28 February 2019

#Blogtour Review - The Outcast Hours ed by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

The Outcast Hours
ed by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin
Solaris, 22 February 2018
PB, e 384pp

I'm honoured today to be joining the blogtour for Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin's new anthology themed around night and the dark. I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance e-copy of the book via NetGalley and to Tracy Fenton for inviting me to take part in this blogtour - when I heard this anthology was coming out, I knew I would have to read it and so I was delighted to be asked to take part.

Why did I want to read these stories? Not only do the editors have a seriously impressive track record - and look at the authors' names! - but the theme, night, is something that's always intrigued me and fired my imagination. One of the stories here notes that "By the time you're twelve you have a pretty good idea of whether or not you like the night". I think that's right. Old enough to get over - or mostly get over - the terrors of childhood, not old enough to appreciate some of the darker realities: your view can be set then, only to be moderated, not erased, by subsequent experience.

Me, I love the idea that, while I doze in my warm bed, there are people in neon lit spaces working; travellers make their way by nightbus or midnight train to who knows where; restless people sit in airports surrounded by their luggage; a pack of Nighthawks out of Edward Hopper's dreams prop up a bleak bar; and so forth. Recently I read about a woman living on the edge of London who, when she can't sleep, gets the nightbus into town and visits a particular Soho cafe. Respect to her for that - I'm not so much of a night owl myself though I will stay up reading but I'm fascinated by the idea of the night. It's just fuel for the imagination and positively drips with atmosphere, sentiment and anticipation.

Of course, that attitude may reflect a degree of privilege on my part, as a man with a secure home who lives in a safe and sleepy English village (even if we do sometimes appear in Midsomer Murders). Other perspectives are available and often, of course, the night is threatening, especially for women ("not for all the gold in the world would she have stepped outside the car in that moment" states the unnamed young woman in Sleep Walker by Silvia Moreno-Garcia "Because the night was yawning.")

So, all that said, what about the stories? The book contains 26 full length stories arranged into nine sections, each unopened by an enigmatic "microstory" by China Miéville. The stories in the book engage with all aspects of the theme: some are, perhaps only "coincidentally" nighttime stories, and might as easily be set in day (or are even notionally nighttime, as one set during the long Northern summer so while it is chronologically "night", actually it's as bright as day),  others demand the nocturnal in some way, featuring a security guard or a woman on shift at a dog hotel - while still more have that "something of the night" about them. In genre, they range from horror, to crime, science fiction, fantasy, noir and romance and everything in between.

This is, overall, a strong collection of stories. I had my favourites - for example Everyone Knows That They’re Dead. Do You? by Genevieve Valentine is a well-turned out ghost story, whose twist is that it's a very meta, self-aware story which stops every so often to ask the reader questions, point out what's happening structurally ("Susan has invoked the past, one of the early warning signs of a ghost story") and discuss where things might go. That sounds as though it shouldn't work, but the interventions rather add to the tension, giving the whole things a taste of preordained doom. It also has some neat characterisation, especially of resigned women mixed up with unpleasant men ("She's pretty sure she doesn't want to actually marry Greg any more, now that she knows he's a fucking grave robber...")

Or Indrapramit Das's The Patron Saint of Night Puppers which examines the life of a young woman surviving the gig economy in Vancouver, living from task to task. As she sets out to a night's work at a dog hotel one Hallowe'en, we sense Kris actually doing something she enjoys, and gradually learn why her lonely life is completed by spending a night with these loyal, abandoned animals. A sad story yet one with real feeling and heart, it gives a chilling sense of a young woman's everyday fears when on the street alone after dark ("she hoped it wasn't a man, because it wasn't easy to cross over to the other side of the road on Terminal") as well as the fears and hopes of the dogs she cares for ("The dogs surrounded her in worship and terror, begging for guidance. They loved Kris. They feared Kris. They asked only that she love them like their human families once had, only to abandon them here for who knew how many forevers...") I know it seems weird to quote those passages together but it reflects the way Das weaves together Kris's approach to the dogs and their vulnerability with her own life.

And there's SL Grey's The Dental Gig which reminded me of Terry Pratchett at his best. This non-so-sweet little fantasy revolves around the lives of the fairies who collect children's teeth, but it's far from being a soothing fairytale as we see the worst features of the modern workplace feature, not least a very dubious product resulting from all the activity. Another of my favourites, not only for the weird but successful mashup produced here but for the sharp characterisation, the credibility of the whole thing and a surprising ending. Or One Gram by Leah Moore in which Bette, an alienated young wage slave, scratches a living doing nightshifts at a pub where the customers are unpleasantly hands on ("Bette's attention was dependent on which of the customers were acting like pricks") and the management pitiless. How much can Bette take? And what will she do if she decides she's had enough? A naturalistic story where the nighttime breathes off the page and the moment to moment tasks Bette must complete jostle with her feelings to produce a crackling tension.

But there are so many strong stories here. The very first story in the book, This Book Will Find You by Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes and Dale Halvorsen is out and out horror, fitting for the hours of darkness. Something must be done at 3am - not before, and not after. Focussing on a woman driven to the edge of reason by what she's encountered, this was a chilling opener to the anthology.

Picking up the vibe of the #MeToo age, Will Hill's It Was a Different Time is set amongst the tawdry glamour of fading Hollywood, staging a nighttime encounter in which an abuser rails against the inevitable.

Sami Shah's Ambulance Service describes Nazeem's ("Karachi's only exorcist") nighttime shift at the Edhi Ambulance Centre, which serves the more esoteric emergency needs of the city's night hours. In what reads like a taster for a longer novel (please!) we see a range of supernatural crises defused with skill and aplomb and I enjoyed reading about these from a quite different religious/ mythical perspective to that with I'm familiar.

Sleep Walker by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of those stories that intrigues by what it doesn't reveal. Why has the city fallen on hard times? (Or perhaps they all do, in the end?) What is the mysterious, nocturnal "show" that eager men drive so far - to such a place - to see?

Francis Hardinges's Blind Eye picked up a different aspect of the nighttime economy - wondering who looks after babysitting for the less... regular... nighttime workers. And then it takes an even darker twist. I enjoyed reading about Erin and the way she's found of making a living.

Bag Man by Lavie Tidhar is something of a romp, setting a noir-ish gangster ridden tale in the scruffy backstreets of an Israeli town, spinning a tale worthy of Hitchcock as hoodlums, youths and, perhaps, terrorists vie for possession of a veritable McGuffin of a briefcase.

Maha Khan Phillips' Gatsby alludes to her original both in the theme of a lavish 20s- themed party thrown for Karachi's gilded youth by the mysterious Saqib, and in the role that Saqib himself plays in relation to Ra, a young woman who's missing her friend. Evoking a real sense of 20s decadence and even wickedness, it left a thrill of terror with me.

Swipe Left by Daniel Polansky brilliantly blends the dating adventures of a rather self-absorbed young man (the story punctuated by his online evaluation, selection, and assessment of potential partners) with an older form of hunting behaviour. Nicely done horror.

MiDNIghT MaRAuDERS [sic] by M. Sudan would be striking as cli-fi even if it were no more than that. Set in a Russian town in the Arctic Circle post some unspecified future disaster, there is mention of the Water Wars in Africa, sea levels have risen, towns been submerged and "Families with radios search for voices, or music, or some other sign the world still exists" it focusses on Lidya and her family's involvement in a dust-up between two rival chemist/ drugstores - both rather splendid establishments but caught up in a struggle involving local politicians, the Mob and the happily drunken, drugged-up townsfolk. It's great fun, with a bit of a bite (13 year old Lidya seems old beyond her years).

Sally Partridge's The Collector rather chillingly distils the essence of an unreconstructed young man working as a security guard in a Cape Town gated community ("He stopped talking to the residents after a while, in case he said the wrong thing about the Jews or working mothers"). It's one of those stories where a minor incident suddenly sends everything off the rails, revealing a real sense of rage and entitlement. A chilling story.

Tilt by Karen Onojaife opens among the peeling romance of a suburban casino in West London. Iyere has suffered a loss and drifted into gambling, something that wakes her up and gives her a thrill. A meeting with a new croupier reveals Iyere's past and present her with a choice about her future. A sad story, which presents Iyere with a choice.

In the Blink of a Light by Amira Salah-Ahmed is another story in which lives change in an instant. Contrasting the parallel lives of a wealthy young party girl and the pair of poor, if devout, young men who run the light and sound decks at the events she attends, it seems to show worlds, cultures, classes in collision. And that never ends well.

Marina Warner's This Place of Thorns is a story of the present or near future Middle East focussing on the lives of desperate refugees, people who just want their lives back. The thorns of the title are bushes that yield myrrh, in what is only the first of a series of Biblical parallels. A tender, sad and touching story.

Not Just Ivy by Celeste Baker is a nice fantasy, which Baker tells partly in her protagonist's Caribbean island patois (dipping in and out depending on setting and who she's speaking to). Arriving for a mini break in the sun, the unnamed advertising exec whose job is selling dubious remedies has what amounts to a spiritual experience which, as in Warner's story, seems to be mediated by plant life. It's a story where the experience is more important, I think, than the consequence - a moment of changed life with the future left uncertain.

Dark Matters by Cecilia Ekbäck is set in Finland, where a family of Seventh-Day Adventists is abut to meet a challenge that tests their picture of the world. Featuring Death, Resurrection and a perspicacious older woman, the story very clever shows us events through a child's eyes, leaving much unclear but creating a moving and true through-line, even if the ending is a bit sad.

Above the Light by Jesse Bullington is my favourite story in this volume. Exquisite in detail, it describes the lives of two young people who have taken to a strange hobby - night hiking. As they grow older they meet yearly to pursue this, becoming more and more proficient and taking greater and greater risks. As the demands of adult life crowd in, escape to the moonlit hills or the woods becomes more and more (and moor!) precious - but how long can this go on? If you've ever walked at night and felt that something else is moving around you... or wondered whether you were in a dream or waking remembering a dream... or just felt life closing in... then this story is for you. Just wonderful.

Yakima Ozawa's Welcome to the Haunted House teases by hinting that the point is for the collection of bizarrely animated household objects introduced as characters to, somehow, achieve freedom and safety. But actually it's darker than that and there is real horror here.

William Boyle's Lock-In is a tender story about a young girl growing up in a New York suburb in the 80s. Over the course of a night she has an opportunity to strike out on her own - a creepily effective section, especially when she's alone on the subway train with a man she doesn't know - but also has to reassess what she thought was secure in her life. An enjoyable story, where the night does seem to catalyse a change - but what change?

Jeffrey Alan Love's The Night Mountain is a gloriously obscure take, whether dream quest, spirit journey or account of real travel isn't clear. perhaps it has aspects of all three. Perhaps it's about fatherhood. In any case there is a true sense of the night as an uneasy place that must be got through. Whatever it means this is an effective and haunting story.

A Partial Beginner’s Guide to The Lucy Temerlin Home for Broken Shapeshifters by Kuzhali Manickavel is a delightfully bizarre set of instructions - or warning - for dwellers in the eponymous Home. Conjuring up a vision of Hogwarts' evil twin, this is funny and scary and operates by prodding all those buttons from other forgotten stories that tell you how such a place might operate. Clever and beguiling.

China Miéville's microstories, while never less than fascinating, had less of an obvious link with the nighttime theme. All of them made me want to know more about their wider worlds or characters, though, leaving me receptive for the theme stories that followed - so they served a purpose in stimulating the imagination among the longer pieces.

Finally - that cover catches both the tawdry nightime glamour, with its neon-sign vibe, and the idea of moonlight, setting up the perfect mood for these stories. Close the curtains - is that something moving across the street? Probably not - settle down in your chair, open this book, and experience the darkness...

To catch all the stages of this tour, see the poster below. Al do buy the book - you can get it from your local shop, including here via Hive, or order from Waterstones, Blackwell's, WH Smith or Amazon.


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