Book Review: Living With The Dead (Martin Livings)

Martin Livings has been producing dark short fiction for two decades, but slow to the party, I first came across his work in 2011 in Dead Red Heart* (Ticonderoga Publications, 2011). The Tide, the opening story in Dead Read Heart, lit me up. As a conceptual, multi-author narrative (it explores the idea of vampire immigration told in ten media snap shots), it was my kind of story. So when my path finally crossed with Martin’s last year on Facebook, I was all kinds of stupid-excited at meeting him virtually (raving about how much I liked The Tide). The stupid-excitedness peaked when I got to meet Martin, and his lovely wife Isabelle, at GenreCon last year and had the thrill of attending the launch of Living With the Dead.

LIVING WITH THE DEAD: A DARKER SHADE OF DARK

There is no denying the intensity of the darkness that Martin offers up in Living With The Dead (Dark Prints Press, 2012). The collections is a true horror degustation. In fact as I was reading it my son asked me to define ‘what horror is’ and after stumbling for an age-appropriate definition, I ended up saying: ‘horror is something that makes you feel uncomfortable when you read it’ to which he replied: ‘why would you want to read something that makes you feel uncomfortable’. Believe me, I asked myself the same thing many times as I traversed the 350 odd pages of Living With the Dead.

Martin plumbs the depths of the human psyche in an unflinching and at times, downright disturbing manner. He has an economy of language, a subtle turn of phrase, an uncompromising empathy—even with the most horrific of characters, and at times, an uncanny sense of humour that makes the stories in Living With the Dead, compelling in their complexity and keeps you with them, even when the uncomfortableness threatens to consume you.

With the exception of Hunters and Crawlin’ the splatter is kept to a minimum and it is the predicament or the consequences the characters face that elicits the true unsettling within the reader. Martin entices the reader into a mental crawl space and quickly leaves them there with the option of pushing on through to find out how it ends or to retreat to a happy place and be left forever wondering. But nothing wonderful, nothing important, nothing enlightening was ever gained by taking the easy path.

Craig Bezant has done a stellar job of curating the stories into a mix that balances the truly macabre with the only slightly unsettling (there’s no free rides on any of these stories), that traverse the breadth of Martin’s career. Included are three brand new stories for the anthology, including Birthday Suit dedicated to Paul Haines.

As an editor, I have said that a second and subsequent reading of a story is not an indication of a story or an author’s failure. In fact it’s often an indication of a truly amazing story, rich in layers and nuances, best experienced and appreciated over multiple sittings. And Martin has served up a number of these (several I’ll talk about separately further on).

The Afterwords are a treat. I’m always keen to know the story behind the story, even if it is just Martin apologising for writing another story where the main character dies, badly.

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The cover art by Vincent Chong is gorgeous (as is the internal design with the skeletons and skulls—made for great photos for my 365 short story a day collection) and the inside cover is a treat. My favourite section is the hand-drawn front cover schematic. Turns out I’m not the only one drawing dodgy covers for interpretation by far more talented folk than myself.

If I had one criticism (and it’s small) it’s in regards to some errant spacing throughout the text: the size of the indentation of the paragraphs bothered me and my typesetter’s eyes drew me out of the story and into  the double spacing after some of the full stop where they occurred. (The typesetter in me will now sit down and shut up so the reader may revel.)

THE CONCEPTUAL

Hooked is one of the stories on the must re-read list. It is a warped and gritty reinterpretation of the Peter Pan/Captain Hook narrative. The characters are brilliantly portrayed in the seedy underbelly of the city as drug pushers, crack addicts, ambitious businessmen, flashy thugs and faded whores. While a complete departure to anything J.M. Barrie ever intended (and despite the fact Hooked is a short story compared to a novel) Martin is faultless in his faithfulness to Barrie’s original characterisation. It is a narrative tour de force hinted at from the very outset of the title.

Pete made a noise like a cat bringing up a hairball. He looked around wild-eyed, tried to get the attention of John and Mikey, his trusted men. But his trusted men were caught in their own prisons, high as kites on Belle’s dust. From somewhere behind the couch, his girl began to snore. He was alone.

Hooked also has one of the best concluding sentences I’ve read. It’s worth reading just for that single line of dialogue.

THE DOWNRIGHT DISTURBING

There is plenty to choose from in Living With The Dead, but the story that sticks with me as the most disturbing is Piggies (though Catharsis comes in a very close second and In Nomine Patris). There’s no denying the impact of a story when it changes your world-view (I’ll never look quite the same way at my feet again).

Martin might very well scoff (and my mate Benjamin Solah might applaud) but for me Piggies is a perfect encapsulation of the arrogant, cannibalistic nature of capitalistic society—“This little piggie went to market…”—a short and powerful portrait of the depravation of the rich.

He looks down at his feet, and feels a pang of regret.

Piggies is a grotesque analogy of rampant and unsustainable consumption, just as much as it is a hideous expose of just how far one person will go for gratification.

It really deserved a cello solo playing in the background, IT Crowd style.

Piggies joins the ranks of Gary Kemble’s Famine and Feast as a story not to be read at breakfast time.

NAVEL GAZING

Into The Valley, a dark treatise of modern life, quickly gets under your skin like a case of literary scabies. For me it was the real crawl space story, where I found myself wanting to back out because it was too hard to keep reading. It was too identifiable and in that way, far too painful, all the way to the end, and even now when I think about it. It is another that deserves a second and third read, but I haven’t yet been able to steel myself to do it.

Each of the boxes has a word carved into its lid.

LOVE

HATE

LIFE

DEATH…

… Nowhere opens the first box. Inside is what appears to be a human heart, the size of a clenched fist. He can smell that it is rotting and long dead. Then he notices that it is moving slightly, throbbing, as if it still has a pulse. He reaches out a finger and strokes along the length of the muscle.

It splits open revealing a writhing mass of maggots…

 Martin notes in the Afterword that he wrote a follow-up Out of the Valley after he met Isabelle in 2002. The two stories combined appear in Ticonderoga’s Scary Kisses. I look forward to seeing how the two go together.

SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE

The stories I really dig are the ones with A Message (trademarked or otherwise). While Living With the Dead (the story that lends its title to the collection) loses some of its impact two decades out from the HIV hysteria, the social cleansing underpinning the story (a right wing Government forcibly removing HIV+ citizens to a unnamed out back location, simply called ‘The Hive’) remains chillingly relevant in the face of the rise of right wing, conservative politics and the ever present pitting of ‘us against them’ which is the staple diet of shock jocks and a mainstream media too ambivalent to bother with decent journalism.

Living with the Dead could just as easily have any number of groups today outcast, permanently, instead of those infected with HIV. Those considered to be be politically, religiously or socially dissident to ‘the norm’ or expediently disposable to any political course.

I guess Harris had fulfilled his election promise. AIDS no longer existed in Australia. All he had to do was wait for us to die out. Which wouldn’t be that long. Just a generation, and the plague of the eighties and nineties would be a thing of the past. As would we.

Living With the Dead has real heart and for this reason the ending comes as a real double-edged suckerpunch to the gut; you want to see Dominic, a boy born and earmarked to die within The Hive, make the train. Find his freedom. While I’m one who loves to demonise the medical profession, the narrator is absolutely one I can champion as epitomising the Hippocratic Oath; to the end. An individual willing to stand up for what is right and hold sacrosanct the dignity of humanity.

OTHER HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Down Town and Running both deserve quick mentions as the other two of my favourite stories.

Down Town is reminiscent of the late 80’s movie Dark City in its increasingly neurotic narrative that goes forward but in reality, just in circles, under cut by a Chandler-esque economy and evocation of language and characterisation and a Twelve Monkeys unsettling of what is reality and what is fantasy. It’s a story that warrants multiple readings and stretches of mental unravelling.

The premise underpinning Running is sublime and so very, very clever. Martin paints the perfect location and then keeps the reader guessing, right to the end, as to the nature of the beast bearing down on the small town of Flic en Flac, in the maelstrom of Hurricane Katrina. This is extreme sport at the absolute edge. As a wanna-be runner I’ll be content with the boring blocks of suburbia.

Living With the Dead gets four and a half sautéed piggies

 

*Martin and I also shared the idea of Schoolies on the Gold Coast as the perfect hunting ground for Australian vampires in Martin’s The Rider and my Kissed By The Sun.

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