Twenty-two Different Flavors of Hell
If you look up any reference on author John Shirley, be it his official website or any of the various places you’ll find him mentioned on the Internet, it’s a sure bet that you’ll find reviewers and fans alike having a difficult time placing Shirley in some convenient category. While writers who defy convention and categorization aren’t completely uncommon (although not common enough), it’s not often that such writers exist within traditional genres. Being original and slippery is usually reserved for those writers who exist on the fringe of fiction, and at best get lumped into labels like “experimental” and “avant-garde.”
John Shirley, on the other hand, stands out as a writer of incredible vision in genres as established as the clichés that surround them. Among science fiction fans and authors alike Shirley is recognized as one of the originators of the cyberpunk movement and William Gibson, who is rightly or wrongly saddled with the title “godfather of cyberpunk” and the like, credits Shirley’s City Come A’ Walkin’ as the first true cyberpunk novel and a huge influence on Gibson’s own Neuromancer. Shirley’s Eclipse trilogy is often considered by critics to be among the best in the field. In the horror genre, Shirley stands out alongside such prominent authors as Clive Barker for his complicated, original, and gritty stories, most notably A Vision of Hell and Wetbones. And in the category sometimes labeled neo-noir, sometimes just called “dark fiction,” John Shirley is at the head of the pack.
Shirley’s most recent collection, Darkness Divided is an introductory course into the darkness that wraps around the fictional worlds of John Shirley and gives readers who are unfamiliar with Shirley’s work a real sense of why his is a literary force to be reckoned with. Darkness Divided is so labeled because the book itself is divided on many levels. Most readily apparent is the division of the stories themselves. The first eleven tales are presented under the heading “Til Now,” appropriate to the fact that they make up a group of Shirley’s stories set in more or less the contemporary moment. The second set of eleven stories, under the heading “And Soon,” present some of Shirley’s science fiction work in his prototypical dark future.
At first glance, Darkness Divided seems to shuttle back and forth between the two poles of horror and science fiction, but closer inspection reveals that at times the horrific elements blend into his science fiction and vice versa. Other stories reveal an entirely genre-less vision of real life, in a world that is painted in the disturbing shades of our own. The thing that ties them all together is the darkness of the title. Alternately disturbing, depressing, bleak, and painful, these stories are bound together by an acute observation of the shadows of the human soul, which makes them so powerful and compelling. Unlike many writers of dark fiction, in whatever their chosen genres may be, the specific evils of these stories are not supernatural in origin (although that type pops up from time to time as well) but are from the depths inside of us and inside of the society that human beings have created.
Be they the simple yet terrible life story of a young girl’s cultured coldness to life in “In the Road,” or the psychological terrors of the childhood mind in “Nineteen Seconds,” or the futuristic corporate oligarchy where money and power rule to the exclusion of life in “The Prince” or “Where It’s Safe,” the houses of darkness rest inside our own minds and the way we act in the world. For this very reason, Shirley provides something of a catalogue of darkness (one that is even embodied in the stories “Your Servants in Hell” and “Six Kinds of Darkness”), showing that evil is never so simple as being simply evil, and that darkness comes in many shades.
Yet, in the midst of this bleak vision of humanity, there also rests hope. The antithesis of the darkness reviewed in these stories is always an option. Where one story might end on a down note, the next may give some indication of the path away from succumbing to the soul’s night. In Shirley’s words, “Light, too, can be folded into darkness.” And in Darkness Divided, we find some indication of that light. At times it comes in the light touch of irony that Shirley treats these maudlin subjects with. In “Tighter” a prostitute contemplates the pros and cons of taking the life of her john, only to have the tables turned and find herself fighting for her life against him. When her life is saved at the cost of the john’s death, she finds her redemption without having to have paid the price of becoming a murderer. At other times, especially in the science fiction stories presented here, social messages are bluntly put forth as words of caution to contemporary readers, warning us against the direction in which we could too easily head.
If there’s one message that seems to permeate through this collection, it’s that human indifference and a lack of empathy are the root of what we perceive as evil in this world. While other forms of evil manifest themselves in various ways throughout these stories, it is the lack of compassion and a general devaluation of human life that are the most frightening results of human darkness. Shirley may alleviate the mood of these stories from time to time with a bit of humor (the story “Abducting Aliens” is almost farcical in comparison to some of these other tales), but what makes Shirley such a great author, and what makes Darkness Divided a truly worthwhile collection, is his unswerving critical gaze on the secret and horrible aspects of being human.
You could pick up any of Shirley’s novels and collections and discover a writer of depth and vision. In that respect, Darkness Divided never fails to deliver. If you’re already a fan of Shirley’s work, this book may contain some repetitions for you, but the stories span the range of his career and include some previously unpublished work to round out your collection. If you’ve never picked up and read anything by John Shirley, then rush out and grab Darkness Divided. It will leave you searching for more, and no matter how hard it may be to look into Shirley’s worlds, once you do, you will realize that it’s even more terrible to look away.