Stephen Bacon’s Peel Back The Sky Reveals a Talent

Stephen Bacon’s debut collection, Peel Back The Sky, is the first volume in Gray Friar Press‘ New Blood sub-imprint, and it’s a fine choice to launch the series.  The book gathers 21 stories, six original, with virtually all of the reprinted stories having first appeared in UK small press publications, so it’s likely that Bacon is unknown to most of the U.S. audience.

It’s sometimes illuminating to take a step back and examine a collection from a higher level, looking for themes. With that in mind…Peel Back the Sky feature a variety of settings and protagonists, including five tales with females as primary characters and four more with children in a prominent role.

Seven of the 21 stories are very much focused on remembrances of an earlier time — some being completely framed narratives, others smaller flashbacks.  For example, “The Strangled Garden” is a tale related in a gentlemens’ club (a format that was once common) regarding the narrator’s time spent as an estate gardener during the 1920s.  A large, separate section of walled-off garden is reputed to be haunted but is ultimately found to contain something even worse, as the narrator hints here:

Even now, gentlemen, on occasion I might be reminded of that terrible autumn; a smell of rotting leaves, the dappled shadow of skeletal trees, crackles of frost underfoot. In that instant I’m transported back, and I suppose those memories have darkened my journey through life ever since.

“Persistence of Vision,” one of three stories dealing with child abuse (and no, that’s not giving too much away), features an adult narrator who’s reminded of the time when, as a boy during the late 1970s, he and his widowed father moved in with his strange, reclusive Uncle Keith.   It’s not until decades later, when his father is dying, that he comes to realize some disturbing facts about his father and Uncle Keith.

In “The Devourer of Dreams” an adult male narrator again recalls a period during his youth, this time in 1947, when a guest visiting his parents’ inn brings some very strange luggage with him.  When the guest dies unexpectedly, the boy’s father “inherits” the package, and it changes his life.  The narrator himself later inherits the item, with similar results, and now, on his deathbed, is ready to pass along the “gift.”  It’s the unique nature of the framing device that makes this story worthy of mention.

“I Am a Creation of Now” is a relationship story, focusing on one level on how rarely we truly know someone. Tellingly, the first line is, “I had lived with my girlfriend for over 3 years before I found out her real name wasn’t Marnie…” and the description of their relationship is exquisitely melancholy:

The winter made our relationship more fragile. During the long days of the summer it felt like we had room to breathe, had maneuverability. But the dark nights pressed against the glass of our closed window, silencing the outside world, magnifying our frustrated tolerance of each other. We were like insects trapped in a killing jar.

Also notable is “Cone Zero,” wherein a college student becomes obsessed with a mysterious, reclusive artist — and one of the artist’s works in particular, which may depict the student’s late mother. The student journeys to visit a former companion of the artist, where he is rewarded with the backstory of the painting’s focal point:

“The Cone Zero Device was a metallic object about this big, with a pointed spout, and a . . . an eyepiece. Some people say it’s a gift from the gods. Others say it’s a curse – punishment for the curiosity of mankind. Legend has it that to peer into the lens was to glimpse the actual future.”

In addition to the aforementioned seven stories featuring flashbacks or recollections, three more tales are set in the past while two are set in the future.  Of this group, the two futuristic tales are both notable, particularly “The Other Side of Silence,” which centers on a man who awakes from a coma-like state and gradually comes to understand that he has unexpectedly recovered from a sensory-deprivation virus that has decimated mankind…but his remission is not all good news.

The remaining nine stories feature apparently contemporary settings, and at least three are versions of what I would call contes cruels, all of which are effective but not highly memorable.   The best among the other tales are “Hour of Departure” and “Concentric,” with the latter, which feels very different from the other stories collected here, concerning a giant “hole” that appears in the North Pacific.  Scientists are recruited by the military to investigate, and what they find at the bottom of that hole is scary indeed.

Overall, Peel Back The Sky is an impressive debut, for both Bacon and the New Blood imprint. The variety of the contents means there’s likely something here for every reader.  Les Edwards, a long-time favorite of mine, wraps the package perfectly with a brilliant cover painting.

Riding the Nightmare with Rio Youers’ Dark Dreams, Pale Horses

Rio Youers is a highly regarded newer writer, although not quite as new as I’d thought — some quick research showed that Dark Dreams, Pale Horses, his recent collection from PS Publishing, is his fifth book, preceded by three novels and a novella. Dark Dreams acts as a fine introduction to Youers’ work, gathering six stories, half of them on the long-ish side, and allowing him to employ a variety of styles and attack a number of different subjects.

Youers flexes his auctorial muscles most impressively when trying his hand at post-apocalyptic tales, three of which are collected here. First up is “Pure,” which is set largely in the teeming slums of Rio de Janeiro in 2064. The protagonist is part of an underclass whose ancestors were infected by a vampiric plague, and who are now marked with facial tattoos to help identify them and keep them quarantined. Youers expertly evokes the misery of the milieu:

“These streets, as crowded as a child’s imagination, once filled with color and vibrancy, but now made gray by clouds of fear; thunderhead of disease. The locals—the cariocas—pressed to get out of the rain, heads down, bodies wet. They did not look at him.”

“Pure” is perhaps the best story here, a gripping work that’s further enhanced by the unexpected turns it takes.

In “Alice Bleeding,” the catastrophic near-extinction event is a huge meteor strike in Australia.  A group of survivors elect to stay behind in the Outback when the other residents of their small town head for more populous areas in hopes of finding aid.  Their decision proves to be even more disastrous, as supplies dwindle and no rescuers come:

“In the semi-desert west of Yulara, across the ruptured highway, the letters SOS had been spelled with the detritus of aftermath: furniture and timbers, siding and appliances, carpets and vehicles, towels and bedding, tiles and panels. The letters were forty feet long—the industry of the remaining townspeople, those too foolhardy or stubborn to evacuate. They pillaged the ruin for any morsel of hope. They dragged their findings across the highway and anchored them to saviour. SOS.”

The final tale of cataclysm is “Chrysalis,” a dark fantasy detailing the stubborn observance of religion in a despair-filled world where the sun no longer shines, and a seeming miracle that perhaps rewards the enduring faith. Youers’ prose is again worthy of quotation:

“Imagine the world as a diseased heart. A pale shape hanging in the substance of time, tumbling on its axis: a distorted sphere, like a swollen eye. The grey flesh of the ocean rages, unimaginable depths swirling with muscular movement. Contaminated waves break against the earth’s skeleton, delivering scores of the dead. The forests are broken toys. They lie in pieces, slick with rainfall.”

Among the trio of non-apocalyptic tales, “This is the Summer of Love” certainly merits mention, a bittersweet tale of young lovers Billy and Terri in a relationship that’s headed for disaster as surely as a train with no brakes. Even though the story meanders at times  and ends somewhat arbitrarily, Youers’ descriptions again show his flair:

“Home is five rooms held together by tattered boards and siding. The structure leans to the east and has bowed on that side. It has swollen, like an infected limb. The windows are smeared with neglect. They let little light in, and no darkness out. They hide the loss of hope, the creaking floorboards, and the shadows that crowd the seam of light under the doors.”

“The Ghost of Lillian Bliss” revolves around an aging Alzheimers’ patient’s wistful recollections of a ghost she knew as a girl. The only somewhat disappointing story here is “Promised Land Blues,” in which an obsessed Elvis Presley fan gets far more than he bargained for when he arranges to drive a vintage pink Cadillac across the country.

Dark Dreams, Pale Horses is the tenth volume in PS Publishing’s Showcase series, and it’s a perfect fit for that series descriptor, given that the collection serves as an ideal showcase for Youers’ substantial skills.