Laura Mauro on a new collection of stories by Premee Mohamed
Short story collections are interesting beasts. Sometimes they’re cohesive, bound thematically or assembled carefully within genre parameters, like a vase of meticulously arranged flowers. And sometimes they’re a conceptual grab-bag, throwing conventionality to the wind.
Premee Mohamed’s debut collection sits somewhere in between. She eschews genre fidelity with gleeful abandon – No One Will Come Back for Us (Undertow Publications, 2023) is a melting pot of horror, dark fantasy, sci-fi and the gloriously weird – but retains nonetheless a subtle but definite thematic thread. Mohamed’s microcosms are meticulously crafted little snowglobes populated by believable, interesting characters, and more often than not, utterly and cosmically indifferent gods. This theme runs the gamut from explicitly Lovecraftian (‘The Adventurer’s Wife’, which is nothing that you expect it to be) to the more folk horror flavourings of ‘Below the Kirk, Below the Hill’. This opening tale is among my favourites in the collection; the indifferent gods within seem capricious in their cruelty, and Phil’s insular community seems to border on the callous, but beneath the veneer is a heartfelt and, I think, incredibly honest story about what it means to let go. ‘I’m from the prairies’, Mohamed says, in her notes for this story; ‘Oceans alarm me.’ This city-dweller sympathises.
‘The Evaluators’ and its companion tale ‘Us and Ours’ put me rather wonderfully in mind of The X-Files, or perhaps a more mature Stranger Things. Children menaced by unknowable eldritch entities, as seen through the eyes of those sent to investigate; a well-worn trope, but one that never feels trite or hackneyed in Mohamed’s capable hands. Her aptitude for voice and characterisation shines in these tales, as does her ability to craft a vivid and tangible setting.
We tread similar ground in ‘Everything As Part of Its Infinite Place’, except here we are in the POV of the child. A Chosen One narrative turned upside-down, sickly Bunny contends with the twin traumas of being shoved into his dead brother’s metaphorical shoes, and existing in a world determined to pathologise the strange and unexplainable things happening to him. I’m not sure if the author intended for this to be a metaphor for the powerlessness and loss of control one experiences with chronic illness – perhaps I just projected my own meaning onto the story! – but it certainly hits that mark with striking authenticity.
Another favourite story, ‘Four Hours of a Revolution’, spotlights the absolutely magnetic Whittaker, a punk-soul rebel fighting a civil war of some kind. Our POV character is Death – though, in a brilliantly imaginative twist, Death is merely one of a great many Deaths, a faintly corporate conglomerate of reapers whose job is the dispassionate dispatch of those whose time is due. It’s pacey, exciting and the worldbuilding strikes a beautiful balance between giving just enough information, and leaving you to intuit the rest. Mohamed says this story makes every mistake in the book; if that’s the case, perhaps more people ought to make mistakes more often.
As a dyed-in-the-wool horror fan and noted nuclear war anxiety haver, I also loved ‘Sixteen Minutes’, which reminded me in the best possible way of James Herbert’s terrifying nuclear apocalypse/giant rat opus Domain. To say more would be to spoil it, but this is truly is a surreal and horrifying tale par excellence. Along similar lines, the brilliantly creative ‘Instructions’ parodies a WW2 serviceman’s manual, instructing British soldiers heading overseas to France. However, the conflict is not quite as it seems. The closing lines to this tale had me reading and re-reading, and shaking my head at how brilliant they were. Rounding out the war theme, ‘The General’s Turn’ is a dark and compulsively readable tale set during some unknown conflict, in some unknown place; an almost metatextual choose your own adventure (minus the choice) brought to life by wickedly clever dialogue.
Ironically, given the publication I’m reviewing for, I am not a great enthusiast of sci-fi. I am therefore perhaps not best placed to appreciate Mohamed’s takes on the genre. That’s not to say they are not excellent stories – the Prometheus-esque ‘Fortunato’ is a perfectly enjoyable piece of fiction, and ‘The Redoubtables’ is a tense and intelligent tale of the terrible choices people make. I suspect sf fans will find as much to like here as I did in Mohamed’s weirder tales. Her craft and ability are without question, as is her ability to meld genres; title tale ‘No One Will Come Back For Us’ straddles horror, sf, the weird and even a little thriller for good measure. An oddly optimistic tale despite its near-apocalyptic cosmic horror setting, Mohamed seems to be asking whether sometimes, it is simply enough to survive. There’s also something wonderfully wry in the little digs at imperialist attitudes given cosmic horror’s tendency towards xenophobia; a truly twenty-first century take on the genre which I think is well warranted.
Premee Mohamed has staked her claim as one of the most versatile writers I’ve encountered in recent years. Her ability to evoke vividly a wide range of settings and write a wide range of characters whilst maintaining an integral authenticity and believability is remarkable. The bottom line is: Mohamed tells a cracking story, and this collection is as enjoyable a read as you are likely to find in any given bookshop, especially if you like your tales painted across a broad spectrum. The gods may be indifferent, but by the end of this book, I was anything but. ∎
Laura Mauro is a writer and PhD candidate from south east London. Their short story ‘Looking for Laika’ (Interzone #273) won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction in 2018, and ‘Sun Dogs’ was shortlisted for the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award in the Novelette category. Their debut collection Sing Your Sadness Deep won the 2020 British Fantasy Award for Best Collection, and ‘The Pain-Eater’s Daughter’ won the 2020 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction.
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