[Please note that the author kindly supplied a review copy of this title, though he did not expect a review in return. However, I will always give a fair and honest review to titles I accept for this blog as soon as possible]
The Last Big Thing. The Last Big Thing. I don’t usually take a huge amount of notice of book titles, always more interested by the author or the cover art. But the title of author David Moody’s collection of short stories and novellas caught my attention in the way that a book title hasn’t in a very long time. It got me thinking, made me curious – which is obviously the point of it. The stock phrase, the cliche, is The Next Big Thing. So why was this collection titled The Last Big Thing, and what exactly did that mean? I wasn’t sure but I knew that I needed to find out, and I was only enticed further by the fantastic, retro-surreal cover art that Mr Moody had commissioned for the collection. Designed by illustrator Craig Paton, the cover art has been designed to look like a poster stuck to a wall, standing out with wonderfully garish neon yellow, pink and black colours that can’t help but grab the eye and draw you in. Complement that with some excellent font choice, and an Easter egg-laden wrap-around cover that hints at various stories contained within the collection, and you have a highly memorable cover.
My previous encounters with the author had solely been through his novel Hater and its sequels, which I had found to be highly original, intense and surprisingly thought-provoking takes on the zombie and post-apocalyptic genres, blended together into something fresh and new. Telling the tale of a virus unleashed on humanity that reduces any infected to rage-fueled paranoiacs focused on savagely and brutally killing any of the few Unchanged humans, Hater and its follow-ups provided whiplash-fast pacing, deft and often subtle story-telling, all sandwiched between bouts of brutal, unrelenting violence that often left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. Given how much I’d enjoyed these titles, I was intrigued to see what else Mr Moody could come up with, and am grateful to him for sending me this collection as a gift, with no expectation to review, given that I was on hiatus due to a long and difficult period in my personal life.
As with any anthology or collection, in order to avoid a review becoming nothing more than a simple recitation of each story and nothing more, I only ever write about those stories that particularly affected me, or that I especially enjoyed. As always, if a story isn’t specifically mentioned that’s no reflection on it.I must say that I enjoyed that each story is prefaced with a short introduction by the author, giving insights into why it was written and what inspired it, and I really wish more authors did this.
The collection opens with Big Man and I have to admit a certain fondness for the 1950s B-Movies, where some poor soul would be increased in size to become a 50ft monster and then rampage about, so I looked forward to reading this one. Moody begins by highlighting the unpalatable truth of these B-movie scenarios, i.e. all the people killed in the cinematic rampages through cities and towns. But then we get, as author introduction states, the point of view of the monster himself, which is unusual in this kind of tale. Unlike in the movies where the person affected is a plucky scientist or heroic soldier, here we have Glen, a lab cleaner affected by a lab accident who is mutating randomly and at different speeds for various body parts and organs, causing horrific pain and changes that Moody describes in chilling and nauseating detail. Moody makes it incredibly easy to empathise with Glen, and even provides logical (and depressing) explanations for all of the damage he causes to unfortunate Shrewsbury and Birmingham as he tries to adjust to his ill fortune. Moody uses contrasting viewpoints to great effect here, showing Glen’s deteriorating mind and desire to find his estranged son without hurting people, but also the destruction and death-toll caused as he makes his way through one of the largest cities in the UK. I’d like to express my gratitude that this wasn’t set in and around London, and that Mr Moody is able to avoid the trap so many authors fall into, of assuming that the UK is simply formed of the capital and its outskirts. The ending, when it inevitably comes, is heart-breaking, building on the deft humanizing Moody has weaved throughout the story, and that final paragraph makes the whole story deeply poignant.
Moody is a great writer not least because he can easily create interesting and memorable characters in a number of different genres and settings, as demonstrated with this story. We move from a B-movie monster to a deeply grim and dirty piece of fiction in The Deal, featuring a protagonist whose horrific vices have led to his life collapsing around him and, in desperation, making the titular deal with a hitman. The vices are only hinted at, but Moody is skilled enough to make even those oblique hints truly sickening; and whereas the fate of Glen the accidental mutant was a tragedy to be mourned, the fate of our nameless protagonist is not at all. Instead the real star of the story is the weird, quirky and malodorous hitman, who has superstitions about his line of work and has a unique way of operating. He’s a memorable and even perversely enjoyable antagonist, and I’d like to see him turn up in another of the author’s stories.
Moody can come up with memorable ideas and settings as well, found here in The Lucky Ones, where an sprawling steelworks is a battered safe zone, one of the few left in an apocalyptic world where another world war rages. It’s described in such detail that it becomes a character in its own right, alongside young William who works in the steelworks alongside his mother, making bullet casings for the war his father has fought in for as long as he can remember. To describe anything further risks comprehensively spoiling the story, but it’s a bleak and dystopian world that Moody depicts, and a particularly futile one at that, with an ending that’s stayed with me for some time after finishing the story, and the anthology as a whole.
We then come to Ostrich, and here’s an incredibly different story, and a deeply poignant one at that. There aren’t any supernatural monsters here – no zombies, mutants or psychotic hitman. Instead the horror here is entirely human and all too realistic, which in many ways makes it much more frightening and insidious than any fictional horror the author could conjure up. Moody weaves the tale of a long-term marriage which, at first, seems relatively healthy; two people who have their quirks and are set in their ways. But as the story progresses, we start to see the ugly realities lying just underneath the surface of the marriage. Homophobia, bigotry and gaslighting all feature prominently, and Moody’s decision to have the victimised wife as the protagonist, narrating in first-person, only adds to the discomfort. It’s a harrowing and uncomfortable read, not least because of how slowly the abuse within the marriage is revealed, as well as how easily the wife blames herself for how her spouse acts towards her. With a particularly grim ending, Ostrich acts as a sobering reminder that domesticity hides monsters that are far more horrifying than those to be found in fiction.
We Were So Young Once has a particularly moving introduction, highlighting the tragic death of a friend’s mother at a far too young an age due to cancer; and the story itself was distinctly moving as well. Much like Ostrich, the horror here is once again all too human, this time the ravages of an incurable disease, and the toll this takes on the sufferer and those around him. But just when you think you have the measure of the story, Moody throws in a twist: a debate over the natural aging process and the things science can do to extend it and defy that natural process. Two men – one dying, one healthy due to every scientific marvel money can buy – discuss which route is right, and the costs of both. It’s a fascinating story, with another twist at the very end that genuinely caught me out, and it’s fair to say that this is one of the best stories in the collection .
Several of the stories in this collection have been written as a result of personal experiences by the author, and Away With The Fairies is one of them, drawing on the period of time when his mother-in-law lived in a hospice before passing away from cancer. In his introduction to the piece, Moody speaks of the duality of thoughts when in a hospice – not wishing a person to die but also knowing it’s the kindest option. I’ve been in the same situation, albeit not in a hospice, and so this story rang particularly true for me as I read through it. I found myself empathising with both Jessica and Andrew, siblings sitting by their fathers bedside who have radically different views on their father and his legacy as a parent; and the hospice itself is almost painfully realistic, simultaneously a place of brightness and care, and decay and depression and death. It’s another masterful piece of fiction by Moody, quietly horrifying with an unexpected and chilling ending.
With Almost Forever story, it felt like Moody was drawing inspiration from Lovecraft; specifically, Lovecraft’s famous Herbert West – Reanimator serial, a pulpy work that I have always particularly enjoyed. Here we have a similar situation – a masterful, eccentric scientist who recruits a particularly malleable sidekick to help him undertake scientific experiments of dubious morality. But whereas West wished to reanimate corpses, the protagonist here helps his friend attempt to lengthen the human lifespan. But where Lovecraft went for a pulpy, very melodramatic angle, Moody’s is far more realistic and grounded (impossible science excepted of course). He highlights the societal chaos that would be caused by doubling of even tripling the natural human lifespan; and also the troubling personal cost of trying to keep that scientific revolution a secret, while also struggling with a very human desire to make use of the science for personal gain. It doesn’t end well, to put it lightly, in a dark but grimly enjoyable tale.
The last story in the collection is the titular The Last Big Thing, and finally we come to the solution for that puzzling collection title. Here Moody poses a timeless question – what would you do if the world only had a very short time prior to sudden extinction? In this tale, humanity’s fate is cut short by a particularly large asteroid, which cannot be deflected from its course; in 72 hours, it will impact on the planet and extinguish all life. This is the longest story in the collection, almost novella-length, and Moody really shines with that additional word count. He deftly and quickly showcases a world turned to chaos into an instant – rioting, destruction, looting, the collapse of society and civilization as we know it. It’s a sobering sight, amplified by the author’s focus on the members of a band, sadly just one record away from making it big. Their fate is daunting, and at first the band members go their separate ways to try and cope with the overwhelming fact of humanity’s extinction. But then, in a surprising and wonderfully uplifting ending, they come back together for one last performance. It’s a wonderfully engaging story, one that shows how disaster can bring out the worst – and best – of humanity, and a fitting way to end the collection.
The Last Big Thing effectively highlights Moody’s outstanding range and skill as a writer and demonstrating that he is not constrained solely to the Hater titles that he is perhaps best well-known for in publishing. Instead, as demonstrated by these stories, Moody is able to effortlessly range across the entire Horror genre and take inspiration from many sources to create unique, engaging and memorable stories. There are grim, dystopian tales within this collection, including a story set in the Hater universe, but there are also quiet, thoughtful reflections on humanity and its nature, and also the horrors we face in everyday life from disease and deprivation. The Last Big Thing is a deeply impressive and highly accomplished set of short story Horror fiction, and firmly cements Moody’s reputation as one of the masters of British Horror writing.