It was about six years ago when I first encountered Stephen Bacon’s fiction. That story was “The Trauma Statement” in the Horror Library II anthology, and I remember that it stood out with crisp writing, a thought-provoking concept and devilish pay off. Since then, his name has been one that always raises a smile when scanning a table of contents and I was delighted when Gray Friar Press announced his debut.
Peel Back the Sky spoils us with 21 short stories (6 of which are previously unpublished) and there’s a rich variety of fictional landscapes for a genre collection. From spooky period atmosphere and bittersweet nostalgia to sf-tinged horror and contemporary tales of child abuse, they’re drawn together by investable characters and heart along with the chills. But don’t let your guard down. Stephen’s insightful and deceptively gentle voice disguises razor-edges, making him the perfect guide for an exploration into what makes the dark or dangerous mind tick.
First up is “Last Summer”. This is one of my previous favourites and still strong in the memory from when I first read it a year or so ago. Set in an old colliery village of Yorkshire, this spellbinding story transports us back to 1984 where we meet the folks whose lives are blighted by the miners’ strike and political troubles of the time, compounded by the abduction of local children. The evocation is sublime as it forces investment through nostalgia and characterisation, switching between childhood past and present without the slightest judder. Perfect in construction, this emotional story doesn’t try to make you jump, it lets you peer under the stones yourself. Superb.
Another winner is “The Trauma Statement”. Narrated by an increasingly isolated woman forced into a hideous game of deciding the fate of others, this is one of those stories that makes the reader question what they would do in such a situation. We share the protagonist’s desperation regarding how far she will go to protect her family, and although things aren’t quite explained, it’s a great idea and compelling to the sharp conclusion.
Next it’s time for some classic shivers with “The Strangled Garden”. The first of two Victorian gentleman’s club tales, it concerns a walled-off, overgrown garden where a child once disappeared. I was particularly impressed by the seamless period language, and the adventure into the twisted vines and foliage provides plenty of theatrical peril, rounded off with a flourish that put me in mind of Poe.
After that creepy but fun fireside yarn, “Catch Me If I Fall” caught me out. Introducing an old couple who discover they’ve hit their lottery numbers, it seems relatively benign in content, but bites with its pointless cruelty and leaves a sour taste. It proves that the author doesn’t need ghosts or murderers to get under the skin.
“Persistence of Vision” is the first of a couple of pieces dealing directly with child abuse. Told by a man remembering his childhood, it paints an instantly heart-breaking picture of the death of his mother, but the descent really starts when he and his father have to move in with Uncle Keith. The subject matter is exceptionally well handled, never inappropriately lurid, and our sympathies ensure that the clever finale is nothing short of pitch black.
“Girl Afraid” is presented as the diary entries of Laqueesha, a likeable and intelligent 9 year old girl who lives with her troubled mother in a rough block of flats. Perspective is used to grand effect as she reports her life with youthful innocence, notching up the discomfort as we learn the depth of her dysfunctional circumstances. This paves the way for a moment of ice-cold horror as we witness something terrible that has completely sailed above our narrator’s head. A brave story in both content and style, I think it succeeds.
“The Other Side of Silence” moves us from the urban present and into apocalyptic science fiction. A virus that erodes the senses has brought the world to its knees, but Vernon seems to be in remission, regaining his vision under the care of the enigmatic Eleanor. But all isn’t quite what it seems, and the author brings humanity – both tender and cold – to a haunting vision of the future.
It’s back to the smoky ambience of the gentleman’s club for “A Solace of Winter Rain” to regale us with phantasms of murder in an old Cornish cottage. I found this somewhat in the shadow of “The Strangled Garden”, but it’s still a solid ghost story with a twist that seems obvious at first, then inspires a double take and pause for thought.
“The House of Constant Shadow” is a triumphant study of human resentment and cruelty. Ernest is a bitter man stuck with the job of caring for his obese and blind wife, and I was completely drawn into his shadowed world of entitlement, opportunities lost and guilt. Trapped by duty, Ernest aroused my sympathies then snatched them back numerous times, and the sense of redemption slipping inexorably away is fantastic. Plenty of darkly humorous touches never spoil the intensity of this story in which the mundane is perfectly balanced with the vile.
Shifting the tone, “With Black Foreboding Eyed” is a pure old-school terror tale. Set in 1900, we meet two men trapped on a Scottish lighthouse in a blizzard whose colleague seems to have been slaughtered by something monstrous. Beautifully evocative and dramatic, the text envelopes us in cold fog, swaying lanterns and dread. I found the closing scene just a bit too easy, and it feels somewhat lightweight regarding its peers in this collection, but this short tale serves as a breather and is fun to read.
But such fun was never going to last and “Daddy Giggles” certainly sobers the mood. In this present-tense piece we meet Duffy, a man visiting his dying mother. He’s ready to confront her and clutching Daddy Giggles as evidence; a child’s toy that holds memories of abuse. A powerful journey, it weaves tainted nostalgia into our damaged protagonist’s anger, and reflects on the frailty of human life, both physical and psychological.
We travel back to a taut pre-war Europe for “The Toymaker of Bremen” in which Scott, a young English boy, loses his parents on holiday. He is adopted in bizarre circumstances by a rural story-book toymaker, soon settling into home life with the white-haired man, his children, and the family cottage filled with creepy dolls and toys. There’s a great atmosphere of wrongness, and as with “Girl Afraid”, the child’s innocent point of view provides plenty of discomfort. I was with young Scott all the way and didn’t want it to finish.
“The Shadow Puppets” is a flash piece narrated by a possibly disturbed man who discovers a cathartic talent for shadow puppetry, but soon realises that his creations seem to know more than him. I found it only mildly interesting at first, but was grinning by the time I reached the gleefully ghastly parting shot.
It’s back to 1953 for “Room Above The Shop”. We meet Jenny, a girl visiting her grandmother’s gloomy dress shop in a quaint Derbyshire village, spooked by creepy mannequins in the store upstairs. Although a polished story, it left me slightly wanting. Perhaps I’d hoped for more explanation regarding the supernatural shenanigans, but the tale is carried by strong characterisation and the malevolent presence of the mannequins.
“Inertia” tells of a woman who lives in self-imposed isolation and discovers a terrified bird trapped in her chimney. An elegiac and brittle mood piece, this is impressively unsettling for its short length.
More wounded souls follow in “Hour of Departure”. This introduces Ellie, struggling with the aftermath of an accident that killed her husband and injured her young son. She has to juggle the guilty complications of an affair with the damaged behaviour of her boy, making for a claustrophobic tale of relationships with an understated, chilling finale.
“I Am A Creation of Now” is a quirky if slightly uneven presentation of floundering romance and altered time. Named after an REM lyric, it hooks immediately with the story of a man’s budding relationship with his intelligent but troubled girlfriend. I expected the ending to be a light-hearted twist, but it surprised me with its poignant depth.
An old Nemonymous favourite, “The Devourer of Dreams” is the nightmarish story of a writer. He tells of his upbringing as a coastal innkeeper’s boy where his father kept a beetle-like monstrosity in a box: a hungry creature that drains victims of something far more terrible than blood. A story strong on themes – guilt, reward, success, inevitability – it still manages to be a fun and physically icky horror tale and much more than a sum of its parts.
“Concentric” is an intriguing story in which a vast sinkhole appears in the middle of the ocean, baffling and terrifying the world’s experts. It has an apocalyptic, blockbuster feel that bursts from the page but although I was along for the ride, the finale didn’t pack any surprises.
The end times continue in a slightly different vein for “Forever Autumn”: the diary of an isolated man trying to care for his sick and wheelchair-bound wife after a zombie-style outbreak. Suitably grim, with a focus on fear and reflection rather than gore, it oozes suspicion and threat. And there’s a few tricks up its sleeve.
Taking the final spot and more than rising to the responsibility is “Cone Zero”. It begins with a dreamlike fall of blood-red snow as we meet a lonely student who sees an advertisement for an art exhibition that links to his past. Curious, he tries to fill in the pieces in a tautly plotted adventure that delivers atmosphere in abundance. The ensuing collision of death and art forms a good climax to the story, and also the collection itself, drawing together several of the themes that have traced throughout the book.
I was sad when Peel Back the Sky was finished, but pleased that my hopes had been realised. These believable snapshots of lonely and angry lives are engaging from the first paragraph, and I was surprised to discover that revisiting the familiar was just as enjoyable as discovering new pieces. Reassuringly honed, these stories are often melancholy, but the book never becomes hopelessly bleak. There’s humour and warmth too, and Stephen populates it with tangible characters who are worth our time, particularly shining at 1st person, be that urban pre-teen or Victorian gentleman. This leaves us no choice but to descend into the shadows beside them.
From Lovecraftian terrors to the silent damage of abuse, the author succinctly conjures landscapes of both place and mind, then casts ripples of slow-burning unease through the text. This is mature, thoughtful storytelling where compassion jostles with the venom and provides some very astute – and indeed sobering – insight into the human psyche.
Brave and beautifully painted, Peel Back the Sky is a debut collection masquerading as that of a veteran.