Monday 17 September 2012

Peel Back The Sky.

Peel Back The Sky is a collection of 21 stories by Stephen Bacon and is published by Gray Friar Press. I've been a fan of Stephen's writing since I first came across him a few years ago when I read his story The Strangled Garden in Tales From The Smoking Room published by Benedict J Jones (and which is reproduced in this volume). Since then I've tried to track down as much of his writing as possible and have been thoroughly impressed with everything I've found. It was great news then when Gray Friar announced this collection and I've been eagerly awaiting its arrival. There's always the possibility that anticipation can make you build something up too much and the reality is a letdown but this is absolutely not the case with Peel Back The Sky. This is, in all honesty, one of the best collections of short stories I've ever read. There are no weak stories in here, no filler, every one drips with quality.
It's an eclectic mix, covering unambiguously supernatural elements as in With Black Foreboding Eyed (which gave me a warm glow of nostalgia, the mystery of Flannan Isle something I came across in my childhood) and Hour Of Departure, PA (including - yes, zombies), and Science Fiction. The strongest theme in the collection though is the darker side of human nature whether it be the spitefulness within a relationship described in The House Of Constant Shadow or from an external agent (a real monster) in Catch Me If I Fall, or the loss of innocence as a result of abuse in Persistence Of Vision and Daddy Giggles.
Even given the subject matter, these stories are two of the highlights of the book. Neither story is exploitative of its subject, are written in the precise, understated prose that is a feature of Stephen's work. The last lines of Persistence are a shock, changing your perception of everything that has gone before and are utterly heartbreaking. Daddy Giggles astounded me. This is one of the best stories I've ever read. On reading stories I often think "I wish I'd written that", after reading Daddy Giggles I thought "I wish I could write like that". Without resorting to hyperbole or melodramatic language, this story consumately portrays the impact of childhood abuse. The prose is matter of fact, undramatic but when I'd finished reading it I could feel the anger, the frustration of its protagonist Duffy. It's an incredible piece of writing, profound and moving.
I think it's these stories where Stephen's "voice" shines through but this collection shows his versatility as a writer, his ability to adopt different styles to complement the story he's telling. The Strangled Garden and A Solace Of Winter Rain are both written in the style of "Tales From A Gentlemen's Club" - and brilliantly so and there's an authentic period feel to The Toymaker Of Bremen and Cone Zero. 
Perhaps the most stylised of all the stories is Girl Afraid which is presented as diary entries from a nine year old girl. It's a device that works brilliantly (and which, despite his reservations in the story notes at the end of the book, one which Stephen pulls off brilliantly) and makes the story another highlight. Terrible things happen in this story, made all the more terrible by the innocence of the narrator. The horror lies not just in the events that unfurl but in the fact that the reader knows more than the narrator. It's another story about loss of innocence, in this case the most horrifying aspect of that is that the narrator doesn't know it's happened. But she will...
I am - to quote Stephen King on Dan Simmons - in awe of Stephen Bacon. This is an outstanding collection of stories from a writer who has mastered the craft of writing and who deserves great success. I can't wait for his debut novel. Peel Back The Sky is a showcase for his versatility as a writer but it's capturing emotions that is his greatest strength. There's a melancholic edge to a lot of what he writes but hey, it's the sad songs that have the most impact and the same goes for stories. It's fitting that the title of one of the stories - I Am A Creation Of Now - is a line from the last song, on the last album by REM. Melancholy indeed...
Peel Back The Sky is highly recommended, great stories from a great writer.

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