a diverse and thrilling range of answers. In ‘Sideways’, a stand out story where the macho thrill of Top Gun meets the eldritch horror of Lovecraft, we are presented with stoicism, duty and courage, but underneath all of that, there is love. Cluley’s men, when stripped of their bravado, are often lovers. But some men get it wrong. The men in ‘The Whalers Song’ (sic) have lived a long time without love, and without women or children, and so they fight one another, pointlessly. ‘Men would always fight,’ says the captain of the whaling ship. It’s such a commonplace that the reasons don’t interest him. The refrain of this story – ‘We are looking at history’ – seems to relate not only to the relics of the past the men discover, or to a way of life long gone, but also to the very tenets of their brand of masculinity.
Of course, there are ways of looking at history, and at the world, and at one another. Most particularly, there are ways of looking at oneself. ‘Sometimes what I want to believe is better than what is true,’ says the narrator of ‘In the Wake of My Father’, a sad, lovely, yearning story about how family both hurts and heals. Jake haunts other people’s houses, trying to inhabit their lives, seeking some understanding of his own. There’s an image at the centre of this story which powerfully evokes another of Cluley’s concerns: the death that we carry inside us. ‘Death can get you from inside,’ says Jake. In ‘The Wrong Shark’, Darnell reflects that something of him ‘had died long ago. He’d mourned it his whole life.’ While quite different in voice and subject matter, both these stories tell of a man’s response to the death of his father, and both capture the incredible vulnerability of the child that still lives inside the man, the past that haunts the present.
Death comes from the inside of many of these stories: from inside the next door neighbour’s garden, for example, in the darkly comical ‘Mary, Mary’. But death can attack from the outside, too. Many of Cluley’s stories are concerned with powerful predators, and the relationships they have with their prey. In ‘The Painted Wolves’, a documentary film crew capture footage of African hunting dogs taking down a zebra, but the question of who is preying upon whom takes on a very disturbing aspect on the last night of the shoot. In ‘Adrenalin Junkies’, which opens the collection, the predators come straight out of myth. They emerge almost as manifestations of the characters’ fears, flaws, weaknesses and illnesses. The ways in which an outside predator can meet and mirror an internal enemy is dramatised in ‘The Final Girl’s Daughter’, where Sal’s cancer is as scarring and mutilating as an attack by a maniac with a scythe.
But as always, the most frightening predators are the ones we aren’t even sure are there. In 6/6, another of the stand out stories of the collection, Cluley achieves the difficult feat of writing something genuinely frightening. The story is written as an essay outlining the contents of a short piece of found footage, the mysterious provenance of which has inspired a cult following. There are more than a few similarities to House of Leaves, with its copious footnotes and devices, and of course The Blair Witch Project is an obvious reference. But 6/6 holds its own in the company of the many great horror writers noted in its own marginalia.
As with any collection, there are a couple of weaker stories. I didn’t much like ‘Child of Thorns’, in which a woman gives birth to a baby made out of thorns and brambles. Maybe the image was so uncomfortable that its significance eluded me. Even so, the quality of the writing is undeniable, and the voices of the characters convince.
And that, I think, is the key to Cluley’s genius: his ability to convince us of the absolute authenticity of his characters and the worlds they inhabit. Whether it’s the space race in America, or Myanmar in the throes of revolution; whether he is exploring the effects of racism on a small town boy, or what it’s like to jump out of an aeroplane, these stories never feel less than completely real. Cluley takes us around the world, into settings and among subcultures that are often unfamiliar, but feel refreshingly honest. Geo-caching in Wales, mountain biking with and without the lycra, building a drystone wall…there is no end to the places and people this writer seems to know, inside and out. There is pure joy in the sensation of being lifted entirely out of one’s own head, an experience which Cluley generously delivers.
A note should also be made in praise of the beauty of this book. From the cover art to the inner motifs and layout, it is a pleasure to hold and to read. It’s not quite a perfect book, if such a thing exists, but it is very, very good indeed. ∎
Georgina Bruce is a writer. Her ‘deliciously evocative’ debut novella Honeybones is available from TTA Press; the ‘astonishing, totally absorbing’ This House of Wounds, her debut short story collection, can be purchased from Undertow Publications; and she also has a story in Out of the Darkness (edited by Dan Coxon) from Unsung Stories.
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