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Somnambulists
Allen Ashley
Elastic Press paperback £5

review by Steven Hampton

Allen Ashley's startling fiction is like the literary equivalent of multi-tasking. Most of the 16 short stories (some are reprints, while others are presented for the first time here) in this collection are weaving their own, frequently unique, cunningly devised paths through more than a single narrative milieu. Although the author readily embraces the mundanity of life (in whatever era or discomfort zone), he seemingly cannot help but insert - with a scary hypodermic or benign sledgehammer - quirky elements of unnerving, multi-angled, pure fabrication. Between putting the kettle on, and skittering across familiar 'spacetime' into a beguiling dreamscape of alternative reality (just as likely to be sharply amusing as subtly nightmarish), Ashley purposefully upsets every apple cart in the genre 'produce' market. Less conventionally 'stylish' and more radically imaginative than many of his peers in the indie press, and following the illogical rules of shadow-land intuition rather than simplistic extrapolation from a flashpoint of change (that characterises so much 'other-worldly' storytelling), Ashley's impressively varied writings explore fantastic settings that could be accurately described as 'tangential' rather than 'parallel' worlds.

Somme-Nambula cleverly links the infamous WWI battlefield with the discontinuity of remembrances by a sleepwalking army officer, whose childhood memories of kitsch cabaret and theatrical magic shows undermines the potential for standard martial horror scenes even as the bizarre juxtapositions of the romanticised and the sourly domestic manages to elevate sequences to the merit levels of prose poetry. Sometimes profound, but not quite measurably allegorical, Ashley is rarely so calculating in his quasi-fantasy creations, and seems to prefer offering readers a rich multitude of suggestive images and sidetrack threads - left open to our interpretation, instead of being plainly metaphorical. Even the apparently figurative, corporate-menace of Downsize, in which wage-slave office workers are physically reduced in stature and weight to cut business' costs, is actually more outrageously surreal and humorously satirical than transparently symbolic.

Adopting an offbeat reportage mode for Life And Trials reveals that Ashley is a fairly astute social commentator without being obviously judgemental in tone, and the 'snapshot' paragraphs about an apparently convicted criminal's troubled upbringing engages our sympathy because the authorial viewpoint is neither stridently conservative or overtly liberal, in tone. Ashley's politically-aware conundrums are intriguing. In Search Of Guy Fawkes is quite impossible to pigeonhole and boasts a deceptively simple convolution and conflation of historical English and modern London scenarios that defies easy description. Among the talented Ashley's other idiosyncrasies is a curious tendency for using 'Allen' as the name for his protagonists, so we may never be certain how much - if anything - in the story is 'autobiographical' or, at least, inspired by events or moments from his own life. Of course, this wouldn't be the first time an author has based fictional characters on himself. Ashley's use of this peculiar literary ruse only adds to our growing fascination with his writings. What's on offer is pretty much a cathartic rampage through stream-of-consciousness and cross-genre concepts.

Harmonic Excursions also challenges synopsis in review. 'Something about outlawed musical compositions and pot-holing police agents' fails to do justice to the story's themes and intentions. You will just have to read this erudite gem for yourself! Pumpkin Coach aptly recounts the death of a people's princess in a notoriously tragic, Parisian road accident, with the darkly hilarious guise of a tabloid TV version of Cinderella. Siberia imagines a spiritually testing quest for the 'lost tomb' of the supreme deity himself, but the official investigators discover how the inhospitable landscape mirrors secular apathy. Twilight features hints of the popular and traditional, exclusively British, 'cosy catastrophe' as an urban couple's lives are disrupted by the ostensibly permanent descent of an eerie and unforgiving darkness.

With blithely innovative side-swipes at philistine editors who might brusquely reject literary works, Matthew Saint is a snippy two-pager from a world in which 'The Bible' might be lacking a gospel or two, while State Of The Ark heroically combines hallucinatory travelogue with doomed shipboard romance, in a dazzling piece that demands re-reading as soon as it's finished - just to be sure you did (or didn't!) understand it all. Perhaps that - the requirement for a second reading (so like craving another fix!) is, all by itself, the highest recommendation anyone can bestow upon works of fiction, whether postmodern or otherwise.
Somnambulists by Allen Ashley

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