Demonized by Christopher Fowler

by Christopher Fowler
Serpent’s Tail
February 2004, 256 pages, £6.99 (UK)

by John Sears

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The Worlds of Darker Fiction

Hell is a city much like London.
— Shelley

Christopher Fowler’s short stories cut slices of reality out of a grim, predominantly dark fictional universe. Their postmodern Gothic feel, subdivided into a category their author calls “urban dread,” is as convincing as it is unsettling, as if we were glimpsing a variety of likely futures, none of them particularly reassuring, none particularly distant.

Fowler has written numerous novels and short story collections, and is an accomplished screenwriter, directing a company with a formidable track record in contemporary cinematic projects, including Lord of the Rings and many James Bond films. The stories collected in these two anthologies, one (The Devil in Me) a reissue of a book first published back in 1998, display all of the leanness, tension and structural qualities worthy of such pedigree. They are often themselves deeply cinematic in style and dialogue.

Fowler isn’t quite a horror writer in the manner of Stephen King or James Herbert, despite the semiotics of Serpent’s Tail’s covers for these books (reminiscent of early Jesus and Mary Chain record sleeves). He works more in the Roald Dahl tradition of suspense with a twist, the kind of stories Alfred Hitchcock used to collect together and, occasionally, dramatize. Alongside refreshing elements of comedy and satire, there’s always a Frederick Forsyth-like desire to authenticate, to wear the research on his sleeve in order to legitimize the possibilities the narrative explores.

Both collections are prefaced with short discussions in which Fowler notes his reading, his favorite authors and, by implication, his influences. Both Forewords contain sentences arguing to the effect that “the true picture of anything lies in its barely registered peripheries” (note that careful juxtaposition of “true” with “lies” in the same sentence). Such “peripheral vision” suggests an abiding concern with the marginal, the excluded, the subterranean.

In Demonized the peripheral concerns itself with marginal characters and their experiences. A Tourette’s syndrome sufferer visits Hitler in his Austrian retreat. An insanely jealous boyfriend gets himself entangled with a troop of apes in Malaysia. A paranoid Jewish man, still believing the Third Reich rules the world, is taken to the United States, where airport security takes over his life. The first woman to break through the glass ceiling of business management finds that she’s joined a bizarre men’s club. In each case, it’s the centrality of the characters to their own marginal experiences that gives the narrative an edge of steely truth.

The Devil in Me presents stories located more firmly in a more familiar world, tinged with elements of science fiction in places (“The Torch Goes Out” offers a dystopian view of future English class relations) but, on the whole, set in realities more related to ours. Fowler’s running commentary between stories (“I don’t think this story will be my last on the subject”, “This story is a fictional variant on the subject” — that sort of thing) is either highly amusing and informative or grates in the way the animated narration of Creepshow grates.

The real character in most of these tales, and the recurring scenario and backdrop to the action, is the city of London, linking Fowler to modern London writers like Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair (Michael Moorcock’s Mother London seems to lurk in the background of several of these tales). Like many Londoners, Fowler loves his city with a passion bordering on hatred, and various narrators offer versions of this emotion. Malcolm, in “Come On Then, If You Think You’re Hard Enough” (in The Devil in Me), tells us his own “peripheral vision” of London’s dark fiction:

To me, London was the devil I didn’t know. I had always thought of the city as a mysterious, rather sinister playground that only existed for clubbing on Saturday nights, off the edge of our local maps and far beyond the lonely motorway lights that bordered our town.

In “Seven Dials”: “London was looking shabby, for all its much vaunted newness,” with “graffiti scrawled into every available space, sickly plants sprouting from aged brickwork, monstrous ugly supermarkets jammed into high streets, litter, drunks, angry faces.” In Demonized the description is similar if, perhaps, more deftly written:

He ran past the rancid kebab stalls, sex shop windows filled with bald mannequins and cheap red nylon fetishwear, past the beer-sticky entrance to the Astoria blocked with queues of dead-faced teens. A vast illuminated poster hoarding showed a tropical beach, impossibly idyllic, heavily retouched. The tramps, slumped against this paradise in unruly symmetry, seemed unaware of their intrusion.

Fowler’s world is typically paranoid, full of threats to the individual that are perceived as threats to the social order (“the real threat to their lives eventually came not from muggers, but from fast-food outlets”; “This whole neighborhood has fallen on hard times”). The horror / thriller dimension offers, in these tales, chances for a rather pessimistic social diagnosis, largely fearful of the parlous state of the modern urban world, finding the “peripheral” spaces both inevitable and menacing.

“Personal Space,” in which an elderly lady’s house is taken over by teenage drug dealers, epitomises such anxieties. “Crocodile Lady” combines the London Underground, staple of metropolitan Gothic for the past century, with contemporary anxieties about staffing levels in schools, the trustworthiness of teachers, the safety of children and the potential of every man to be a paedophile. “Emotional Response” expresses a paranoid male-centred world-view, and its alarming consequences.

All this is in the way of arguing that, in the hands of a writer like Fowler, the short story affords space for the exploration of contemporary fears. All the signifiers of hostile postmodernity are present in these two books, from the internet to statistics about the proximity of rats and humans. At his best, in stories like “The Look” (as vicious an attack on the fashion industry as you’ll find, and the most gory here), a kind of cultural criticism is offered. Whatever his theme, Fowler writes with a lucidity and a command of the form that make sojourns into the world of his “darker fiction” pleasurable in discomfiting ways.


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