Frank Duffy & Paul Edwards
If you’ve read many of my reviews before, you’ll know that I have a particular love of the titles released by Demain Publishing, as they’re one of the best Horror publishers that I’ve come across in all my years reviewing titles in the genre. They’ve achieved that distinction through a deeply impressive process of combining high-quality writing, distinct and artfully-composed covers by Adrian Baldwin and carefully-curated content that has started to expand beyond the boundaries of Horror into Crime, Science-Fiction and even works of poetry. Whatever the publisher releases is always an absolute joy to read and review, and one of the few pieces of good news I’ve had in the past few months was the announcement that another tranche of titles were due to be released by Demain in early September. They kindly sent me a host of review copies for me to read – and the third of those titles that I looked at was the new short story collection Night Voices, the result of a collaboration between Frank Duffy and Paul Edwards. While I hadn’t heard of Edwards before now, I had been thoroughly impressed by Frank Duffy’s work earlier in the year when I reviewed his short story collection Distant Frequencies, also published by Demain Publishing. Between that pedigree and the general high quality of the titles published by Demain, I was certain I’d enjoy the collection, and decided to dive on in.
With twelve stories in total, the collection opens with Out of Hiding, in which the author pries open the alienation, resentment and barely-concealed hostility in a couple’s relationship; one which has long since broken down. But while the story initially seems to be going along familiar and well-worn lines, I was rather delighted when the narrative twisted in a completely unexpected direction. Anxieties are brought out into the open and become manifest, misdirected anger and paranoia leading to a dark, twisted and wonderfully surreal ending that sets out the general atmosphere and mood of the collection as a whole. It’s then followed by Scratch, another dark and unsettling story that transports us to the decay and squalor of an urban city centre, a nameless place filled with death, disease and unfriendly inhabitants hostile to anyone who isn’t a native-born citizen. A body wrapped in plastic and dumped into a pond, discovered by a group of teenagers, is the catalyst for a deftly-told tale that explores the uneasiness and fearfulness of a family of Polish immigrants living in the city. As witnesses to the crime are brutally cut down by teenage thugs in senseless, violent attacks, a long-buried family secret is finally revealed in their adopted land that leads to bloodshed, and a terrifying kind of salvation. It’s a fascinating and deeply engaging take on an old horror trope, revitalising it in the process, and one of the highlights of the collection.
Dying Inside then takes us to another dismal, decaying urban landscape as a council worker attempts to balance his own disintegrating home life with his latest attempt to keep a single-parent family afloat despite a dead father, an alcoholic mother and two truant children. It’s another bleak story, but compelling nonetheless, as we see how both characters are dying inside despite their wildly different circumstances, life grinding them down regardless, and both keeping secrets. But whereas one’s secret is mundane, the other’s is far more terrifying and insidious, leading to a sudden and traumatic ending that had goosebumps running up my arms. That urban motif is continued in The Devil is Anonymous, in which a man moves through a slightly surreal city layout in order to find a newly-built office block and undertake yet another job interview. It’s a rather unusual interview process, reviewing of all things the anonymous, bile-spewing comments underneath internet news articles, and then rapidly escalates into an utterly bizarre and yet strangely absorbing tale, as the anonymity and rage of internet commenters is brought into the real world with shocking consequences for a couple. Becoming takes us to the countryside and a father and son duo heading for a camping trip, only to become distracted by investigating an abandoned, ruined Church that that they suddenly come upon. The decaying, abandoned interior of the structure is beautifully imagined, allowing it to come alive in the reader’s imagination, aided by the unsettling literature and art the two find inside the building. That disturbing backdrop is then mirrored by the decaying relationship between father and son, parental absence and alcoholism forming impermeable barriers between them; a sudden turn towards body horror and the consequences of parental neglect result in an emotional and genuinely affecting ending.
Moving through the middle of the collection, Black Roses certainly took me by surprise, not having previously come across a horror story revolving around the shadowy and illicit world of dogging – public sex in and around vehicles for those now in the know – but it certainly makes the most of the taboo subject. Rather than focusing on the sexual acts themselves, the author instead looks at the relationship between the middle-aged couple attending this car-park ‘event’ and the horrors to be found in a disintegrating relationship between two people unable to acknowledge or even fully understand each other’s needs. But then, as with the other stories in this collection, this all-too human and relatable horror is blended with the unexpected and the inhuman to create a strange, gory and utterly surreal commentary on the human condition. Home by comparison is not just the highlight of the collection, it’s actually one of the best horror stories I’ve read this year – taking some of those themes found in earlier stories in the collection, and then amplifying them and blending with some fantastic writing. A fractured family, the physical and emotional scars caused by parental abuse, and a cleverly-imagined occult element are all blended together to create an emotional and utterly haunting story that stayed with me for quite some time after finishing the collection; to say anything further would be to spoil such a powerful tale.
Life of the Party takes nostalgia and the perils of aging as its initial base, with a group of middle-aged friends gathering together at the pub they used to frequent a quarter-century ago and trading half-remembered tales and reminiscing. Drinks at the pub turns into a drunken stumble through a city they no longer recognise, old haunts replaced by different shops and buildings, the absurdity of their behaviour at their age slowly coming through despite the effects of alcohol. For one of the members, George, partying with the group eventually dissolves into attendance at a strange party full of middle-aged people acting completely out of character, the situation becoming more and more surreal and disturbing as George ventures further into the depths of the house party. It’s followed by Blood Teachings which takes us back to a sinister church and a mysterious text that one member of a couple picks up. As with all such mysterious, occult texts in the horror genre, that member of the couple can’t remember anything they’ve read; get into an argument with their partner, and storm off while coping with crippling pain and gaps in their memories. The mundane, irrelevant truths found in the couple’s reality are replaced by sinister, occult realities with horrifying consequences.
The curiously-named Ecdysis begins the final segment of the collection, and once again focuses on the harrowing consequences of domestic abuse, and the difficulties found in recovering from it. The experiences of two women and the pain and suffering they experienced at their husbands are blended together with strange, ethereal sections about a strange cult, and a woman with strange and terrifying occult powers. It has a unsettling, dream-like feel that needs multiple re-reads to fully immerse yourself in. The End is Always Near is the penultimate tale, and opens with a quote from Robert W. Chambers about masks and self-deception, which feeds into the story itself – looking at a young mother’s experience of practicing self-deception in order to try and persuade her social worker that she can get parental rights back for her daughter, while also struggling with strange dreams at night. Stress and worry are amplified by a controlling and domineering mother, one who interferes with Suzi’s attempts to patch up her relationship with her daughter. The more pressure caused by misfiring relationships and emotionally-manipulative relatives, the harder it becomes for Suzi to control the mask of self-deception, to the point where it becomes easy to sympathise with her and her position in life. Her dreams begin to blend with reality, the mask becoming something more than metaphorical, until finally that pressure leads to something irreversible and horrifying occurring. The collection concludes with The Missing Country, following a teacher at a small, elite academy as a group of new foreign students arrive at the facility to begin their learning. However things begin to go awry when their school liaison realises they don’t speak any language he knows, and the entire group suddenly disappears. People appear and disappear seemingly at random, causing the liaison’s sanity to stretch, until an abrupt and surreal ending deftly caps off the story and the collection as a whole.
Night Voices is a superb collaboration between Frank Duffy and Paul Edwards, and one of the most impressive, accomplished and emotionally affecting collections of horror short fiction I’ve encountered in a very long time reviewing titles in the genre. This is not an easy collection to get through, as both authors have tapped into some incredibly intense wells of raw emotion and sentiment, particularly around the inherent decay to be found in urban environments and the family units cohabiting in them; reader should be warned that there are no light-hearted or darkly humorous stories to be found amongst the pages of Night Voices. But if you can steel your heart and prepare yourself mentally for what is to come, you’ll encounter some of the finest commentary on the surreal nature of the human condition to be found within the Horror genre. Duffy and Edwards have produced some extraordinary stories in this collaboration with Demain Publishing, and I very much hope that they continue to work with the publisher – both individually and together.