Peter Crowther,
The Spaces Between the Lines
(Subterranean Press, 2007)

This is a collection of short stories, including two that are more novella-length. The cover shows a winter forest scene at dusk, with an impressive, old building in the background that grabs your attention and perfectly fits the atmosphere of the book. Through the snow-covered ground beneath the bare branches of the sleeping trees, a path zig-zags into the distance. But, then, you notice that it isn't a path at all, but a crack in the Earth, and ... something is reaching out! Grasping!

All of the stories here have been released before in other anthologies, with citations on each. At the end of the book, the author explains, in a very down-to-earth way, what the inspiration for each story was. (The notes are humorously titled "Playing Deity.")

And now, without further ado, the stories:

"Stand-by" (originally published in 1999)

A middle-aged man is very much in love with his wife. Then, the worst happens: a lump is found in her breast and, despite all the best treatment, her health deteriorates and she dies. As she is breathing her last breath, her husband vows he will bring her back. In his grief, he reads, researches and chases down rumors and hoaxes until he finds an old woman, somewhat feared by her neighbors, who says she can bring the man's wife back. There are two provisos, though: it will be a simulacrum of his wife, with just a bit of her soul in it, and if they are not extremely careful, his wife will not come back alone, as opening a door and controlling who comes through it are two different things. Well, this is a horror story, so we know the man will realize that his resurrected wife is not really her (well, it is, but just a faint hint of her), and someone else does sneak through that door into the Afterlife when the old woman opens it. That someone is a very bad someone, and very terrible things ensue.

This is a very well-written, creepy, smooth-flowing horror story, and is one of the best in the collection. It utilizes dual timelines well and is not too predictable. You know the story will probably turn out bad, but the details are surprising.

"We're All Bozos On This Bus" (originally published in 2002)

A boy is in an orphanage, where he has bullied and intimidated his way up the pecking order. Now, Frank has maneuvered his way into the leading candidate for adoption, and he is all boyish charm and smiles when the strangers come calling. Of course it works, and he boards the bus to go to his new home. But the people on the bus headed toward Frank's new home all seem very strange, and they just get stranger as the journey progresses. Frank has found a home, all right, but it will not be at all what he hoped for! This is a gruesome tale.

"Days of the Wheel" (originally published in 2000)

This was my least favorite story in this collection, as I never figured out what it was about. Plot-wise, all that I can say is it has to do with old people in nursing homes and the atmosphere created when a circus comes to town. Oh, and it ends in tragedy.

The story does do a great job of creating a feeling that is an odd mixture of creepiness, despair, nostalgia, anticipation and even joy. The story is well-written, technically, and it definitely left an impression on me. It also left me confused. Perhaps, if I read this one again (at least once, if not five or six times), I'll get it figured out. Or maybe it is meant to create a feeling, instead of being understood, like abstract art.

"Even Beggars Would Ride," with James Lovegrove (originally published in 1997)

From one extreme to another, this is probably my favorite of the collection. A girl is shut away in her room with no contact with the outside world. She is ill and quite disfigured, and she has a recurrent dream of standing on the edge of town, looking out upon a plain, with many people standing on surrounding hills watching her. A man stands behind her, as they both watch a great cloud of ... she knows not what, at first ... approaching. We learn about her unwanted and most terribly handled birth, and her parents' strange and rigid religious beliefs. And, also as the story progresses, the girl takes naps, and her recurrent dream slowly moves toward a climax that is bittersweet yet strangely triumphant. This story is well-written and, despite the sadness in the main character's life, the ending made me want to cheer out loud.

"The Last Vampire" (originally published in 1997)

This one is a great example of how a con game can blow up in one's face. In a nightmarish post-apocalyptic world, akin to those found in Edgar Pangborn's brilliant "Davy" or Russell Hoban's melancholy "Riddley Walker," a small, isolated town in Florida suddenly gets visitors. A convoy of trucks rolls in, carrying an apocalyptic freak-show, the main attraction of which is the world's last vampire. Well, the circus is really just a group of hucksters out to con people out of some food and gasoline. They picked the wrong town to scam, though, as they find out, when they meet the mayor of this lovely little hamlet. "The Last Vampire" is creepy, gory and rife with poetic justice.

"Bedfordshire" (originally published in 2004)

This, for me, was the darkest piece in the collection. Moving back and forth between two timelines, we learn about the main character's childhood, during which he was repeatedly molested, and his agony over the death of his beloved wife. His love for her helps her move toward Heaven, as it would be defined by all the good things that have happened in her life, and his despair, after her passing, leads him to take his own life -- with the consequences designated by his religious beliefs. His afterlife is shaped by how he would define Hell. The story is quite memorable, but it is so dark that I am not sure I want to remember it.

"Conundrums to Guess" (originally published in 1995)

This is a good story that came out of a challenge to write stories spun off of Lewis Carroll's Alice stories. The protagonist is a young woman who rents a home once lived in by a young girl who knew Carroll. We are told about his unusual habits and are eventually led to an interesting and quite unorthodox explanation for what he did. But that would not make a good horror story, would it? How about if we add that the Queen of Hearts, with her "Off with his head!" mentality, has escaped Wonderland, and the protagonist must do battle with that most murderous sovereign, aided only by a miniaturized version of Lewis Carroll's ancestor? Now, we have a good, whimsical tale of horror and murder most strange.

"Three Plays a Quarter" (originally published in 1997)

Here we have a strange metaphysical tale that describes a version of the afterlife that I certainly hope is not what lies ahead for me. A couple of drifters wander into a ghost town and visit the saloon, only to find it inhabited by lost souls, waiting for their song (their death, their history) to be played on a magical jukebox. Will they survive? Is escape even an option? And if escape is possible, will that jukebox always be waiting for them? The final question is the hardest one, though: Is the ugliness in that saloon really all that bad, given the perspective of age and loneliness?

"Sitting Pretty" (with Simon Conway, originally published in 1998)

This is another story with two alternating timelines. One starts in 36 A.D. with a group of men climbing Calvary and retrieving wood from the cross of Christ; it is fashioned into a chair, and we follow that chair through history, up to modern times, along with the many famous people who have owned and sat in it. The other timeline tells of a couple preparing to visit the woman's teenage brother, who is nearing death from cancer. The two timelines merge beautifully, and quite meaningfully, near the end, with results that are neither predictable nor miraculous. This one makes you think, and the evolution of the two modern characters is done subtly and deftly. It's a very nice piece of writing.

"The Main Event" (originally published in 1995)

This story was part of an anthology where the stories had to include two ingredients: murder and a recipe. I had some trouble liking this story, as I disliked all of the characters. That said, it is a good murder story, and it does describe some mighty fine food. It just had too many characters with too many rough edges for me to really enjoy it. (Those with stronger stomachs might like it.)

"Dark Times" (originally published in 1999)

An older man is about to go to bed, when his best friend calls him and gives him a cryptic, whispered message asking for help, lots of light and reading glasses. He rushes over, and he discovers that his friend has gone to extraordinary measures to bring his wife back to life -- with terrible, terrible results. This story is a good tale of black magic and the consequences one might face for going where no man should ever go. It is also a tale, though, of friendship and bravery. It left me feeling a bit sad, but also with a bittersweet sense of what can be accomplished.

"The Spaces Between the Lines" (originally published in 1998)

This is, obviously, the title story, and it is one of the longer tales and one of the best. It is also the most hopeful, optimistic one of the bunch. The author again deftly uses two alternating timelines, and he again has the main character taking extraordinary measures to save his beloved wife, but this one definitely has a more joyous ending, albeit still touched with melancholy. In one timeline, we learn about 6-year-old David's visit to his Uncle Allan in England, shortly after David's mother passed away and David's father is trying to recover from his own grief. In the other timeline, a middle-aged David has had a terrible car accident that should have killed David's wife. But, long ago, Uncle Allan gave something to David, and that something might just allow David to save his wife -- if he can escape a terrifying supernatural entity that is called by, and angered by, that very same something. The race is on, and what a race it is!

by Chris McCallister
13 January 2007

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