Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The House of Canted Steps, by Gary Fry

Mark Cookson is an estate agent with an odd, instant connection to a house he's been asked to sell, one whose stairs are not straight, one that "looks as if it's got something to hide". When his pregnant ex-wife Gayle and son Lewis move in with her new husband, a handsome fellow who doesn't even need to check with the bank before signing the contract, Mark becomes obsessed and angry. But is it him, or is it the house? Can he work out what's going on inside the house, and what's going on inside his own head, before it's too late?

This short novel is very carefully written, but would perhaps have benefitted from a little more roughness. The sentences are too often circumlocutory, buried under unnecessary words, too anxious to avoid any possible misunderstandings. It felt at times more like a piece of literary criticism about a novel than the novel itself. We are not just told what happens and what is said, but also exactly what to make of it, and what part it plays in the big picture.

Sometimes, of course, a bit of circumlocution and rumination can be a wonderful way for a writer to create an atmosphere, but here it works too often against the attempts to create tension. For example, a potentially terrifying scene, which sees Mark trapped by the social embarrassment of being somewhere he shouldn't while the Blood Boy creeps up on him, is squandered by having him listen in on a lengthy, quite banal conversation.

The novel echoes Thieving Fear by Ramsey Campbell (to whom the novel is dedicated) in that the evil at the heart of the novel plays with perception, but it's in a much less subtle way. Campbell's characters talk awkwardly at cross purposes, while Mark simply misses the blatantly obvious point of conversations; it's frustrating rather than frightening. And the result is that while there are mysteries for Mark, there are none for the reader – other than why he's being so obtuse.

A typical passage, from the beginning of chapter 19, illustrates the main problems with the novel: "The fact that something about this whole explanation simply didn't ring true, proved to be insufficient to prevent Mark's brain from turning back at once to the central preoccupation in his life at the moment." His ignorance is unconvincing, the prose awkward.

Still, this is a novel written with serious intent, and it has interesting, insightful things to say about stepfamily relationships. The characters are rounded and believable, and certain images – particularly those of children in danger – were unpleasantly memorable. The idea of the canted stairs creating a threshold between the apparent safety of downstairs and the nightmare of upstairs is well used, and by gum I would not like to live in that house.

The House of Canted Steps, Gary Fry, PS Publishing, hb, 228pp.


  1. Thanks for the review, sir. Sorry it didn't work for you in places, but glad you liked some of it. Best - Gary Fry

  2. Thanks, Gary. I've got a lot of stepsisters and step-parents myself, and that side of the novel really made sense to me, especially the point that it's very difficult to accept the new arrangements as the *proper* arrangements, even when everyone involved is clearly much happier.

  3. Well, that was the heart of the book, so I'm happy that worked well for you. Glad you wouldn't want to live in the house, too. ;)
    Best wishes -- Gary F