Certain names in a horror anthology’s table of contents will automatically compel me to buy the book. Steve Duffy is one of those names. His modern tales of horror, with their sardonic observations on the foibles of human nature as it traipses through the 21st century, are a must-read.
So when Ash-Tree Press announced the publication of Tragic Life Stories, a collection of nine recent Duffy short stories, I had to have a copy. Now that I have read it, I have made a decision: No one other than my husband gets to borrow it. No one else can even look at it, because it’s my cherished copy. If that makes me selfish, big deal.
Tell you what. I’ll share a little of it with you, here in this post. Then you can go buy your own copy.
In her introduction Barbara Roden notes the shift that occurred when the author of the book decided to move from his early career ghost stories, which resided in the world of M.R. James’ antiquarian books and fireside chats among gentlemen of letters, to tales of terror set in a world quite recognizable to today’s reader. This choice, combined with an astonishing ear for common speech and a fascination with what makes people do what they do, is a defining characteristic of Duffy’s recent writing. The eeriness of his prose is often achieved by introducing something weird but entirely plausible in a situation that is mundane and familiar.
We have been to these places, lived in these shabby yet comfortable apartments and houses, observed the odd behavior of a neighbor or a stranger and said, “Hm. I wonder what that’s all about.” Finding out what that’s all about is central to Duffy’s fiction and that is why, when it hits home, it stays with you.
The title story begins with a writer, Dan, perusing the shelves of a local bookstore. Emotionally stunned following the loss of a significant relationship and the cancellation of a book contract, Dan is engaging in that most human and despicable habit of the unhappy writer. He is trashing the published work of other authors. As he moves from a spiteful summation of the popular titles in his genre, fantasy, to the non-fiction section, his angry wit sharpens. Most of the non-fiction takes the form of what Dan calls “tragic life stories.” These are the drug and rehab and dysfunctional family memoirs that have proliferated over the past two decades and have won a multitude of readers who like to wallow in another person’s sorrow.
While grinding his teeth Dan meets a woman of apparently boundless compassion, who shows great interest in him and his writing. She also loves “tragic life stories.” Given the popularity of such memoirs, his current state of mind, and his attraction to this new, possibly romantic interest, it seems natural enough that Dan goes home and promptly begins writing such a memoir from the point of view of a horribly misused boy. From this point on, Dan is living a lie. But the power of his imagination may be greater than he thinks... read more