'Forests have a way of making civilization seem less inevitable.'
(Stephen Jones, ed., The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Robinson, 2005)
'Where were you in '92?' Part 1
Marshall Smith's story sets up a week of shorts provided by Sunderland central library, after a fashion; all of the pieces to be written about this week were purchased from a sale two Saturdays ago at the Fawcett Street library. 26 books for £4 and all that, with a good number providing lifeblood for my short-story craving sensibility.
The first is from a bumper, indeed Mammoth Book of New Horror, containing stories from 2004. Perhaps appositely for the most recent entry so far in ASSAD, it is basically set in the future (2015), but the main focus is upon reflecting upon a dim-and-potentially-distant past (1992).
MMS is an anglo-American writer, born in Knutsford, Cheshire (1965) and who spent much of his childhood in South Africa, Australia and the US, only to return to the UK in the seventies (he is now a resident of North London). This story is set in a north-eastern corner of Washington state, in America, yet seems inflected with a British perspective in certain ways.
The central three protagonists have known each other at least since adolescence; the main framing sees them aged 38, returning to and then reflecting upon the scene of an episode that might be termed a teenage transgression: when they were fifteen they infilitrated an ambiguous military compound. They are also established in their present-day locale; a bar with omnipresent pool table activity, from which the memories arise - if internally.
MMS establishes a subtly uneasy juncture between the everyday and the unsettling, the odd; the current-day reflections and longueurs are juxtaposed with flashbacks to what happened fifteen years ago - the tense and rather primordial transgressions in 1992 contrasted with the languid and uneasily sedate rituals of 2015. The teenagers find a weak spot in the electrified fence and get over into a military installation - epically ambiguous, as MMS leaves it - that was established in 1985.
This is ultimately winning, perhaps, because it does not resort to 'horror' in any generic sense; it is gratifying to come across a story classed as one of 2004's finest horrors that simply does not need any shocks, undue violence or authorial sleight-of-hand to achieve its effect. Marshall Smith's prose is straightforward yet penetrating; revealing average 38-year-olds settling for life as usual, deciding, albeit tacitly, to put the fascination and curiosity awakened by their adventure at fifteen behind them - for better or for worse.
It is all bittersweet without any real sense of the sweet; there is the ebbing memory of their togetherness at fifteen, having got away with the transgression: 'boys who had come triumphantly out the other side. The forest felt like some huge football field, applauding its heroes with whispering leaves.' (p.259) Now, one is settled in a reasonable if hardly fulfilling marriage, one amicably separated, the other - the 'I' narrator, Dave, is seemingly at a loose end: 'I lit another cigarette and wondered why I still didn't really know how to deal with women. They've always seemed so different to me. So confident, so powerful, so in themselves. Kind of scary, even. Most teenage boys feel that way, I guess, but I had assumed age would help. That being older might make a difference. Apparently not. The opposite, if anything.' (p.253)
There is the melancholy in Dave's past reflections on a perceived missed opportunity with a girl called Lauren, who saw herself in Seattle in a few years: 'What I didn't know, that night in the forest, was that she would do this, and I would not, and that she would leave without us ever having kissed.' This along with the eerie, intangible memory of the transgressive night; seemingly abandoned, 'ruined houses' (p.256). This subterranean progress - albeit on the fringes of a town that is on the road to nowhere in particular - leads both everywhere and nowhere, as the final passages detail. The final point seems to be that it is important, sometimes, to leave old haunts behind, even if there is no obviously gleaming future in store.