I’ve only read a story by Richard Farren Barber once before – the excellent reflection of war that is “Last Respects” from the Derby Scribes anthology of 2011 – and it stood out for its pathos and evocation. His new novella from Damnation Books is more of a horror genre piece, and I was pleased to discover that beneath that atmospheric cover is a slick and involving work.Steve is a normal young man who works on a flagging high street that seems to be frequented by bored hoodies more than shoppers. One day while working, he spots a pale, wispy-haired stranger outside – the gray man – who seems to be staring at him.
This silent and unnerving figure keeps reappearing in Steve’s life – when he’s walking home or helping out at the local youth club – and he starts to question if it’s even really there. He’s soon driven to rage, but discovers that even violence won’t keep his ghostly stalker at bay.
I quite liked Steve. He’s sensible with his social conscience, and empathises with the disaffected kids that feature in his routine. His grounded attitude drew me into the story immediately, and also helped with the necessary identification as he battles with his pragmatic side against what he can actually see.
The growing menace of this story is strong and never ebbs whether our troubled protagonist is at work in the shop, walking the lamplit streets at dusk, or in a boisterous club. This creepy vibe really keeps the pages turning, especially when Steve’s grip starts to falter, and the ongoing presence of disenfranchised youth as well as the gray man keep us guessing as to how it’s all going to pan out.
Sometimes a prose style is worthy of remark due to it being particularly poetic or flamboyant, but I love it that this author is largely invisible. His attention to detail is brilliant, as are his turns of phrase, but there’s never any intrusion to the experience and he lets the characters, plot and sense of place take command of the storytelling.
I enjoyed “The Power of Nothing”. It has an uncluttered concept and the themes of inevitability and control add a bit of substance, as does subtle social commentary. My only real gripe was that the pace dipped towards the end, and a couple of these chapters could perhaps have benefitted from a trim. Several scenes involving Steve telling the gray man to fuck off and leave him alone became quite repetitive, but this lull precedes a splendidly downbeat and unpredictable finale that meant my complaint was instantly forgiven. Richard Farren Barber pulls off that difficult feat of a conclusion that inspires wry reflection and also throws light – or is that darkness – back across the story as a whole.
Well played, sir. I’ll be back for more.