Science Fiction Fantasy Horror Mystery   at

HOME page 
Genre Essays 
Book Reviews 
Movie & TV Reviews 
Contributors Guidelines 
Readers' Letters 
Magazine Issues 

A Saucerful Of Secrets
Andrew Darlington
Parallel Universe paperback £8.99

review by Steven Hampton

Like entering a twilight zone for the loading of genre-literate humour, and unloading of predictability for tragedy and vivid lyricism, A Saucerful Of Secrets takes us across multiple thresholds between compelling realism and sophisticated imagination, with sublimely witty references and hefty riffs aplenty, adding a weight and philosophical depth few can match. This is a veteran writer's first collection of short fiction, and it's frequently steeped in traditional SF tropes but with post-modern twists and beguiling absurdism. Through the looking-glass, or down rabbit holes, these are stories penned with unusually poetical intent. The info-density and wordplay seems, at a first glance, like old lead, but, scratch the surface contours and it's revealed to be gold of a Brit-Lit wealth.

Vernesque adventure collides with Wellsian speculation in the first story The Strange Laudanum Dream Of Branwell Bronte. The second piece cooks Sherlock villainy into brisk horrors of mutant rats, frogs, foxes, and eagles, as cyborg Moriarty is employed by government spooks to save London from an unnatural disaster. At his recruitment chat, "Tension crackled around the room like destiny sparking up out of a telegram." The horrors of Bedlam combine with a Holmesian addendum of studied malevolence like Mabuse meets Moreau. Further A.C. Doyle borrowings form the core of Beast Of The Baskervilles, a werewolf nightmare about a troubled man's quest for his missing daughter.

Thuesday To Fryday un-spools tragic romance, chaptered in existential angst, and loss ("I strain to reach out. To touch her damaged spirit"), with dollops of jealousy. There is a cat named Jingle as minor player here, and it's the feline guest-star in the next offering, The Door To Anywhere, a nostalgic reverie of childhood fantasies that ensues when young Derek finds Ratty in the Yorkshire yore-lands of a Phantasm and Narnia hybrid. With his heroic jaunt into charming karmic abstraction, Derek saves faerie creatures from a human predator. The boy wonder is back for more weirdness in Derek Edge And The Saucerful Of Secrets, daydreaming through acute boredom of a motorway service station so he's a captive under an alien force-field like the sinister barrier in Invasion (1966). Trapped inside a Blish 'spindizzy', this enclosure takes off, zooming into the cosmos like the Moon in Space 1999. Monstrous menaces appear in scenes of terror, while ironic farce proliferates in the manner of a Bill Bailey sketch of surrealistic improbabilities. There are observational insights for characters in the fashion of Robert Rankin but without his laboured jokes. The pretty heroine is named Callisto, of course! Stephen King's Maximum Overdrive has nothing to compare to this whimsy on steroids, "drowning in refractions of vagueness". While Sapphire & Steel allusions and Doctor Who-ish set-pieces unravel any sense of reality, "the whine of dissonance" grows deafening, until... Ah, you guessed the quaintly happy ending, didn't you? Well, just imagine it's a classic B-movie with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd!

A migrant man is caught up in a refugee crisis that provides highly topical horrors for the first part of Refuge. Then it changes gears and shifts into uncanny territory, as the injured wanderer finds a unique safe haven where a strange alien protects immortals. In The Non-Expanding Universe, a Tyneside take on the tale of little red riding-hood has a runaway alone in the industrial wasteland's quarantined zone facing down stray weirdness like Stalker combined with Stargate. Reminding us that social equality for men and women does not mean that girls and boys are all the same, Gender-Shock is set in a world of blandness where antidiscrimination laws have stifled sexual identity. Big Bad John is a pub name for a curious tale about a caveman throwback lurking on the Yorkshire moors, and this pays tribute to many of the local folk legends dotted on any wall-of-weird maps of the haunted British Isles.

A cyberpunk nightmare, Terminator Zero And The Dream Demons (previously seen in Premonitions: Causes For Alarm) is the romanticised adventure of a media techie tricked into a smuggling scam as he returns home from working overseas. Complete with such sci-fi icons as a laser-knife and an old copy of Interzone, this is centred, like a narrative roundabout, on the Ballardian car-crash survivor who is apparently saved by his 'lucky' break of extraterrestrial origin. A Grotesque Romance offers a potent triple-act and mysterious threesome when an art critic gets to interview the surviving wife (muse), and model (mistress), of a celebrated but deceased painter. Dark secrets of the supposed genius of anarchic eroticism are exposed before the story's inevitable, yet stunningly ghastly, revelation of morbidity.

Perhaps inspired by William Gibson's hyper-nostalgic tale The Gernsback Continuum (1981), adapted for TV by Tim Leandro as a short film, Tomorrow Calling (1993), The World Holds Space Enough finds genuine wonders in charting unknown realms, for a calendared, episodic alternative history. This feeds into witty melodrama, confronting the promise and the curse of an illogical infinity where the Earth is a boundless planet "confused with imagination and out-weighed by fiction." As utopian conceits, crushed by a tag-team of "hubris and irony", echo a generic challenge of 'Lost World' discoveries, while throwing away jokey collective-nouns such as "a scrambling of eggheads", this builds up into a daring, superbly enigmatic hypothetical, with a brilliant final twist worthy of Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick combined. The expansive surrealism continues in ...And The Earth Has No End, for a fever-dream with the sharply intimate intensity of toothache. Here's another ominous world of phildickian alternities as mind-expanding vistas of decompressed quantum effects result in awesome possibilities of a thought-controlled universe. In an unquiet moment, "distant thunder seemed to be applauding the death of time." What might be... can be, in this dream-come-truism of just 'be careful what you wish for'.

Although the book suffers from typical small press imperfections; like easily spotted typos, widows, and orphans; its faults are marginal and forgivable - and likely to irk only pedantic copy-editors or uncompromising obsessives - so they don't detract markedly from the extremely high quality and laudably stylish variety of writing presented here.

A Saucerful Of Secrets by Andrew Darlington

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press