Sunday, 20 July 2014

Last Year, When We Were Young by Andrew J McKiernan

Last Year, When We Were Young by Andrew J McKiernan is the author's first short story collection and, indeed, his first solo book. I should note up front that, once upon a time, the author and I were in the same writing critique group. What this mainly means is that I'd seen early drafts of a few stories, a long time ago, and had very vague memories of them. But I thought I should disclose that up front.

There was a decent variety of stories in Last Year, When We Were Young, with most of them tending towards the horror side of the spec fic triangle. (Spec fic is a triangle now. Or maybe a triangular Venn Diagram, but I digress.) Some were more contemplative and serious, while others were more... gory. One was even science fiction. Looking over the table of contents again, most of the stories have very good titles.

I found I most enjoyed the more contemplative stories. My favourites were "The Memory of Water", "White Lines, White Crosses" and the titular "Last Year, When We Were Young", although the latter is perhaps less contemplative per se. The former two stories deal with loss and death in a poignant way.

Actually, I liked most of the stories in this collection. My least favourite tended to be the most gruesome, which is reflective of my horror preferences more generally. And although I am using the term horror to describe the collection as a whole, I'm not sure the three circus-based stories (for lack of a more accurate phrase) count as horror. Certainly not "Calliope: A Steam Romance" nor "The Dumbshow". "All the Clowns in Clowntown" is perhaps more borderline since it definitely has a well executed feeling of dread to it, but on the other hand, it's about clowns. I suspect coulrophobiacs may disagree with me on that point.

I also liked "The Haunting that Jack Built" — in part for the name — and "The Desert Song", both of which were set in rural Australia and both of which had fairly traditional horror elements. I liked the Australian angle and difference between the Australia of the past and the Australia of a not-so-nice future. I also liked "The Message", which packed a powerful punch, nonetheless.

All in all, this was a pretty solid collection and I would recommend it to horror fans and fans of dark speculative fiction. With a few exceptions, there was nothing too extremely horrific in the stories and I think most of them would be enjoyed by a fairly broad audience.

~

The Memory of Water — A story I found difficult to put down. Siblings remember their departed parents.

White Lines, White Crosses — A teenaged boy and his family move from Sydney to a country town that is eerily obsessed with hooning. It was a disturbing story with a creeping sense of foreboding.

Calliope: A Steam Romance — A patent clerk is captivated by a woman playing a calliope (a steam-powered musical instrument). True steampunk set in Sydney, even more steampunky when we learn that the woman is actually an intelligent automaton. Also, points for many physicist/scientist shout-outs.

Love Death — A young man brings his new wife to a necromancer, hoping to get her back. I may be a bad person, but I found the circumstances around her death pretty (blackly) funny.

The Message — You know when you read a genre book and you know you're reading a genre book but the characters in it don't know they're in a genre book? This story made me think about that phenomenon. A woman takes a job answering a mysterious phone. Obviously, it's far from an ordinary phone and certain aspects of the past resurface...

All the Clowns in Clowntown — Surprisingly epic for a short story. In this world clowning isn’t just something someone does, it’s who they are. The clowns have clustered together in Clowntown, living their lives, until one day <cue ominous music> the circus comes to town.

Daivadana — a disturbing tale of a diplomat (sort of) who gets caught up in an old Tajik religion. Pretty gruesome at times.

The Dumbshow — Another story in the same universe as "All the Clowns in Clowntown", set (I think) shortly after the events of the previous story. It's much less eerie and, being shorter, a more straightforward story. Honestly not sure how it would stand on its own without the earlier background.

The Final Degustation of Doctor Ernest Blenheim — A little hard to get past the self-cannibalism. And honestly once past that it was still a weird story. As far as revulsion goes, I think it did improve as it went along.

Torch Song — The speculative element sneaks up on you in this one, but I quite liked it. A shot tale, good punch. Title very apt.

The Wanderer in the Darkness — Sci-fi horror, so it automatically put me in mind of Alien. My only issue with it was a character leaving an airlock without his helmet and then not dying. Oh well.

A Prayer for Lazarus — I think I read part of this before, possibly an earlier version. Anyway, creepy story told from a young girl's point of view about her mother's descent into a form of zombie-ism.

The Haunting that Jack Built — I quite liked this story. Set in a rural, small town in the Australian 1950s, Jack builds a house while the townspeople can't help but notice women disappearing when they come to visit him. (I think I'd read at least part of this story before.)

They Don’t Know That We Know What They Know — A weird story with a fitting title. Reminded me a little of "Daivadana", although it's actually pretty different in the details. A seer interrogating the dead body of a young terrorist.

The Desert Song — A sort of zombie story, set in rural future post-something bad Australia. I liked it and the ideas in it but I found it a little inconsistent.

Last Year, When We Were Young — One of my favourite stories in the collection. And it's a great title, which works well for the collection as a whole. A speed ageing plague has infected humanity and the concept is taken to its horrifying conclusion.

4 / 5 stars

First published: May 2014, Satalyte Publishing
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: review copy courtesy of the author
Disclaimer: although the author is a friend, I have endeavoured to give an unbiased review
Challenges: Aussie Horror Reading Challenge

2 comments:

  1. Last Year, When We Were Young is such a brilliant title. I love titles that play with the idea of time and change, like Linda Grant's When I Lived in Modern Times.

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    Replies
    1. Absolutely! It works brilliantly for the collection as a whole and the short story.

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