Tuesday, 28 December 2010
With Deepest Sympathy, by Johnny Mains | review by Stephen Theaker
The first two stories, at least, surpass those lowered expectations. "Reconvened: The Judge's House" wraps itself with some vigour around a Bram Stoker story, and "With Deepest Sympathy", the title story, is by far the best of the book. Mrs Primrose Hildebrand discloses terrible secrets to those mourning the dead, in sympathy cards, and gets a nicely nasty comeuppance. It's an excellent idea for a story, well executed.
Unfortunately, later stories like "Losing the Plot", "Gun Money" and "Bloody Conventions" range from average to mediocre, while "The Spoon" is just a daft joke and "The Family Business" is a barely fictionalised account of an embalming. We're told only that two of the stories have been previously published, one in Pantechnicon and one in The Obverse Book of Ghosts (though a third appeared in The Fourth Black Book of Horror), and this does have the feel of being a collection of everything the author happens to have written, rather than a carefully curated selection of his best work.
The book is also a bit old-fashioned and unsophisticated; deliberately so, of course, but some stories are weaker for it, and none feel particularly fresh or surprising. "Final Draft", about an enthusiast tracking down a Pan Horror author in hope of extracting one last story from him, unaccountably fluffs the chance to make the entire collection and its author part of its fiction. That lack of tricksiness makes this a slightly odd fish among the Obverse list.
In one way this book does match its Obverse stablemates, I'm afraid: as with Ms Wildthyme and Friends Investigate, the proofreading is dreadful, if it's been done at all. Missing apostrophes abound (or fail to, one should say), and other typical mistakes include "five squeals, in tandem" and "He got up … and left the restraint" (meaning restaurant).
As Royle's introduction says, it would indeed "be a churlish critic who begrudged [Johnny] his own collection", and I won't do that. Each story does at least have an idea to its name, and if you squint and tilt your head just so you can see a hint of what a more gifted writer – a Basil Copper, say – might have done with those ideas.
But what was gruesome and transgressive in the seventies seems less so today; for a collection of horror stories, With Deepest Sympathy is awfully cosy and mild. After Connell's Unpleasant Tales, for example, much of this seems quite tame, the big shocks diluted by a sense of "Is that all?" It isn't frightening; the mechanics of a horror story are in place, but something's not quite right.
None of the stories are brilliant, some are downright poor, and it didn't really deserve hardback publication, but it's an enthusiastic re-creation of the kind of book the author likes to read: that's an impulse I understand. To that extent it's a success. If you like that kind of thing, this is more of that kind of thing, only not quite so good – and sometimes that's good enough.
With Deepest Sympathy, Johnny Mains, Obverse Books, epub, c.2189ll. Reviewed from own copy.