*

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WE ALL HEAR STORIES IN THE DARK by Robert Shearman

Part Two of my review as continued from HERE.

When I read each story, my thoughts will be shown in the comment stream below….

34 responses to “*

  1. …from the ‘Brand New Shiny Shiny’ of the previous story we now reach the brand new shaky shaky…

    CANON FODDER

    “—they were brand new, as new as anything can be said to be that’s four hundred years old.”

    A sort of summoning of the British bard, this book’s British patriotism (or not!), perhaps in tune with the bust depicted by Reggie Oliver on the back cover shown above! Otherwise, a rather shaky romcom with a bus driver becoming one of the infinite monkeys rewriting the famous plays… but this silliness did have a touch of a dramatic poignancy for those of us in the not so distant past who have not (yet) lived to witness the fate we all now face today….

    “; strangers were running to each other and hugging and kissing, […] part of something magical and it could never be taken from them […] like a cry against the dark, against an uncertain future, and whatever the world might have in store for us,…”

    This passage, when quoted as a whole, is even more perfectly timed.

  2. CARRY WITHIN SOME SMALL SLIVER OF ME

    “—and then she’d turned eleven, and they’d changed her minds,…”

    Only by the end does the reader appreciate the SICnificance of that meaningful typo, indeed that it is not a typo at all. This book’s earlier subsumption of mother and daughter, now applicable to the adoptive as well as the blood-linked. Goodness me, I am becoming over-blessed with stories in this book that strike me immediately, while I read them in real-time, as remarkable and unforgettable ones, and this is yet another one. Beverley is this girl, and we follow her thoughts about her resemblance to a physical blend of her parents, about tastes of stale pipes as well as sweet grown-up coffee, today’s fear of ‘suffocation’ and knowing about someone’s life before knowing anything about the circumstances of their death, ear piercings as a fashion statement, some yielding pink plastic furnishing, about precious lies, striding into the pitch black, and, above all, what appears to be a premonition of my own Big-Headed People with head supports! Here, as a sort of supported pregnancy. A parasitism of self. A lump of raw steak, echoing BLOOD. The faint coppery tang of the air. And seriously oblique thematics upon familial ties. The longing for belonging.

  3. THE CENSOR’S REPORT

    “, he had always preferred words to people.”

    From those earlier Swiftian fables, this is a Kafkaesque one as a thematic variation on its own book’s Prologue. I earlier promised to subtract any of my own accoutrements of personal obsession from this review. But I seem to have just accidentally hit a paranoiac keynote when referring to my being ‘over-blessed’ in the previous review entry above, a fact which ironically justifies my own sequence of reading this book, at least!… But to defend myself against having interminable literary crushes, I place this report straight into its own concocted chute!

  4. After the previous reference above to interminable literary crushes we now have a member of a circus audience giving a standing ovation to each and every act!

    THE CIRCUS OF THE INCURIOUSLY DRAB

    “There is no one sitting next to you. There is no one sitting in front of you, and when you bother to check, you see there is no one sitting behind you either.”

    Well, at the start, that is.
    A protagonist who is a ‘you’, the one with a wife you want to get back even though she has not yet gone.
    You are attending a drab circus sporadically handled by an apologetic ringmaster, featuring a clown with an inscrutable unsmile, a vertiginous lady on a downtrodden tightrope ‘trapeze’, plus some ‘traipsing’ animals that will shock any animal lovers in their own downtrodden state, and a woman with popcorn who then sits down next to you in an indiscernibly empty auditorium-in-the-round, in fact this potentially empty life-in-the-round that subsumes you like sawdust… a woman now sitting next to you who is in denial about her own eventual circus act, perhaps being your wife in disguise, falling asleep beside you and dreaming it all, including dreaming you! Drab and dour, ever wanting to be turned gay. And indeed you feel too down in the clown’s mouth even to socially distance yourself from this story let alone continue any more contrived small-talk about it.

  5. …and somehow my unique sequencing method allows me now to reach the perfect musically ‘dying fall’ of a sequel story to the previous one!

    CLOWN ENVY

    “His painted lips curved downwards, dramatically, to show me he was sad.”

    And the protagonist, now as direct narrator, almost does turn gay, “to fall a little in love”… A story that has the utter pathos of the circus clown, of this book’s father-and-son relationship theme so far, its marital relationships, too, where things change, and hero worship goals and marital expectations turn from stolid careers to a red nose slapstick. 98BF0C0E-CEC4-477C-8BB8-79158B78C8C1 Indeed, in hindsight, some of the stories in this book, so far, seem to wear their own red noses with rueful pride, juggling all manner of things in the air of their plots, even grenades, to prove something. And the non-svelte wife here does her ‘dying fall’ circus act, with a stoical expectation, but the sawdust is now fake and does not break her fall. She should have laid it on the line, or at least on the ground. And the narrator’s own stoicism continues, as his son’s does, too — inscrutably, even severely, (as above), freighted with this book’s earlier ‘precious lies’.

    “These other guys, life shits on them, and their faces puff out so amusingly, there’s nothing you can do but laugh!”

  6. THE COCKTAIL PARTY IN KENSINGTON GETS OUT OF HAND

    “; he thought he smelled sweet as toffee apple.”

    Pasty at the party, Alex here possibly appears in the most shocking story of all so far, even more kinky than William Trevor’s KINKIES story. Alex (beyond wordless, alex) becomes as physically and psychologically pummelled as a floor rug along with other hunting trophies like a tiger and bear. The previous circus stories are now given thir rosette of “sighed disappointment.” Another man, brought (thankfully?), like me, beyond his own Midsommar leap by the wily crucifying trammels of this book, and, like me, 70 something, or could be 1000 years old, watches (along with the other guests) while his 70 something plus wife — the woman who hired Alex for his part as party rug — enacts the exquisitely awful apotheosis of not only political but sexual incorrectness, as role-played for real. But this is not about me. It is about Alex (and his thoughts of his envisaged large family elsewhere) and his brand of sullen, hunted, misdynastic stoicism. Not one red nose in sight. Riots in the Kensington streets, and dinner gongs, too.

  7. THE CONSTANTINOPLE ARCHIVES

    “…the clowns who pratfalled and danced and poked each other in the eyes in Constantinople cinemas…”

    I am now inspired as well as cheered up — with a contrastive spark of optimism, a spark also deriving from my knowledge of Toynbee’s historical cycles of challenge-and-response — by this overdue, no doubt accurate account of the true source of the world’s cinematic arts in Constantinople/Byzantium at the time it was besieged by “Muslim hordes”. Custard pies et al as items of filmic pioneering. They even developed the silents into talkies then, too. Nothing short of comic genius.

  8. THE CURTAIN FALLS

    “, is anyone I ever knew young any more?”

    A funny theatrical rivalry story, with its poignant moments, flings with a digs landlady, name-dropping Ralphies and Reggies, elephant guns to kill flies, new actors likened to callow juves, Gaslight and Shakespeare, Priestley’s Inspector and Beckett’s Godot, then come-uppance and heart failure as sort of piecemeal drowning, with a viewing of your drowning-vision’s reperformance of your whole career as acted by your bitterest younger rival, a poor actor at that, entailing what I have so far learnt to be this book’s mutual subsumption syndrome threatening… as an inner truth? Cross-references, symbioses, synergies, host-parasitisms accreting into some eventual gestalt? Not even a quarter through this book yet, and so, too early to say. Too early even to say if my finished review of this book is due to become my own swansong!

  9. Now for a story with an innocent title, but with a wicked backbite…

    CUSTARD CREAM

    “, all you can see is the blackness in your head, the blackness you’ve made,…”

    The story of my head. Your head, being another ‘you’ story, a head with a “kissy face” that your wife, not your digs landlady, today thinks is “something horrible, something like a stroke symptom.” Sheila is your wife, and she has a severe OCD arachnophobia, palmed it off on your daughter Laura… anyway, to cut a long deadpan-book-of-horror spider-attritional story short, you end up decamping to a hotel, as this time your wife will not forgive you, despite all the spiders you have killed for her. The hotel is a bit basic and old-fashioned, and staying there would be the ultimate nightmare for me if not for you, even WITHOUT the spiders. I wonder if you have noticed that the name Sheila is very close to Shelob…? And your skin is YOU? (I always hated skin on my custard as a child.)

    “(Well. You would. But.) But not the skin. Not you.”

  10. One of my comments earlier in this review: ‘I wonder if I have already found the map to the maze of this book, or whether the book itself yet needs to find the map to the man who is too mean to be me!’

    THE DARK SPACE IN THE HOUSE IN THE HOUSE IN THE GARDEN AT THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD
    (first published 2011)

    “I’ll be the bear.”

    A God and his maze, a God who creates viruses [SPOILER] and catches his own virus at the end and not only “coughed” once but also “coughed again.” He earlier creates a married couple reminiscent of the couple in the first story I read about Alice through a plastic sheet, and their already dead neighbours. A story of their eventually (god)forsaken journey to find the haunting frisson of ghosts, a journey from the the Garden of Eden, leaving their track-and-trace apple cores as in grim fairy stories such as Hansel and Gretel, both husband and wife being children of God. Via attic and other machinations of box and sleights of prestidigitation they reach their capsule lockdown in a Dolls House giving birth to their still stillborn child that sneezed upon entry, only for them to reach their whack-a-mole dark space where, I guess (with Nemonymous Night also being first published in 2011) God returns as Azathoth at the centre of the world, not at the edge of it, after all!

    “…and the doctors were dead and the nurses were dead and all the patients were dead, and some of the dead patients were so ill that during their stay at the hospital they died again…”

  11. THE DEATH ROOM

    “Judy didn’t cough very convincingly, and after ten minutes forgot to do it altogether,…”

    …just to prove something … that she needed their house’s Death Room renovating speedily by the hired handyman. To save any ‘faff’, I think her husband borrowed a step ladder from the nondescript neighbours, but I remain unsure. I AM sure, however, that Shearman can make you believe all manner of things in this world, that houses have death rooms as much as they have fitted bathrooms. And loving rooms, too. Not sure about LIVING rooms, though. And he somehow makes me believe that open-ended story endings mean more than if they clinch some dubious truth masquerading as closure. This is, in fact, the previous story’s ‘dark space’ extrapolated. And I hope Judy’s birth of a baby was more successful than in that previous story. Even if her crush on the handyman was itself stillborn. Perhaps none of us really die. Or we just go through the Midsommar motions. Jumping off Cliff.

  12. DEATH TO THE FRENCH

    “—but French just flowed out of me, so pure and easy, and I felt sort of comfy comfy…”

    I may be wrong, but I am sure an earlier story in this book had someone with a most spontaneous instinct for speaking in a foreign language. But here it is not a foreign language to this woman but her native one, even if an “Americanese” pidgin or mongrel version of it, a moribund version fighting not to be lost in translation. And indeed, as if miraculously, I found myself reading this story — couched in some other wanna wanna nuffing, even kids scuffing their shoes, sort of language – – reading it even more comfily than I do normal English, perhaps in some efficient pidgin loft of my brain. And, seriously, I can imagine this remarkable story (yes another one!) winning literary awards not genre ones. It seems to dabble in the themes of this book thus far, death, life, marriage, pregnancy, dynasty, fabrication, belief in things that in other places would be hard to believe, and pride in one’s own natural language so as to defeat forces that are out to adulterate it — ironically by using so skilfully one of the adulterated languages itself, like a targeted mole implanted into it to whack it like a sleeper-agent’s linguistic bomb? For me, this would relate to a pride in Britain, but not in Brexit. To become the ‘Americanese’ mind-mole inside of Trump, someone at a similar tottering brain-age to me, simply for me to become a kamikaze death-diving Midsommar missile into his crazy brain? Or to become, with my gestalt real-time reviews, a working part and oracle of our co-vivid dreaming so as to destroy the covid itself lurking at some crucial centre of our dying earth’s own dream?

  13. BEWARE SPOILER

    THE DESPERATE WOMAN WITH THE RAIN-SODDEN HAIR

    “The unexpected coincidence of it!”

    Des is indeed now desperate with anxiety (even with his almost religious belief, since his early twenties in the late 1960s, regarding the literary theory of the Intentional Fallacy) at the thought of his apparent dismantling of this book’s intentions! An unexpected coincidence indeed, because at the end of the previous review entry above, I found myself, late last night (well, late for me!) brainstorming about a mole’s or sleeper-agent’s linguistic bomb etc. And, so what happens? — this very touching personal essay hidden as a story within the book that is perhaps meant to STAY hidden is now revealed. Even its minutiae of a cough or pause or sip of tea. But I have just coincidentally completed a detailed real-time review of the huge canon of Katherine Mansfield short stories, so I hope I may be forgiven. And the fact that I anticipate this whole book in three volumes becoming a defining more-than-just-a-moment in my entire life. Genuinely so. You can get defining moments at any stage in one’s life, I guess. They don’t all need to come when you are young. And, as a bonus, this essay’s explicit comparison of the short story art form with that of the novel was a revelation to me. Or perhaps it was already hidden within me? But so sorry for the review spoiler to end all such spoilers!

    “—No, let’s be honest, he was asking me to stop showing off and making everything always about me.”

  14. DIG DEEP

    “Now uncovering your own past is a great historical adventure […] but it can also be highly emotional.”

    Well, if I say so myself, this is the perfect sequel — about a different set of parents and a son — to the previous work! And a hamster as a symbol of ‘A Dead Monument To Once Ancient Hope’. If I tell you why or how it’s such a perfectly poignant sequence of stories, that would spoil your experience of it, should you indeed be following my order of reading this book. Just for me to mention aspects of time travel archaeology, today’s statue controversy syndrome, and more boxes with bodies inside (or not) in a story figuratively to be told on their lids about what was the nature of the apocalypse that killed all of us in the first place, any future jiggling breasts notwithstanding. Dabbling with time’s diableries.

    • Where be your gibes now? your
      gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
      that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
      now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?

      — The Hamster to its once small boy of Yore

  15. DIGITS

    “—but yet Matthew Partis knew that his alchemical skills weren’t the equal of his father’s; when his father had failed, he had somehow failed better.”

    More dynastic matters here in the time of the Enlightenment, when Kings still fought wars with armies increasingly numbered in soldiers, or they should have done! A tale of failed gold as well as discrete numbers that even at their largest as numbers could remain stable, outdoing all others. A mathematical invention worthy of a potentially dross-free blend of Denis Diderot and Rhys Hughes as now mixed in the right proportions by Partis. An eventual gestalt to get his wife back or to sup love-soup with his daughter (whatever indiscretion that entailed!) A literary conceit that becomes — by transcending any conceptually discrete numbers of an ever-rising number of failures within them — the purest gold of ironic wit and innuendo. This review of it.

  16. There may now be some delay in continuing this review.

  17. THE DISAPPOINTING STORY IN THE BOOK

    “‘I have to spin all this straw into gold by first light,’ said the maiden.”

    A median maiden. Having explicitly spun purest gold in the previous entry of this review, this latest entry today is likely to be deemed the most disappointing one in my search for the book’s Gestalt of optimum literary gold. This episodic story aims to make perfection imperfectly perfect similar to the deliberate glitch in Persian carpets. It has its inferred false beard upon God’s archetypal godlike face to make him God. And it has a mediocre human being as a median benchmark to judge qualification of our entry into Heaven or not? A fabulous fable with fairy tale tropes and wondrous insights into human nature. A fable I have read during a single prevailing illness to make me cherish my life the more when the illness is eventually gone, assuming I succeed in reaching at least the minimum benchmark of recovery to avoid an inevitably disappointing death, a death with no thought of limbo benchmarks into Heaven — indeed with no thoughts at all.

  18. DUMB LUCY


    “The darkness, the darkness had come.”

    You need confidence to create magic, with the showmanship of legerdemain and literature alike. I also do not yet understand the meaning of ‘abracadabra’. And at polarity’s clashing cusp of demons and angels, this is the story — a story as story, one of those monuments of story surrounded by story connectors and other quirky trails of thought masquerading as stories — a story of an impoverished travelling conjuror and illusionist, and his assistant the small girl Lucy, ageless, who had voicelessly replaced his lost wife during some vanishing trick of yore. And this is perhaps the book’s constant wife who is lost and now sought, somehow translated into himself against the contagion of various deep polarities and prestidigits of darkness that beset us all today. Confidence is to know who you are. Abracada-bras proudly worn as well as cast.

    • Sorry, the first misstep in my sequence reading has just been revealed but, like many meaningful typos and other accidentally preternatural events in one’s reading experience, it seems appropriate that this misstep concerns a story entitled DETACHED! And, even more so, with it being thus detached, the intense link of contiguity between DESPERATE WOMAN and DIG DEEP was meant to be and might otherwise have been missed.

      DETACHED

      A very powerful and disturbing story about the thoughts of a surgeon who often has bad news for his patients. He doesn’t often deal with children in his job, but is faced one day with a boy who has a parasite attached to his heart. The Reggie Oliver illustration at the story’s beginning shows the nature of this parasite, but detached, outside the boy; inside the story, it is part and parcel of the body of both the text and the boy, and the descriptions are strangely believable, even inspiring, especially when they are linked to the boy’s bravery and the nature of the surgeon’s childless marriage. The ending is perfect. Shearman is sheer belief in the weirdly impossible to prove fortitudes once seen as beyond human capacity but now potentially to be harnessed.

  19. THE EIGHTH

    If not about KIng Henry, it is certainly about dwarves. Did you know there were 38, not 7, all with names, most names given here. Snow White wanted eight to be chosen from their tight group, a better optimum memorability or envisageability of a number than 7, she thought, or perhaps she had other reasons — and the repercussions from this situation, some exploitatively attritional, some movingly romantic, make up this story. And I wondered what sort of author had actually sat down one day and envisaged turning such a leap of imaginative extrapolation into a story. Possibly because it is not a story at all, but a truth that needed crystallising. An inner truth that this book has spoken of before. Indeed, earlier, it was an inner truth in a theatrical setting. And it is a damn shame the panto season has been cancelled this year.

  20. Straight after that Eighth, we reach…

    ERUPTION
    Starting…
    “FOR HIS EIGHTH BIRTHDAY Liam Copsey had asked for a volcano.”

    Another ‘Child is Father of the Man’ story. Here, ironically involving sporadic CE3K-like labours of cold love to create that very volcano for the other at different stages of their lives, one in the back garden, another on a hospital bed, the latter with knees as tectonic plates ….. a place where the autistic alien could land, as each probably were, but learning to transcend themselves… a story, though, not to provide landing from lands above us but to unload from below any bubbling of Azathoth pent-up within the earth, aeons of exponential build-up suddenly ‘times zero’.
    Every life has death, its own ‘times zero’ eventually, I guess, although we try to park that ‘times zero’ on a different zero sum page… A5255225-E61A-41E2-9629-7F1A9ED281DC
    Or a pair of still evolving zeroes: like a sidewise 8, a lemniscate with latent, lethal lava lifting in slow-motion eruption from each core?

  21. THE FALL OF TROY

    “As Troy has always fallen, and it might be because the gods decreed it, or because literature has demanded it, in so very many translations, across so much time.”

    That ‘times zero’ parked in the previous story is where death and denial battle together. Here, Nik has the perfect ‘translation’ of a marriage by abracadabra magic, a marriage with Helen, his kisses of paperback books, she said, and she with the nostalgia of E.V. Rieu. Although Alexander Pope would have been more ostentatious, as a rendition of Homer. If not of homeliness. Until, her attritional death …and I thought, yes, get a cat, Nik, why don’t you, for company! Something I wouldn’t certainly have done. Yet, by brainstorming, unexpected methods emerge, such as that the cat spoke learnt words that some theatrical show-off – depicted by this book before – had made it parrot. The whole Iliad, and a fantastically wild version of The Odyssey to represent this whole book, so far, returning to its Lost Wife. Geared to penny-whistle triggers of Troy’s starts and finishes as Story in obsessive feline recital as well as “like the flare of a toothache.”
    Hilarious, but intensely moving. Another of those remarkable, unforgettable stories, and I ask: why is this author not as acclaimed as one of this nation’s great short story writers, like William Trevor, V.S. Pritchett, Elizabeth Bowen?…. well, I know two of those at least are Irish. (Despite today’s reading passion of the real-time moment, I do seriously deem the thrust of that asked question a necessary matter to broach.)

  22. From the fall just above to the fall just below…

    THE FAMILY PICNIC

    “You never fall. You choose to jump.”

    Which is the perfect description of the Midsommar moment, here crystallised in Aunt Rachel’s variation of this moment… it being now when this old lady, further up the hill, finally allows the story to have its full sway upon her after many annual near-miss rehearsals… Actually this is another page-turner, a simply told story about kind people, a further story of Child as Father of the Man, involving both their first loves, their FALLING in love …or choosing to jump? Innocent, smiling people, too, as I recognise the father’s era of his schooldays and the strict gender situation of schools then, when we all sang the (Mid)Summer Holiday song. (That Cliff, again.) The naively but acceptably clumsy choreography of a first date. The typical eventual invitation for you to this first girl friend’s family event, an annual family picnic. So perfectly told. Until, in this indeed perfect story, so believably and shyly told, you are artfully made to feel a sudden subtle change of expectation amid all the niceness, as the family all decide, along with you and their daughter as your first love, to go further up the hill (perhaps as in Hanging Rock) before all of you return home. That subtle change is like a glimpse of lightning in a sky of blue. Time stands still. And who, eventually, much later in life, does the father meet in the shape of the mother of his own son’s first love? – beyond the end of his own story of unscryable married life to someone else? Having fallen, can one rise again? Only I ask that last question, but maybe the story does, too.

  23. FAMOUS LAST WORDS

    “; in death we had at last achieved a completeness, and that was a blessing, a gift—because all that seeming randomness we had lived through now was connected,…”

    … which were not Philip’s famous last words. If they had been, I could have lived happily with that. The story’s authorial voice got them in a nutshell. Pity Philip didn’t say them himself. Another disarmingly absurdist fable, wherein he says something that is so cataclysmically suitable to be someone’s last spontaneous words upon death, this 44 year old thereon says nothing more. Remains dumb and laid back in a dead pan way. His lager drinking and Tv watching slipping off his face and, eventually, off our memory of him, too. The choreography of what is enacted around him by members of his family and by his wife, and her sexual partners seeking, with his help, the root of his wisdom within her, and even by his own manoeuvres when SHE eventually dies for real…well, you will need to read this enactment as if it were on a stage like our staged lives themselves. A modern play. The story’s closing scene is tantamount to my own last words used about this book’s erstwhile Dumb Lucy syndrome: ‘Confidence is to know who you are. Abracada-bras proudly worn as well as cast.’
    We are all Dumb Waiters, I guess.

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