Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Review: Falling Over by James Everington

James Everington's first collection, The Other Room, was one of my reads of the year in 2012, so I was very much looking forward to reading Falling Over, this time published by Infinity Plus.


Entering Mr Everington's world is akin to discovering an alternative reality which, while superficially familiar, has some subtle but significant differences. That these differences exist just below the surface; hiding at the edge of things, nagging at you from the back of your mind, only adds to the power they wield. While reading Falling Over, I became aware of the cumulative effect of this paranoia by stealth. This meant that by the time I finished Public Interest Story, the final tale here, I found myself distrusting not only the media and any form of government, but also my own take on the world.

The reader's journey begins with the titular story, which takes hold with its opening sentence and does not let go. Set in a university's halls of residence during a summer break, the protagonist perceives of an identity crisis. He has convinced himself that Michelle, a fellow student who has returned from hospital after a fall, is not who she seems. Is it his imagination running wild, affected by the echoing, almost-deserted university buildings, or do others harbour their own suspicions too? Is there some kind of conspiracy, or is the reader persuaded to give too much credence to insignificant events? The substance of the story repeatedly falls away, just out of reach, but then strikes back at the end. This story has a dream-like atmosphere, helped by the ghostly location; the unnerving halls of residence remind me somewhat of the museum in that classic tale The Nightingale Floors by James Wade.

Next up is Fate, Destiny and a Fat Man from Arkansas, and the dream-like atmosphere is continued. The reader accompanies Tom and Sean on their rush towards their own destinies; there is a sense of inevitability, of seeing the better turning but being unable to take it. As they rush headlong (towards what?) the question is raised; how much can we really influence the direction our own lives take? This roller-coaster ride is followed by Haunted, a piece of flash fiction which deftly conveys a subtle, well-wrought story in 100 words. I thought of The Haunting of Hill House as I read this; and not just because of Eleanor. In every good collection of stories, there must be a certain amount of autobiography: and I feel that New Boy may contain more than a hint about the author's own experiences. The manager is returning to work after some time off, and finds that things have changed in his absence. There is indeed a 'new boy', but why does he seem so familiar? The manager gradually loses all authority, and is forced to come to terms with both his past and his future. I feel this may be the pivotal tale of this collection, incorporating aspects of alienation, mistaken identity, mystery and, ultimately, enlightenment.

The Time of Their Lives also hinges upon the uncertainty of both identity and the secrets of existence. Vince is a child on holiday with his grandparents at a dusty old hotel in an idyllic Cotswolds village. As the novelty of having his own room wears off, and he realises there may not be much to occupy his youthful mind, he is pleased to meet Alice, the only other child in the hotel. Between them they work out there is more to the situation than meets the eye; but true understanding is beyond Vince's ken. Could Alice's fate be determined by her keener mind? Such ambiguity is carried on to The Man Dogs Hated, where the protagonist is not a child but is perhaps just as naive. The dangers of the aspirational neighbourhood, and of what sacrifices are needed in order to 'fit in', are examined here, and how failure to toe the line is rewarded by rejection. Emma too has been rejected, in Sick Leave, up next. Upon her return to the classroom, she is unable to re-establish the close relationship she had enjoyed with her seven-year-olds before her absence. She becomes suspicious of the supply teacher's motives, and feels herself ostracised both by the children and Mr Hall, the head teacher. Illness and playground duty combine; but does the threat of ancient ritual hang over her? It may be too late to find out.

Modern warfare enters the mix in the form of Drones. The effect upon an individual of playing God, and of his just (or otherwise) desserts in the long term, should send a shiver down anyone's spine. The remote operation of weaponry is brought sharply into focus: "This job is like that – trained reaction to stimulus. If I've fired I can normally remember the screen filling with light, but not the decision-points, not the reasoning that got me, and them, to that destination." 'Drone' is the nickname of the unfortunate protagonist, who begins to be affected in a worrying way by the essence of his duties. Drones is very much a cautionary tale of retribution! Public Interest Story tops off this collection, and looks at how modern society can be manipulated through the media. The mere fact that Joel's image is reproduced in a newspaper leads to rejection, alienation and violence. I was reminded of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery as I read this story; the sheer inevitability of it all, and the lynch-mob mindlessly 'going through the motions'. Scary stuff indeed.

It's tempting to suggest the influences behind some of these tales, to say they may be 'Aickmanesque' or influenced by Kafka, Shirley Jackson and so on. However, having read James Everington's previous collection, The Other Room, what struck me most was that he has been busy developing his own style; it can be safely said that these are proudly James Everington stories, and all the better for it. Make no mistake, this is some of the very best strange fiction around.

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