The Stranger and The Ribbon (Short! Sharp! Shocks! Book 2)
As part of #DemainDecember on this blog, I’m reviewing as many titles from Horror publisher Demain Publishing as I can in the first week of December. Because, quite frankly, nothing typifies the spirit of Christmas more to me than seven days (at least!) of high-quality short-form Horror fiction encompassing a number of different subgenres. So over the coming week, as well as any other reviews I manage to write up, I’ll be reviewing some of the Horror, Sci-Fi (and Crime) novellas recently released by Demain, as well as a number of titles in their excellent Short Sharp Shocks! imprint.
I think that Tim Dry’s The Stranger and The Ribbon might be one of the stranger pieces of short-form Horror fiction that I’ve ever read. Having read it through several times, now, for this review, I still think that there are nuances and elements that I’m missing. I might have to read it through again in a few weeks, when I’ve been able to read through some different titles and am able to come back to it. What I can say with confidence, however, is that The Stranger and The Ribbon is another excellent example of Demain’s commitment to genre diversity of the Short! Sharp! Shocks! series, ensuring that a wide variety of different subgenres of Horror fiction are published under its banner. It’s one of the main reasons that I enjoy the series and have read so many of them over the past few months, and am so excited to share my thoughts on some of them.
Dry sets The Stranger and the Ribbon in the early 1980s, and opens with a couple in a pub having a vicious argument – or rather a distinctly one-sided argument, because it’s obvious that in this scenario that the man is a classic abuser, treating the woman like trash and then fleeing the pub in a drunken stupor. It’s something of a shocking opening, and Dry adroitly and swiftly develop a portrait of a failed, uncaring and abusive relationship, with successive pages demonstrating that the abuser is far more concerned with image, excessive drug usage, and a macho image than caring for any of the women he has (very short-term) relationships with. Dry sets this guy up for a fall, and it’s a grim delight to see him have a fatal car accident mere paragraphs later, being graphically and rather brutally decapitated in a way that I have to admit had me smirking with glee.
The thing is, this is where it starts to get weird, and gets weirder and weirder with ever-increasing speed. Because the man doesn’t have his fatal car accident just because he’s drunk and driving a sports car fast down a winding road. No, he has the accident because a creepy young girl suddenly appears in his passenger seat and causes the crash, and then flies off with his severed head after it’s been discovered by some unfortunate drugged-up teenagers passing by the scene of the accident. It was at this point that I knew that The Stranger and the Ribbon was going to be firmly in the Weird Horror subgenre, and I settled in for the journey. And it’s a hell of a journey, which at times feels like a kind of stream-of-consciousness piece of narrative fiction: there’s no chapters and very few section breaks, and things just get more and more mind-melting as time goes on. Obese, bloated inter-dimensional beings who collect human heads; exiled aliens disguised as goth teenagers; weird, flesh-eating council estate houses; and the grim economic realities of early 1980s England all combine together to create a unique, entertaining and surprisingly humorous piece of Weird Horror fiction.
Honestly, I still don’t quite know what I read when I finished The Stranger and the Ribbon, but I know that it was incredibly weird, deeply unsettling at times, and occasionally gory with a very dark sense of humour – and most importantly, I want more of it, as soon as possible, and really hope that Demain Publishing commission more work from Mr Dry in the extremely near future.