An ordinary hospital side room is the entire stage for this splendid new novella from Gray Friar Press.
We meet Paul Webster, a 41 year old man about to undergo major surgery for a rare and aggressive type of cancer that he may not survive. As night falls upon the eve of his operation, he attempts sleep but it is disturbed by distorted memories from his past. As the night progresses, the dreams become infiltrated with scenes from his lifelong passion for horror and fantastic fiction, and he realises that something very dark is using these memories to pursue him.
I loved this novella. Told in the present tense to great effect, it begins with a thorough but delightful description of the unremarkable hospital room in which the story takes place. The author’s wit and natural storytelling lend this a slightly whimsical tone, but the humour is countered with blunt reminders of the terrible lows that such a room has witnessed as well as the highs.
A few pages in, Paul enters the room – overnight bag in hand – and the tone cools to a stoical, British melancholy. He proves to be a likeable, sensible fellow, so naturally we’re drawn into his world. The inevitable fears, fragilities and hopes of somebody about to undergo a life-threatening operation are perfectly rendered, drawn as they are from the author’s recent experience with major surgery, as explained in a heartfelt afterword.
In most fiction, I find dreams rather irritating, often as distractions from what’s really happening. But here, the altered recollections are both beautifully painted and satisfyingly tangible. This is aided by the intrusion of the supernatural menace and strengthened by our empathy.
I pondered a couple of potential twists half way through, as this author is no stranger to the wry finale, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But I was pleased to discover on this occasion that “Differently There” isn’t that kind of tale. The finale is appropriate and powerful, and functions as a very pleasing bookend to the plot.
While it certainly has its sharp chills, there is not quite the gleeful ghastliness that fans of this author may expect. This is a much more reflective piece where memory and mortal fear collide, which isn’t surprising given the circumstances of its conception. There’s enormous heart and dignity to be found, and John Llewellyn Probert shows that he can take his craft in a slightly different direction and still very much deliver. As Ramsey Campbell said, horror is lucky to have him. “Differently There” shows exactly why.