This new anthology from Stumar Press comes courtesy of the combined efforts of the Derby Scribes, a keen UK writing group who’ve been gathering twice monthly in a pub for several years. The book features tales from both regular members and guests at their meetings, some of whom are established authors, others less known. I’m always tentative when approaching books like this, even with a sprinkling of familiar names on the TOC. The efforts of some writing groups - despite their well-meant enthusiasm – can be rather hard work, but I needn’t have worried. The Derby Scribes’ 2011 anthology is an enjoyable tome of drama, whimsy and chills.
Simon Clark opens the proceedings with “In the Spirit of Darwin”. Here we find an elderly gentlemen, Lloyd Jefferson, who meets a young man on a stroll who claims to be Charles Darwin, and the two engage about evolution, race and tribe. An unusual but satisfying tale, it sets the bar pleasingly high.
Next up is “Brylcreem and Pipe Tobacco” by Stuart Hughes, a supernatural story with an old-school twist. A woman seeks out a medium to ask her dead husband if he minds her remarrying, much to the chagrin of her current sceptical and somewhat boorish partner. I found the style slightly too descriptive in places, but the dialogue and character empathy are strong. And while connoisseurs of the spooky might find the conclusion somewhat familiar, it’s perfectly executed and I didn’t see it coming.
“Sophie had named the guinea pig Stump, just in case.” That’s the great opening line of Victoria Charvill’s refreshingly innocent “Stump”, a gentle flash piece about a girl’s accident-prone pet.
Then it’s time for a thrilling snippet of first-person crime with Jennifer Brown’s “Leaving Jessica”. This is narrated by a hunted woman, currently working as a nanny, who realises she’s been tracked and needs to hit the road once more. Well written, it opens with an especially tense scene involving her employer’s child and an approaching sinister stranger. It finishes with a brief but neat touch, cleverly framing a tale that might have otherwise seemed inconclusive.
“Bryan Lamb leaned against the chalky wall, his eyes closed. Someone was whispering — either prayers or a quiet conversation, he couldn’t tell which. He pretended to sleep, pretended that he couldn’t hear the howitzers and feel the whole earth shake when they found their mark.” Thus begins “Last Respects” by Richard Farren Barber. This is a very human and poignant tale that scarcely seems like fiction in which we meet a group of doomed soldiers in the rain and blood-caked trenches of wartime Europe. A sobering journey through the reality of war, the attention to detail is immaculate, and the story swings from melancholy to brutal and then back again to a haunting finale that inspires grave reflection. Brilliant.
“The Wake-up Call” by Alison J. Hill begins with a flurry of panic: the story of a man who thinks he’s just done a possibly fatal hit and run in his car. Although marred by some superfluous description and explanation in the prose, I was genuinely caught up in his intriguing descent and the finale caught me out.
One of the longer tales, “The Gallery” by Conrad Williams paints a picture of subversion in a vicious dystopia. A sharp and gruesome piece of sf, this is full of the author’s stark imagery and packs a knockout pay-off. And the references to 20th century “miserablist” writers should raise a smile from fans of the genre small press.
“Dave’s Dinosaur” by Peter Borg is a short fantasy about a couple menaced Jurassic Park style while out camping. I liked how oddly realistic it seemed despite the content, although a couple of light-hearted but clunky similes jarred me out of the moment.
David Ball’s “An Interstellar Taxi Ride” is just that, starring a conservative ambassador who’s forced to travel in a scruffy space-taxi. It reminded me of Red Dwarf before I read in the author bio that he is indeed a huge fan, and it shows. I loved the humour in the snobbish passenger’s indignance, and my only complaint is that it ended just as I was getting comfy. More please.
A strong voice comes through in “Obsolete” by Chris Barker. It begins with an old man gardening, then teases our curiosity with snippets of background. Is he some kind of retired military? A prisoner? His long-awaited journey from the confines of his house and garden sees him struggling to keep up with the modern world, and his sheltered observations are a treat. My favourites included his reaction to a rude slogan on a barmaid’s tee-shirt, and a flatscreen television mounted on a wall into which he assumes the bulky rear of the device is embedded. Unfortunately, the story’s shine is dulled slightly by a couple of spelling mistakes and a final scene of public dialogue that seemed slightly contrived in comparison to the rest. Neverthless, it’s a memorable tale of consequence.
Finally, “The Smell of Fear” by Neal James presents an ugly, selfish thug called George who terrorises the streets like a villain in a Western, and Micky, the one determined to bring him to justice. This is very tight storytelling, and the twist made me chuckle: a great way to conclude the book.
As the Derby Scribes’ founder Alex Davis notes in the introduction, the vibe here is probably darker than the average writing group, but there’s still an eclectic mix of sf, supernatural, drama, thrills and humour. I enjoyed the mystery of what might be next, and despite the range of styles and genres, it manages a strangely cohesive feel. A few of the tales might have benefitted from a little more plot or a bit of a short back and sides, but they all bring something to the party, and several of them are real stayers. As writing groups go, this is clearly a dedicated and damned good one.
“Derby Scribes 2011″ is a solid anthology, and currently available in all e-formats with a print edition to follow. Details at the website here.