Tim Major has published numerous science fiction and horror short stories in magazines including Interzone; three novels, including Snakeskins, which was published this year to critical acclaim; and the novella Caius and Mitch, which is reprinted here in House Lights. This is his first short story collection. Most of the stories in this collection have appeared elsewhere, but there are a few new ones. As a nice bonus feature, House Lights also features an interesting author commentary on all the stories, and two eclectic playlists to accompany the longer stories ‘O Cul-de-Sac!’ and ‘Carus and Mitch.’
House Lights is billed as ‘strange stories about houses, homes and families,’ but I feel that’s stretching it a bit. About half the stories fit that bill, but the other half are more about self-improvement or augmentation that goes horribly wrong, in the vein of TV series Black Mirror. I don’t think that matters: the stories are simply more diverse than the cover blurb leads you to expect. There are stories inspired by video games, by recording the soundtracks to nature documentaries, by Anthony Gormley’s scultures and by family holidays.
The opening story ‘O Cul-de-Sac!’ is a wild experimental ride, told from the point of view of a house which addresses its thoughts to the other houses in the Cul-de-Sac opposite. ‘O neighbours! If only we might speak!’ says the house. Thankfully Major quickly forgets about this conceit and most of the story is in the plain old first person, otherwise it would be pretty difficult to read. ‘O Cul-de-Sac!’ begins gently, almost comically, as the sweetly innocent new-build house discovers humans and their ways. Then an unconventional family move in, seeking refuge from a mysterious something, and the suspense rapidly builds to an unbearable pitch. Inside the house there is psychological horror: the two women have a strained relationship, made worse by a sleepless baby. ‘We all love Oliver, but why won’t he quieten? When will this stop?’ and ‘Even in the dark I can see the black O of his mouth, a hole wider than his head ought to allow.’ Outside the house there is a vaguely menacing teenage neighbour and unexplained phone calls.
The unnerving events seem completely plausible, exactly the sorts of frightening and confusing things that do happen in real life, but expertly ramped up in intensity. The sensitive exploration of motherhood and family dynamics at play here in no way hinders the relentless forward momentum of the story-telling, which builds to an unexpected and satisfying climax. ‘O Cul-de-Sac,’ leaves lots of interesting ambiguities for the reader to resolve. I went from thinking that writing from the point of view of a house was a silly gimmick, to thinking it was a brilliant way to totally subvert the haunted house tale, asking, ‘what if the house was actually the innocent victim, haunted by its humans?’
House Lights includes a lot of stories about teenagers or tweenagers, and Major is brilliant at capturing the confusion and painful social awkwardness of that age, the complex interactions of family, friends and enemies. In ‘Lines of Fire,’ naïve Matt is tormented by the more sophisticated Patrick in scenes that are so excruciating it practically gave me flashbacks to my school days. The dialogue is terrific, and the characterisation complex. Poor Matt pities bullying Patrick for his difficult family life, even as he struggles to escape.
‘Figured you must love cheese sandwiches,’ Patrick said. ‘It’s all I’ve ever seen you eat.’
‘You’ve only known me for three days.’
‘Yeah, but you should see the look on your face when you open your lunch box and see that little cheese sandwich sitting there, all lovingly made by your mum or whatever.’
In the novella ‘Carus and Mitch,’ a teenage girl and her younger sister shelter indoors from the apocalypse without, with a flock of chickens in the dining room. They only venture forth to place eggs in a trading box and receive tinned goods in return. Teenage Carus religiously carries out the instructions left by their mother on how to stay safe. When Mitch decides she wants to know what they’re really hiding from everything falls apart. This story was obviously inspired by Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.It’s another creepy, ambiguous tale with an unreliable narrator, full of twists and turns, built on an ever-shifting foundation.
One observation I would like to make is that in Major’s stories about family life, adult men are conspicuously absent. The protagonists are always female. A father appears briefly and ineffectually in ‘Lines of Fire,’ and a father is a positive hindrance in ‘St Erth.’ These men are in danger of falling into the ‘useless dad’ stereotype. I want to state that I don’t think Major is at all sexist in his fiction, but when stories are presented together as a collection, patterns emerge. Wouldn’t it be nice for dads if they were sometimes presented as competent, capable and caring? Wouldn’t it be interesting to occasionally explore family dynamics from a male perspective? What if the house in ‘O Cul-de-Sac,’ had thought of itself as the father figure, for example? I’m not writing this because I want to read politically correct fiction, but because I want to read stories that avoid cliché and have fresh perspectives.
The stories that are more focussed on the perils of modern technology and self-improvement are immensely enjoyable and cringe-worthily relevant. In ‘The Eyes Have It,’ an optician notices something amiss with his patients. This story takes the constant distractions of the modern era and elevates it into something weirder. In ‘By the Numbers,’ a man becomes obsessed with ‘the quantified self,’ tracking everything he does in pursuit of his goals of financial and sexual success. This takes our current self-obsession and love of devices to track our sleep, steps taken, calories consumed, and exaggerates it into a dystopian vision of the future that is frightening because it’s so painfully close to the truth. It’s also very funny. When the character says ‘I was spending an hour each day just logging what I was doing in the other twenty-three,’ how many people will recognise themselves?
In ‘The Forge,’ a man wants to be become a better, more successful, man: specifically he wants to be Simon. Thanks to an illegal high-tech company, he can now think like Simon and feel like Simon. Unfortunately, Simon is not what he appears, and he certainly isn’t someone you want in your head. This story was another interesting mash-up, combining elements of thriller, police procedural and psychological horror with an interesting meditation on how little we really know other people and the secrets we hide.
House Lights is an inventive, imaginative, wide-ranging collection of stories from a writer with complete control of his craft. Major writes with a great flair for dialogue, effortless prose, and gripping story telling worthy of Stephen King. His combination of psychological realism with science fiction, horror and an experimental streak makes this collection a diverse and unpredictable read.
And The House Lights Dim is published by Luna Press and is available here.
Tim Major’s SF thriller SNAKESKINS is published by Titan Books and his first short story collection, AND THE HOUSE LIGHTS DIM, will follow in July 2019. His previous books include MACHINERIES OF MERCY, YOU DON’T BELONG HERE and a non-fiction book about the silent crime film, LES VAMPIRES.
Tim’s short stories have appeared in numerous publications including Interzone, Best of British Science Fiction and Best Horror of the Year.
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Reviewed by Kate Tyte
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