‘Never Again’ edited by Joel Lane and Allyson Bird

20 09 2010

'Never Again' edited by Allyson Bird & Joel Lane, 294pp, Gray Friar Press, ISBN: 978-1-906331-18-4, £10.00UK/$18.00US

Reviewed by Peter G. Bell

I tend to be cautious when it comes to stories with a cause. Not that they can’t be brilliant – To Kill A Mockingbird, The Colour Purple and A Clockwork Orange spring instantly to mind – but writers too readily trip themselves up by focussing on their message, rather than the means by which that message is conveyed. Without due care and attention, the writer simply creates a soapbox from which to preach an agenda. At best, such tales are little more than sermons for the converted. At their worst, they come across as smug and self-congratulatory. So it was with mixed feelings that I approached Never Again, the new anthology of short fiction from Gray Friar Press.

The book describes itself as “an attempt to voice the collective revulsion of writers in the weird fiction genre against political attitudes that stifle compassion and deny our collective human inheritance.” In more concrete terms, it gathers together stories with anti-fascist and anti-racist themes. While this is certainly a worthy cause, the lengthy introduction probably overstates its case a little; can there be many writers (or readers) of fantastic fiction who support fascism and racism? There must be, somewhere, although they’re surely in the minority.

But what of the stories themselves? Editors Joel Lane and Allyson Bird have succeeded in compiling an extremely strong list of talent; any anthology that includes work by such figures as Joe R. Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Volk, Gary McMahon and Rob Shearman is not to be sniffed at.

Unsurprisingly, many of the tales draw on the Holocaust for inspiration, choosing to present fascism in its most overt and organised form. There are a couple of stand-out stories in this category: Nina Allan’s Feet of Clay provides a subtle and haunting opening to the book. Matt Joiner’s South of Autumn takes the unexpected step of weaving folkloric fantasy through the familiar tropes of barbed wire, tattoos and gas chambers, resulting in a satisfying blend of the romantic and melancholic.

Others are less successful. Volk, by rj krijnen-kemp, succeeds in building an oppressive atmosphere but left me confused and searching for any real meaning in its structure. And Lisa Tuttle’s In the Arcade starts promisingly but feels too hurried, never quite giving its engaging central character enough room to breathe.

The anthology spreads its wings as it progresses, encompassing more liberal interpretations of the central themes. Consequently, we’re treated to the wry bizarro fiction of Rediffusion by Rhys Hughes, who has obviously had a run-in with the TV Licensing Authority at some point in the not too distant past.  Alison Littlewood’s In On the Tide is a powerful, sometimes uncomfortable demonstration of the deep hurt that casual racism and the thoughtless inaction of those in a position to help, can cause. And Simon Kurt Unsworth manages to create one of the most profoundly discomforting stories I’ve ever read, without leaving the confines of a modern British café, in A Place for Feeding, my pick of the bunch.

But what good is raising awareness if it doesn’t lead to action? On this front, Never Again puts its money where its mouth is, with profits going to a trio of human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. The book also contains contact details for a diverse number of anti-fascist and human rights groups, allowing readers to take the next step under their own steam.

While a few tales do fall into the trap of letting the story serve the theme, and although I would have enjoyed just a little more variety in tone and setting, Never Again is a thoughtful reflection on one of the world’s most enduring social spectres. Its most affecting stories are those that move beyond the idea of fascism as an external force imposed on us by others, and focus instead on the grubbier aspects of human nature that, when left unchecked, give rise to oppression, fear and hatred.

It has made me realise how lucky I am to live in the time and place that I do. And that, I think, can be counted a success.

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