Published by Valley Press
ISBN: 978 1 908853 10 3
‘Front Lines’ is a collection of short stories by writers under 25. It is edited by Dan Formby, who also wrote the opening story, ‘Dead Stone’. There are 6 stories, each one between 6 and 10 pages long.
The stated theme of the book is ‘modern society’. I bought the book in spite of, not because of, that billing. When I was in my early 20s, an age at which I had the aspiration to be a writer but no idea how to go about doing it, I was interested in writing fiction which had a social or political message. Everything I wrote during that era was garbage. Since then, I have grown to loathe didactic fiction. I am not saying that fiction cannot or should not have a message. I am saying that the basic rules (show, don’t tell; create convincing characters; depict an engaging setting; load the dialogue with sub-text) have to be observed. The characters, the inciting incident, the twist(s), and resolution should come first, and the message, if there is one, should come afterwards.
‘Dead Stone’ by Dan Formby begins with a quotation from another work. As I often find, the quotation gave no insight into the story the first time I read it, and seemed scarcely less opaque after I had read the story. The first three words of the story are ‘I heard tell…’ which sounded alarmingly archaic. I looked in the rest of the text for a reason why the narrator’s voice sounded like this, but did not find one. The protagonist admits in the first half page that he is an idiot. There are stories which are engaging, in spite of having a dislikeable protagonists (an outstanding example of which is ‘Doctor Jack O’ Bear’ by Richard Yates). There are, more frequently, stories which are supposed to have an empathetic protagonist, but which don’t succeed in generating the empathy. ‘Dead Stone’ is in that category, in my opinion. This is a story about a self-involved character who makes a bad life-style choice for no good reason. The ‘modern society’ theme that is examined is homelessness, and the ways that the homeless and the not homeless regard each other. The story erupts into violence towards the end. In spite of this, most of the impression I was left with was dissatisfaction with the narrator’s voice, which uses far too much telling and not enough showing.
‘Stop Gap’ by Felice Howden is, like much of my work, a modern version of ‘Little Red Riding-hood’ (“If you go into the forest, do not talk to the mysterious stranger”). It is narrated in the third person, and concerns a protagonist called Roger. The handling of the third person narration is competent, but I think it would be better if Roger were a first person narrator. Roger has eighteen hours to kill before he catches a plane. He goes to a pub, meets the mysterious stranger, and is then taken to a squat. Alcohol and drugs are a factor from then on, and the story becomes a stream of consciousness, written from Roger’s point of view. This is quite a vivid and convincing description, but it reads as one thing after another, rather than a set of story beats. I got to the end of the story without seeing an epiphany, nor anything to indicate why there was no epiphany.
‘Viral Marketing’ by David Whelan is the second story which begins with a quotation. The quotation is something to do with greed, or mindless consumption. Again, I saw no reason why the story needs the quotation.
This story is narrated in the third person, is 10 pages long, and yet contains four section breaks, each one with a change of protagonist. It therefore breaks the rule that you should not change the narrative point of view until the character and voice of the first narrator has been properly established. It also breaks the rule that you are allowed to break a rule if it is for a worthwhile reason.
The final section of the story, about half a page long, is an apocalyptic about a (conventional) war between the USA and China over water resources which are being strained by rising population and global warming. I dislike apocalyptics as a genre: I have yet to read one which I find scientifically and socially plausible (even including ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ and ‘Brave New World’). This section was ludicrously short for the breadth of the subjects it touched on.
‘This Hopeless War’ by James Mcloughlin sounded from its title that it was going to be a anti-war story, but is in fact about self-delusion and mental illness. It indirectly recapitulates the earlier theme of homelessness, and the fact that it does so indirectly is a good thing. This is the best story in the collection, mainly because it is the one that treats its disturbing subject while sticking to the rules of short story writing: the protagonist, while insane, is empathetic. There is a twist near the end. There is no epiphany, but there is enough to show the reader why there is no epiphany.
‘Climb’ by Ryan Whitaker is narrated consistently in the first person by a single protagonist. Unfortunately, I do not like the narrator. I find the subject matter uninteresting and I do not see what this story has to do with the theme of the collection.
‘Patrick’ by Nathan Ouriach is an evocative depiction of a relationship between the narrator and his pregnant partner. This story breaks most of the rules. There is characterisation, but there is no detectable inciting incident, or development, or climax, or epiphany, or resolution. The timeline of the action of the story is very short, but contains reminiscences about how the characters met. It reads like a piece of life writing rather than a short story, but does have page-turning quality. Nathan Ouriach can therefore be congratulated for breaking the rules but still producing a readable and engaging piece of writing. There is no didactic point in this story, but it maintains the theme of ‘modern society’ because of the life-style of the characters.
In the ‘ABC’ philosophy of creative writing (Art – Business – Craft) this collection does have things to commend it. The main thing I admire about it is the business element: the fact that it was published at all. Valley Press is one of the most dynamic independent presses that I know. For these six writers to get their work into a Valley Press printed book (produced with Valley Press’s accustomed high quality) is no mean feat. To do that before the age of 26 is outstanding. I hope to see more work from these contributors, preferably in collections which are open to writers of all ages. In order to continue to be published, I believe that most of them will need to pay much greater attention to the craft elements of writing, and cultivate the ability to write about edgy and contemporary subjects without breaking too many of the basic rules of story-telling.