A celebration of the sinister that welcomes darkness, Only the Broken Remain is a gripping collection that turns the every day on its head. Taking inspiration from folklore images and fairytales, Coxon has produced a selection of tantalising short stories that leave us itching for answers, a quick glimpse into this maddening world.
In Only the Broken Remain, a home for the wicked, discarded, and broken, is found. These stories champion the unnatural forces and figures at work, lurking around dark corners and inviting us to indulge in their sinister ways. In these tales, Coxon spares no expense in uncovering every bleak, unsettling emotion, exposing us to a range of darker secrets. Through reading, we are able to escape, feeding our curiosities for these bizarre environments. We almost make friends with the forbidden, as Coxon encourages us to dip our toes into these creepy delights.
Many of the narratives draw their inspiration from places and settings already much explored in horror literature, showing Coxon’s obvious intentions to play on the indignities of humanity.
In Roll Up, Roll Up, “Robbie didn’t run away to join the circus. The circus came to him.” The fakery of the circus and the appeal of imperfection is placed centre stage in this story, as Robbie’s incompetence actually excels him through the ranks. His misfit status is exploited to the utmost degree, yet this actually gives him a sense of much-needed purpose. Despite how much the circus has literally consumed him, Robbie ends the story with a slight feeling of elation, pure happiness at being used.
All the Letters in His Van takes on a curious dystopian feel, as a couple accidentally venture into a cult-like community, shrouded in the thick mist of the hills. The couple finds themselves trapped by the fog, and over the next few pages Coxon unpicks all of the isolated quirks of village living, giving it a fantastic sinister edge. The creepy postman is the communities only connection to the outside world, making for a suffocating and gripping read.
Many of the stories in Only the Broken Remain also centre around a terrifying, sometimes misunderstood, creature, which fuels our protagonists’ anxiety.
In No One’s Child, a detached and rather peculiar girl is given a new lease of life when she makes friends with the monster living in her new abode. Very quickly, she manifests power over the creature, using it to slowly (literally) consume her wicked foster mother. The connections to classic fairytales are obvious but wonderfully done, and the transformation of the young girl into this dark and powerful presence was terrifying to read. However, given the signs of darkness that were teased in the previous pages, it begs the question of whether the addition of the monster simply was the push her personality needed?
This concept of teasing out the alternative identities works its way into a few of the stories in Only the Broken Remain, as Coxon explores crises of realities and alienation from the self.
Miriam is Not at her Desk is a gripping story that goes far beyond the traditional body-swap approach. Miriam is a hard character to understand, and Coxon purposely doesn’t put too much of her on display. We know she is running, though we’re not sure why, and her final intentions are unclear – perhaps even for Coxon/Miriam too. There are elements of karma – Miriam is not presented as a ‘good’ person – but is the end result, that of anonymity, actually what she was seeking? Similar to Roll Up, Roll Up, there’s a notion of using people’s pitfalls (in this case, the circumstances of a homeless person) to their advantage, consuming them for personal gain…or perhaps loss? This muddled conclusion only made the story even more intriguing, and I was left yearning for more than a fleeting glance into Miriam’s strange world.
Indeed, the plotline and character of Miriam do appear later on in the collection, in a haunted house-style story called Ones and Zeroes. The protagonist now inhabits Miriam’s former home and the all creepy presences that come with it. What’s more, this also feels similar to the same home/being that is explored in the title story, Only the Broken Remain, where again crying and other noises are heard in the walls, from a strange force unable (or unwilling) to leave.
While these stories stand strong separately, these subtle connections are hugely entertaining to try and piece together – Coxon offers no handholding in this respect. Whether we want to try and unearth a deeper meaning is entirely up to us, at our own risk.
These dances with horror, with the grotesque and the unsightly, make Only the Broken Remain an intriguing and surreal collection, one that pulls on all the classic fears of humanity and subverts them in a menacing way. Intended to challenge our understanding of the every day, Coxon has achieved a gripping and varied read.
Only The Broken Remain is published by Black Shuck Books and is available here.
Dan Coxon has been shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and a British Fantasy Award, and has won a Saboteur Award (Best Anthology 2016). He edited the anthologies This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories, 2018) and Being Dad: Short Stories About Fatherhood (Tangent Books, 2016), as well as the irregular journal of weird fiction The Shadow Booth. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, Popshot, Gutter, Unthology, Neon, The Portland Review and many other places, as well as being read at events in London, Hong Kong, Seattle and Portland. In 2019 he was shortlisted for the Bath Short Story Award for his story ‘Goya in the Deaf Man’s House’.
He runs a proofreading and editing service at http://www.momuseditorial.co.uk, working with both publishers and private clients.
You can find more of his writing at http://www.dancoxon.com, or on Twitter at @DanCoxonAuthor.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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