Various authors, The End of the Road : An Anthology of Original Short Stories [Solaris Books, 2013]
Many short story collections search for connections, loose ties, to justify the odds-and-sods group they've managed to assemble, often more at the mercy of publishing contracts and budgets as by creativity. This anthology from Solaris and edited by Jonathan Oliver, however, has made the excellent move to commission original stories around a single-worded brief - 'Road'. In this, much like the similarly themed and excellent Granta Books collections, Oliver and co have created a compilation that is free to roam as far and wide down various routes, whilst still having a unifying spirit of the task at hand. It's a bit like when at school your English teacher would get everyone to write a story all with the same title, and everyone would try to come up with unusual and wild interpretations.
The collection also has the superb factor of being from authors from across the globe. The variety and complexity is great, and I highly recommend this to anyone who has never got into the idea of short stories, as it would make an engrossing introduction.
We start with Phillip Reeve's We Know Where We're Goin', which seems set in a frontier America of vague location. A young woman volunteers to fetch supplies from back down the asphalt road her community have been building and living alongside all her life. As she journeys back the way they came, and memories of childhood are piqued, she comes to a destination both surprising and rather haunting. As with all the stories here, it fits no particular genre, but has its own cocktail - part-western, part-sci-fi, but only a touch of each.
Driver Error by Paul Meloy is a heart-stopping yet also melancholy zombies at night horror, as a former priest encounters the undead on a country lane. The ending is brutal and chilling. Fade To Gold by Benjanun Sriduangkaew of Thailand is gentler, stranger and beautifully-written. As with the other works here from non-English language countries, I wondered at the effect translation can have on syntax and tone, but no mention is made of translating so I can only assume the prose is the original wording and is delightful. So too, but closer to my home, is Rio Youers's Widow. Well, delightful might be a bit of a stretch for the gruesome torture on display here, but the story that leads to this scene of terrible cruelty is moving and engrossing. A much softer but no less affecting piece by Anil Menon takes us on the road with pilgrims in India who meet a dark fate, and Zen Cho delivers a hugely-entertaining yet tender Malaysian underworld tale of demons that like curry chicken bread and a ghost girl dealing with death.
From one of my favourite countries comes probably my favourite story of them all. The Filipino expat Rochita Loenen-Ruiz's Of The Flying Guardians is a mad and wonderful telling of an ancient forest creature's search for a mate, which takes him along a destructive road through his jungle home, into strange and erotic contact with a human soldier, and ends in ferocious fairy-tale fashion. The ecological subtext, the subverting of gender roles and the otherness of the main character all combine perfectly, and I look forward to reading more from Loenen-Ruiz.
Ian Whates's tale is vaunted as a surprising twist on the usual hitch-hiker thriller but I'm afraid I found little thrilling or surprising in his story of an unhappily-married man being seduced by a con artist. In most short story collections it would stand out as immensely readable and convincingly drawn, but here it felt a bit bland and unoriginal. Meanwhile Adam Neville's Always In Our Hearts is neither, and, as the last story in the book, brings things to a close darkly and brilliantly. A misanthropic cab driver is hired to drive a connected series of weird passengers around before their confusing behaviour is revealed in a fantastical and horrific climax. Great fun and made me think of the recent domestic horror films of Ben Wheatley.
So overall a mixed bag as always with short stories, and not necessarily standard Feather genre fayre throughout, but one well worth dipping into as the high standard rarely falters, and some of these stories are the best things I've read in a long while. Seek it out and discover a whole world of good writing.
Baseline Assessment: 7/10
Bonuses: +1 for Oliver's refreshing harvest of international writers and various styles under a simple 'road' theme
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 'Well worth your time and attention'
To find out how our scoring works, see our scoring method here- http://www.nerds-feather.com/2012/04/about-micro-review-scores.html?m=1