Georgina Bruce on short story collections by John Llewellyn Probert and Rachael Knightley
Chasing Spirits (Black Shuck Books, 2022), John Llewellyn Probert’s mini collection of three linked short stories, deals with the theme of a writer’s creations taking on a life of their own.
In the first of the three stories, ‘Fistlock!’, Probert delivers a layered and rewardingly complex account of a character resisting the wokification – for want of a better word – of his creation (the eponymous Fistlock). He doesn’t want his work to be commercialised, but more interestingly, Fistlock doesn’t want to be emasculated and weakened to suit the modern palate. He insists on occupying the same space he always has and consequently becomes ever more marginalised and monstrous. The only way of defending that space is through the violent possession of other creators, forcing them to write him the way he wants to be written.
On one level, this is a fairly straightforward story about a writer-detective, John Glory, who encounters a paranormal crime. The plot is efficient and carries the reader along, with the occasional stand-out image to enjoy – the image of the creator’s fingertips as pen nibs, dripping ink was particularly brilliant and macabre. On the whole, however, it is not a very innovative or surprising story.
Glory is himself a cliché – a hardened drinker and womaniser who gets himself out of trouble through luck and laconic quips of wit. He’s urbane, nonchalant, at times very funny – but never very surprising. We have seen it all before.
But this story has layers. There is an interesting interplay between Glory and Fistlock – both of whom exist in fictional worlds that no longer have the same cultural currency. Both of whom, in fact, are outdated and overwhelmed by more modern iterations. They are problematic in the same ways – ways which I hoped Probert would interestingly explore.
However, the other stories in the collection fail to pull off the same sleight of hand, and plod along in more conventional terms. Both repeat the theme of creations getting out of the creator’s control. There are variations along the way, but it is essentially the same story repeated over again, without ever achieving the thoughtful complexity of the first iteration.
In ‘Give my Regards to Alan Smithee’, Glory shows off his woke credentials by championing a young non-binary person who for some unexplained reason feels that Glory – an older, old-fashioned, alcoholic writer – is the only one who can understand their apparent plight. This is both tedious and implausible. The plot itself takes us into the world of student film and theatre, which I am not convinced Probert deeply understands. Again, the story is delivered efficiently and with few surprises.
In the final story of the collection, ‘Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlatan’, we move into the realm of television writing and a slightly more humorous and arch encounter with some spooky old ladies who conjure a terrifying demon to a daytime television show. This is an entertaining story which also contains one of the funniest lines in the collection. When Glory asks one of the old ladies if she really had the power to bend the minds of so many people to her will, he corrects himself with the words: ‘What was I saying? They were TV people. Of course she did.’ Probert knows well how to raise tension and defuse it with a funny line – not something that is easy to achieve, but he manages it consistently throughout the collection.
The writing is never less than efficient, maintaining the same, slightly ironic distance and detached tone that allows for some funny and disarming moments. Probert has a talent for the one-liner and his characters are never short of a witty riposte.
If you enjoy an easy read and predictably likeable characters, with some jokes thrown in, this is the book for you. For my money, it seemed a missed opportunity to experiment with the form of the story and for Probert to bring his own authorship under interrogation. Short stories are a perfect form in which to innovate and take risks, but Probert sticks closely to his formula and presumably to his readers’ expectations. I have no doubt that his regular readers will be satisfied and delighted with this offering. I do wish, however, that the creation had got just a little bit out of control.
‘Perception should not be permitted to drive reality’, says Roland, the narrator of ‘Wolf in the Mirror’, one of the short stories in Beyond Glass (2021), Rachael Knightley’s mini collection from Black Shuck Books. This is an astute observation that sums up both the narrator’s challenges in dealing with what he knows to be true, and also the overriding theme of the collection. Knightley’s stories are puzzling. At best they balance on a line between perception and reality – but often they unwittingly fall to one side or the other, making for a collection that ultimately fails to deliver on its promise.
There are a couple of stand out stories in the collection. ‘The Green Lady’ is a fine story which deals with a moment of connection that makes an entire relationship transform. Knightley does a brilliant job of showing the weight and complexity of the character’s history and emotions dealing with loss, guilt and grief. The story is very simple and but psychologically very perceptive, and somewhat moving.
‘Wolf in the Mirror’ follows a similar structure and also deals with the theme of a family relationship that has more depth and danger than appears at first glance. Again, the story turns on a conversation – nothing happens, really, apart from this conversation. As in ‘The Green Lady’, there is a sense of revelation in this turning point, which makes for an effective story.
Other stories, however, seem to get lost in their own tangles. ‘The Other Woman, Part 1’ is convoluted and full of puzzles. Again there is some psychological insight into the patterns of abuse within relationships, and how abuse can be perpetuated by the victims of abuse. A complex and interesting argument is made for this. However, in ‘The Other Woman, Part 2’, the initial story is absolutely discredited by the most implausible and badly thought through plot. While it is true that there are indeed female abusers of men, and while it’s possible that some of those female abusers behave in exactly the same way as male abusers do, typically they do not. Besides, a story must have verisimilitude, and characters must be believable. In this case, one character’s behaviour is completely implausible, while another character’s motivations are not credible, and it all ends up in an unsatisfying jumble of scepticism and confusion.
‘Ash’s Creatures’ is a story that is riddlesome to the point of being incomprehensible. The character Harry is tediously self-absorbed, self-indulgent and lacking perspective. Harry is obsessed and in love with Harry, and spends all day sitting around thinking about Harryself. ‘The more time I spend here, shaping the present, the better I became acquainted with my own daily and nightly rhythm of my thoughts and needs and satisfactions, the less the shallowness of the “real” world competed…’ Harry says. Harry wangs on like this for most of the story. Never has the imperative ‘touch grass’ been more in need of utterance.
Part of the problem here is Knightley’s lack of control over her sentences. She aims for elusive images and concepts, but her writing lacks the necessary precision to meet her target. When she does hit the mark, we can recognise a writer with incredible potential. But with this collection at least, she fails more often than she succeeds. What does appeal in Knightley’s writing, however, is her ambition and sense of experimentation. She is not afraid to make the reader work for the story, and neither is she afraid to tackle huge themes and difficult concepts. The execution may not be perfect, but it is interesting to see a writer taking risks and going after big game. If Knightley can continue to hold her nerve and work hard on her technical skills and craft, I believe that she could be a writer to watch out for. ∎
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. Her collection House on the Moon is available from Black Shuck Books.
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