Review of Creeping Crawlers edited by Allen Ashley from Black Static 52. Not only is this book edited by Allen of Clockhouse London Writers but also includes stories by David Turnbull, Robin Lupton and Gary Budgen of Clockhouse.
CREEPING CRAWLERS REVIEW, PETER TENNANT Black Static #52
Editor Allen Ashley has a pleasing mix of new (to me) talent and the “usual suspects” in his line-up for CREEPING CRAWLERS (Shadow Publishing pb, 396pp, £11.99), including several writers whose work will be familiar to readers from the pages of Black Static.
Ashley lays out his stall with an introduction in which he casts a wary but appreciative eye over mankind’s relationship with our tiny fellow inhabitants of planet Earth, delineating the love/hate relationship that exists and the ultimately imponderable nature of our possible nemesis. There follows ‘Us!’ by Andrew Hook, which gives us the ants’ side of a certain famous science fiction film (the clue is in the title), and as far as it goes the account is nicely done, but it doesn’t really have anything to add to the basic idea, is a flash fiction aspiring to be something more substantial.
Storm Constantine’s ‘In the Earth’ is told from the viewpoint of the child Mawde, who comes to realise that there is something very sinister about her cousin Jeryl, manifested in her cruelty to insects. The story captures perfectly the wonder of country life and the magic of the natural world when seen through the eyes of an impressionable child, but equally it renders true the dark and malevolent powers that reside in such a setting, and the ways in which they can be manipulated. Everything here is suggestion, a chain of coincidence inflated into something terrible, but with the possibility that just maybe there is something to it, that Jeryl has secret powers, and this ambiguity is what makes the story work so well. There’s more than a touch of Carpenter’sThe Fog about ‘Running with the Tide’ by Adrian Cole as the sea withdraws from a coastal town and then mist comes in with wrecked vessels moving in the shadows, but the underlying menace is far more disturbing than any spectral pirates, with the suggestion of marine life finally tiring of men and their attempts to rule the waves. It is told from the viewpoint of Rik, the outsider in a community where they do things differently, a man who seeks acceptance from his new friends and neighbours, and commits to a possibly unwise course to attain that end, in a story that starts slow and minatory, with Cole constantly raising the stakes until something both horrific and awe inspiring arises from the deep.
Terry Grimwood’s ‘Survivors’ reveals the truth behind that old saying about cockroaches being the only creatures who will survive even a nuclear war, with the crew and passengers of a generation ship returning to a post-apocalyptic Earth in which things are not as they at first seem. It’s a gripping story, one that has more than enough action but along the way addresses such questions as what it means to be human and what kind of compromises will we make simply to survive, with a symbiosis with the cockroaches the path of least resistance. ‘A Taste for Canal Burgers’ by David Rix has a man stumbling out of his comfortable life and into a parallel reality of sorts, where people live on the margins of London society and scavenge for their food. The story is one of adapting to both changed personal circumstances and a changed world, with a recognition that our reality is stranger than we know or care to know, that those who think themselves in charge and at the top of the anthill are in fact carefully making themselves irrelevant through their preference for isolationism. It is, to borrow from Led Zeppelin, a song of hope, one that seems vaguely threatening until revealing that there is in fact nothing to really fear, just things that are different.
From Pauline E. Dungate we have an engaging little creature feature in which a scientist encounters a flesh eating caterpillar on the remote island of ‘Mariposas del Noche’, with dire consequences, the story doing the business as far as entertaining the reader goes, but with nothing more to offer, no hidden depths. In ‘Wet Season’ by Dennis Etchison, the only reprint in this anthology, suggestion is everything, with a soundtrack of constant rain as a man learns the true nature of the woman he has married, the story all the more powerful for what is left unsaid, with the reader filling in the gaps. Gary Budgen’s story posits a dystopian future in which man’s meddling has wiped out most insect species and for many the only consolation comes from use of the drug ‘Scarab’. There’s an hallucinatory quality to the story, with dreams of a giant insect infecting the reality of the characters, the assured build up leading to an ending that offers us hope of a kind, albeit this too could just be an illusion, the oneiric fancy of some latter day Gregor Samsa, while central to it all is a critique of man’s hubris.
‘For the Love of Insects’ by Mark Howard Jones has a young man taken to the isolated home of art world sensation Modril, who paints scenes of giant insects interacting with human beings that are both erotic and strangely disturbing. The story unsettles with its vibrant imagery and hints of something terrible going on in the background, but the eventual resolution of the tale was a bit too predictable for my liking and didn’t live up to the promise of the narrative. In Marion Pitman’s story a man dedicates his life to exterminating ‘Woodworm’ because of a misunderstanding in childhood, the text examining the ways in which obsessions can take root for the smallest of reasons, before offering the protagonist and reader a moment of catharsis. ‘Foreign Bodies’ by Edmund Glasby has film option written all over it, as a group of highly armed marines go to investigate what has happened aboard a drilling platform, where they find a previously unknown life form intent on protecting itself. With a hint of The Thing it’s an entertaining slice of hokum, with nicely drawn characters and convincing combat situations, while underlying it all is a novel idea about the forms life may take.
Man is once again the author of his own extinction in Frankenstein variation ‘Dissolute Evolution’ by Alan Knott, which takes a swipe at genetic modification of species, but reads rather more like the notes and synopsis for a novel than actual story, with plenty of tell but not so much on show. In contrast John Grant’s ‘Little Helpers’ is a pure delight, as two knights with a penchant for pillage and slaughter find that they may have bit off more than they can chew. Told with tongue firmly in cheek, it’s a sly, amusing tale in which you never doubt the author has something nasty up his sleeve for his protagonists, and waiting for their comeuppance is a pleasure. The protagonist of ‘The Tarantata’ by Richard Mosses has a strange encounter in an isolated Italian village, when he goes with a woman who is bitten by a tarantula, the story reminiscent of Aickman, for the way in which it seems to exist at an oblique angle to consensus reality. Like the character, you have the feeling that something truly bizarre has taken place, far stranger than the actual chain of events as unsettling as they are, but you can’t quite manage to put your finger on what it is, even though you suspect you are at its heart.
Along with the Grant and the Rix, one of the best stories in the anthology, ‘You Dry Your Tears If They Don’t Work’ by Black Static regular Ralph Robert Moore has two priests trying to protect a young boy from the authorities in a time of social upheaval. As with the preceding story, something truly terrible is lurking in the margins of the narrative, with the back story of a young woman regurgitating a spider hinting at contagion and witchcraft, the tale ending on a note of heroism and tragedy that is truly memorable. A couple desperate to have children resort to Chinese Holistic cures for infertility in ‘Guano Dong Baby’ by Robin Lupton, with somewhat surprising results for one of them. I found this story rather fanciful compared to the others in the book, a merging of fairy folklore with modern scientific method that didn’t quite jell, so that it all seemed slightly unbelievable. Contrarily David Birch’s ‘Spinnentier’ was another story in which obliqueness worked to splendid effect, the story told from the viewpoint of a young boy in a family that makes the Addams brood seem like ordinary joes. The matter of fact narration only reinforces the impression that something truly sinister and inhuman is going on in the background. I loved it, not least for the ambiguous end note.
‘The Sweet Meat and the Beet’ by David Turnbull tells the story from the perspective of an insect, the member of a colony, but as the narrative unfolds we realise that something terrible has happened in the world and these creatures are actually the descendants of humanity. It is a picture of a regimented society and hopeless rebellion that deftly draws the reader in, with arch strangeness hanging over it all, though I have a slight doubt that in reality the protagonist would have been as reflective of his situation as the story necessitates. Finally we have the ambitious ‘Chemical Glide’ by Andrew Darlington, set in a reality where the characters are to one degree or another trapped in the visionary trances induced by the eponymous drug. It reads rather like Moorcock’s ‘Dancers at the End of Time milieu crossed with Cluedo and written from a Zoroastrian perspective, or name dropping at least. It’s the longest story in the anthology and I certainly enjoyed it, but primarily in a never mind the sense, let’s just revel in the language, imagery, and ideas kind of way.