Review 1: The Pilo Family Circus, by Will Elliott
Review by Rebecca Davies

Will Elliott's debut novel The Pilo Family Circus is a finalist for this year's International Horror Guild Award. His name is being bandied about in breathless prophecies of an imminent return to the horror heydays of the 1970s. But to call this excellent first novel horror and leave it at that is to miss out on the subtlety and intelligence with which the scenario is played out.

The premise: Through a series of unfortunate events (Tragic, even, in the classical sense), protagonist Jamie is whisked away from his hum-drum existence into an otherwordly circus populated by sinister and gleefully psychotic clowns, acrobats, and freaks. So far, so ordinary. Clowns, carnivals and circuses are a gift for writers of the grotesque and the fantastic. It has been done very well (Angela Carter), very badly (Pick a name out of a hat), and one might be forgiven for thinking it had been done to death. But Elliott makes the subject very much his own.

Although Jamie's literal and existential battle with himself is at the centre of the story, the other denizens of the circus are fully fleshed-out characters with their own battles to fight. Throughout, the balance is skillfully maintained between pathos and dark, slapstick humour.

Yes, there are some viscerally creepy elements in this story (Proprietor Kurt Pilo's choice of snack, for example. Consider yourself warned) and there's no denying that it's punchy and fast-paced. But above all, it is an intelligent, thought provoking read, lacking the self-conscious stiltedness of some magical realism.

Elliott's next novel, Nightfall, promises to straddle the real world and the uncanny in the same way, and I will be among those waiting with anticipation to see whether he manages a repeat performance with the same apparent effortlessness.

Review 2: The Testament of Gideon Mack, by James Robertson
Review by Neil Ayres

Gideon Mack, our annoyingly unreliable narrator, is an atheist Minister in the Church of Scotland, who follows his father's footsteps into the clergy on a bit of a whim after finishing University, when a mysterious bursary available only to men bearing his initials becomes available.

The bulk of the book is split into two time frames, one of them immediately following his encounter with an unrecorded and possibly divine standing stone and preceding his writing of his 'testament', and the second period that of the rest of his life leading up to the stone's appearance.

This is interesting for the most part, and rewarding in places, but I found it a troublesome read, perhaps for reasons of my own rather than any error on the part of the author. I got the impression early on that there was a sinister edge to Mack that never bloomed, but this was at odds with both his actions and his overall portrayal. There was something I could describe as 'subliminal' in the writing that convinced me of this. This non-fulfilment I found frustrating. As there were lots of detailed characters throughout.foremost amongst these his friend, geologist and fellow atheist Mrs Craigie and Mack's own father, who are both revealed slowly and skilfully to seems a shame the main character was just that little bit off.

My other criticism is that the novel is longer than necessary, book-ended as it is by the story of how Mack's tome reaches publication, the epilogue providing a logical, unsatisfying explanation, bar one or two inexplicable occurrences, of what really happened to Mack, a trick that Yann Martel performed better and earlier with Life of Pi.

Overall the book comes with a recommendation, if only for a topical insight into the possible mind-workings of the UK's newly-minted Prime Minister. Bear in mind there's a caveat: Expect a good book, not a great one.

Oh, and did I mention the Devil is in it?

Review 3: So Far, So Near by Mat Coward
Review by David Hebblethwaite

You can generally rely on Elastic Press to come up with distinctive book covers, but this one just shows a bathroom in which someone's having a shower (with the curtain drawn, I should add!); and he's left his clothes strewn over a chair, the messy so-and. . .

Oh. Now that I look more closely. . .

He's left his skin strewn over a chair. So those tentacles are. . . Right. Well, that's still no excuse for being untidy.

Mat Coward's stories are like that, treating the fantastic as the most natural thing in the world, to the extent that you might not even notice at first; and, when you do, your attitude might be like that of the character who finds a dead ghost sitting on his toilet: 'you shouldn't be surprised. . . at what life chooses to throw at you. One ghost, two divorces, one imminent bankruptcy.' When you put it like that, why should encountering a ghost be so notable?

That cover image is a quasi-illustration of a story called 'Little Green Card', in which a man turns up on the narrator's doorstep at 4.30 in the morning, believing the house to be an alien embassy and asking for passage to the householder's planet. And, even though our narrator is in such haste to answer the door that he 'put [his] skin on back to front' (a remark that, by appropriate coincidence, did not register with me at first), we still get the impression that the would-be emigrant may be deluded, and is certainly a nuisance—even aliens would like a good night's sleep. Rather amusing, all told—for us, if not for the narrator's hapless visitor.

This is one of several effective tales in which Coward puts an unusual spin on a science fiction staple. They include 'The Second Question', which gives an explanation of where all the time travellers are that I don't remember coming across before (the explanation being that there's only one time traveller in all history) and the more serious 'We All Saw it', which explores the emotional consequences of a UFO sighting (no aliens required). I hesitate to call these pieces 'post-SF' , as I don't like the connotations of that phrase; yet they clearly belong—and perhaps could only have emerged—in a literary landscape where the themes of science fiction have become well-worn. Credit to Coward for breathing some new life into them.

Yet the author is also adept at more traditional 'if this goes on' SF, as evidenced by 'Offenders', wherein a straightforward case of a student possessing material deemed inflammatory (a poster criticising the US President) becomes a murder inquiry. But it's not so much the crime that matters as the future: there, you can be arrested for anything that might cause offence to anyone; and university is for the rich—not that it's much of an education, as the only thing worth having knowledge of is the law. Of course, I hope this story doesn't turn out to be prophetic; but it's made all the more powerful by a certain sense that it just might be so. (In his story notes, Coward mentions another piece of his that starts from a similar point, but makes the future more positive; I don't know if it has been collected elsewhere, but I'd have liked to have seen it in this volume for comparison.)

I've talked a lot about science fiction so far, but there is more than that in So Far, So Near. There are tales of fantasy (so far as these distinctions matter), which have an appealing lightness of touch (though not necessarily of tone!). An example is 'By Hand or by Brain', in which workers (soon to be former workers) at the world's worst call centre (or 'call mill', as Coward evocatively describes it) stage a strike; but the boss is a witch, or at least she might be—the slightness of the fantasy works well here.

Then you get a story like 'Room to Move', which is technically mimetic, though the thought processes of its protagonist are strange enough that it has the feel of fantasy: a burglar, whose flat is filled to the brim with his loot, breaks into a rich lawyer's apartment, only to find that its owner is into minimalism and there's nothing worth taking; then the burglar realises that actually there is, because he has no space at home, but the lawyer has plenty. Alas, he finds that stolen space is not so easy to keep hold of . . . Silly? Perhaps, but believable whilst you're reading it, and eminently capable of raising a smile.

There are a few stories in Coward's collection that didn't work for me, such as 'We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years', whose two themes of competitive bashing-your-head-against-a-brick-wall and a culture of literal 24-hour work never seemed to quite gel together; and 'Early Retirement' which, with its extreme team-building exercise, covers similar ground to 'By Hand or by Brain', though not as effectively. Nonetheless, So Far, So Near is a highly enjoyable book, one that will make you want to read the next story, if only to find out what else Coward has come up with—and that won't be the only reason you'll want to do so.

Reviews Copyright © 2007 by Rebecca Davies, David Hebblethwaite and Neil Ayres. All rights reserved.
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