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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The Twilight Land of the Luddite

Earlier this week the following text message came through…

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My immediate reaction was: where the hell do I get my movies from now?

LOOKING BACK

I remember my Dad hiring beta movies in the early 80s from a store in Bridge Street, Ballarat. It was the only one with a half decent selection of beta tapes. I remember us joining Blockbuster Video in Cairns when we moved there in the late 80s… and the summer that followed gorging on a bunch of movies I had been previously banned from watching (Rocky Horror Picture Show, Flash Dance, Footloose and being underwhelmed and wondering what the big deal was with them all). I remember finding a tape tucked away in the back of our TV cabinet when I lived in Leeton–a new release–and discovering our movie had gone back to the store (gratefully it wasn’t anything like one of ‘those home movies’) and how they’d kept our movie but still charged me late fees. I remember borrowing all six of Children of the Corn movies from there, American Gothic and Nudist Colony of the Dead–their B Grade horror film selection was top notch. I remember being drunk and walking with my best friend to the local Blockbuster in Mulgrave Road singing snippets from 10 Things I Hate About You. Gratefully the bottle shop was right next door and armed with more movies and more wine, the night continued on.

THE END OF AN ERA

Our local video store is attached to the same strip of shops we get our fish and chips from. It also houses the pizza shop, the noodle shop, the bakery and a bunch of other small and larger business. We got there every Tuesday on Cheap Tuesday (perhaps we’re the reason they are closing down?) Mr D gets a bunch of kids movies, I get one or two and we’re set for the week. It’s just what we do on a Tuesday.

It was where Mr D learned an important lesson about honesty–when he accepted responsibility for a broken disc when he was four and discovered if you tell the truth, bad things don’t happen to you (and I only had to pay a $5 fee!) It’s where two years ago they asked in November if they’d be getting rumballs again that year. Of course they were, I always made them. But they were just making sure!

Two and a half years ago we returned from Malaysia to find the video store had halved in size. A partition wall had gone up and the electrical store and taken over the cast off space. The films went from being displayed face out, to be stacked spine out. And I got that horrible sick feeling in my guts that the end was coming.

And now it has.

Is this what it’s like to be a Luddite in a digital world?

WHOSE CONVENIENCE?

Like buying books and records, hiring a movie is going to become a committed effort on my part. At the end of January it will no longer a down-the-road-convenience.

I don’t download (legal or otherwise),we don’t have Netflix here in Australia, I’m not interested in buying everything through iTunes or else where (sometimes its nice to watch on a screen larger than my lap top…and no, I don’t want to buy an Apple TV adaptor thing), I hate YouTube, I don’t want to have to sign up to have my films posted to me or have them dispensed from a little red box, or delivered through a T-Box. And here’s why…

IT’S PERSONAL

Like the bookstore and the music store… it’s more than just buying a product. It’s the experience of discovery that’s just as important as reading/listening/watching. So is the discussion with those who work there. These stores are community hubs–they are not just product dispensers.

Jordan, the guy who works at the video store, saw me in there on Tuesday night and came up to apologise personally for not telling me the store was closing down, “It’s just been so long since I saw you.” Yeah, the Christmas period will do that. And then there was the issue about the missing rum balls this year–I had to apologise—there had been friends visiting and they’d eaten them all! (The apocalypse came to the local video store because I didn’t get the rumballs there last year!)

Over the years Jordan and I talked about all kinds of movies. He erased the missing Ninja Turtles video from our account and told us it didn’t matter.’ But it’s not just Jordan… I can think of half a dozen people who have worked there and who have shared small parts of their lives with me, their tastes, their opinions. Remembered who I am and let me get by without having a card for years even though the account was in Dave’s name (who has been to the store less than five times in six years!)

I know I am one of a small and diminishing sub-section of the community who gives a shit about this…who wants the kind of convenience and experience of the local [insert what you want in here] store. Someone who sees convenience as much a dismantler, as an enabler. Who yearns for things to just stay as they are.

Perhaps it’s okay for the time being, that hiring a movie will become an outing (like buying a book… gratefully we still have a record store just down the road). While there is still another DVD store within an reasonably easy drive (ironically the store we used to go to before we moved) to hire films from and the effort required adds to the ritual and enjoyment of the experience, I can’t help but worry, ‘for how much longer.” When they close…

…then what?

LOVE/HATE

There are so many things I love about the digital landscape and the opportunities technology is opening up. But at the same time, I’m not yet ready to let die many of the other things that belong to the old world: a world of real life people, of tangible objects, shared passions and conversations, differing opinions, of the physicality of leaving your home, going somewhere else and becoming immersed for a short period of time in a different world

And as if the folk at Apple or Telstra or Amazon or going to give two tosses whether they got rum balls at Christmas or not.

DEAR PA

I understand better now the terror my Pa experienced in a world rapidly changing as he aged; especially in the early 90s, in his twilight years.

He was understandably leary of ATMs…he wanted to go into the bank and talk to the tellers—the same people who had been managing his accounts, in the same location, for decades. Someone to ask after my Nanna, us grandkids…how the bowls season was going, the fact Essendon won or lost the weekend past.

He wanted the security of handing over his deposits to a real person with a deposit slip (how many hours of fun did I have filling them out as a kid!) He wanted the safeguard of withdrawals handed to him by a real person inside his stamped and initialled, dog-eared passbook that fitted in the back pocket of his trousers. He didn’t want to have to remember a pin number or carry a card in his wallet. The fact the bank closed at 4pm never bothered him, he went via the bank in the morning when he walked down to buy the paper.

I never understood at the time, what bothered him so much about the ATMs appearing everywhere. You could get money out any time. It was convenient and quick and easy. I was never going to get to the bank before 4pm…especially when I became a shift worker.

This week I’ve suddenly realised I’m getting old. How quickly the world around me is changing. And how resistant, more and more, I am of it. How I want some things to just goddamned stay the way they are.

I wish my Pa was around now, so I could tell him: I understand.

Commencify the Decomposition

Adam's Apple by dimitri_c via StockXchng

The title of this blog post alone must have you scratching your head. After all… it’s a brand new year. What the hell is this decomposition you speak of?

For half a decade I’ve been running my New Year counter to most of those around me. I start my business and creative year with the Chinese New Year (the second new moon after the solstice). This now is what I’ve called “The Pause”… the four to six weeks of tidying up unfinished projects, reflecting, releasing, plotting and planning for the coming year.

December is a particularly bad month for doing any of that.

If I needed any additional confirmation I’m doing (and have been doing) the right thing, New Years Day rolled around yesterday and I felt anything but revived, focused or ready to attack everything. In fact, it was the complete opposite. I started to wind down and take stock of everything left to complete.

The Year of the Water Serpent

This coming year–The year of the Water Serpent–kicks off on 11th February. Serpent years, under the Taoist philosophy, are considered years of introspection, planning and seeking answers. A time to ponder and think before acting. It’s a year of good taste and elegance.

When combined with my own sign it’s meant to be a great year… a time of opportunity, expansion, good luck and growth. I’m not sure where else I read it, but it’s also a slower year, one where there’s less busyness of mind going on. The ability to stop and focus on one thing at a time.

No Resolutions Here

I’m still searching out my theme and intention to bless the year with. Like running my year left-of-centre, I gave up making resolutions around the same time and began to theme my year. As I wrote back in 2008:

While New Years Resolutions are a good guide or map as to the direction in which you want to travel in the following year, they are often so discrete that they don’t give much room to move. You’re either ‘doing it’ or you’re ‘not doing it’ … in which case often before the end of January the gym membership is already gathering cobwebs in your wallet/purse, the fridge is full of chocolate again, or in a weak moment you’ve had a cigarette/fought with your sibling … you get the gist.

I’ve always liked to set intentions that could be built on over time, some that were achievable in the immediate term, some in the short term, others in the long term. After all – you don’t just build a house … foundations need to be laid, a structure erected so and so forth. Small victories lead in to larger ones further down the track.

Five years on I couldn’t agree more.

I’d like an intention or a theme that fits with the energy of the year as well as what I’m angling to achieve. Last year’s “Year of Falling in Love With Writing” and the “Year of Writing Dangerously” fit nicely with the slightly reckless undercurrent of the Year of the Water Dragon. It was a year that returned bounties I could barely have imagined or hoped for when it year  (a break down of all the year was in a few weeks).

I think I can dare to think The Year of the Water Serpent will be as good, or better!

What does your New Year herald for you?

Image: Adam’s Apple by dimitri_c via stockXchng