Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bloody Pages Book Reviews: Two new selections from Spectral Press

"Abolisher of Roses” by Gary Fry

"What They Hear in the Dark” by Gary McMahon

By Lisa Morton

There’ve been some superb new small presses opening up in the U.K. recently, mainly focusing on small-run chapbooks from contemporary British horror writers. Last year I reviewed two chapbooks from Nightjar Press, and now Spectral Press comes along, emphasizing contemporary ghostly supernatural tales.
Spectral’s first two offerings are a pair of Garys: Gary McMahon’s “What They Hear in the Dark” and Gary Fry’s “Abolisher of Roses”. Both tales are novelettes centered on failing marriages, but – beyond the fact that both are superb – they each depend on their authors’ individual styles and tell quite different stories.
In McMahon’s piece, Rob and Becky have recently purchased a house in serious need of renovation – as is their marriage. They’ve suffered a tragedy involving their young son, but McMahon doesn’t reveal the full extent or nature of the tragedy immediately, leaving the details to unwind as part of the story’s building, fateful doom. While pulling down old wallpaper, they recently discovered a room they couldn’t explain – it wasn’t on the blueprints, has only the one door and no windows, and contains absolutely nothing. The room doesn’t even echo sounds; Rob sits inside it, and realizes he can’t even hear himself. “There was always the sound of you: your blood, your spit, your seed...and the subtle sounds of decay as your body died second by second, turning to rot as you whittled your life down to the bone.” The “Quiet Room”, as Rob and Becky have named it, means very different things to the couple: For Becky, it offers a spark of hope, but Rob feels a malevolent presence there. As Rob’s own unease builds to a head, so do his experiences in the Quiet Room. The story ends on anything but a soft note.
Gary Fry’s “Abolisher of Roses” focuses on Peter and Pat, a successful, late-middle-aged couple just arriving at an art show. Pat has recently taken up painting, and the show will represent her first exhibition; the gallery, however, will actually be an outdoors trail winding through dense woods, with various artists set up along the way. Peter eyes Pat’s artist comrades with suspicion, and Fry deftly sketches his protagonist’s psychology with wry, brisk sentences – “Peter had been running a successful carpet manufacturing business for the last twenty-five years; he knew at a glance that these weren’t his kind of people at all.” After an argument, Peter leaves Pat to venture further along the trail into the woods, and he discovers that the last installations of the exhibition are all dedicated to him – or, more specifically, to his extra-marital affair with his vapid mistress of ten years. The installations became more gruesome, but act as shock therapy for Peter, who is finally forced to acknowledge the real power of art (the story’s title derives from a quote by poet James Russell Lowell, who suggests that those who ask what purpose art serves would also abolish the rose). “Abolisher” builds to a strange, distinctively visual, and authentically cathartic ending.
Both works are beautifully written and attractively presented by Spectral. McMahon fills his piece with luscious description and deft similes (“Tiredness clung to him like a needy child”); in his rich evocation of the decaying, sinister house, he evokes the plaster dust, the smell of turpentine, even the taste of a salad. Fry’s specialty is digging into the core of his characters and laying those cores bare, sometimes with shocking results. His dissection of Peter, the businessman with a mistress and a disdain for anything that doesn’t involve money or sex, is keen and beautifully observed, and Peter (who still loves his wife) is a compelling, three-dimensional character. This is no simple story of comeuppance against a cad, but rather a disturbing meditation on the ultimate meaning of art.

--Lisa Morton