A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be in a pub on the edge of the Yorkshire moors one misty night and hear John Travis read an old story of his from an issue of “All Hallows”. I was struck by the prickly atmosphere his words created, the power and subtle humour of his literary voice.
With his gentle Yorkshire brogue whispering in the back of my head, I finally opened this book: his first collection from Exaggerated Press. John Travis writes thoughtful, precise and wildly entertaining stories. His ideas are sometimes utterly outrageous – his imagination has long since gnawed through its chain and escaped – yet this doesn’t prevent an extraordinary level of pathos. And while fun, this book is littered with traps that keep the reader on their toes. The prose is suffused with dark wit, not of the wiseracking variety, but the wry.
The author’s note explains the intriguing title: John has a medical condition named synesthesia, which is a kind of merging of the senses through which he sees colour in music and art. These Mostly Monochrome Stories are those he viewed as being akin to little black and white films, and there is a definite mood and resonance throughout. But onto the stories themselves. While there were none of the 23 that I disliked, a few certainly linger in my memory and I suspect will do for some time.
The wild opener “Pyjamarama” gives a great taste of what’s to come, the title referring to a dimension of punishment where naughty children are supposedly sent when they refuse to sleep. Reading this tale is like watching a nightmarish animation, but it packs a sobering pay-off.
“Idle Hands” is in the form of an essay written in class. It’s an immediately intriguing piece that reflects upon the generation gap between young and old before the tone turns sinister and it leaves us guessing.
“Nothing” is a gem. A truly heartbreaking story of a man grieving his wife and child in a dingy flat, he deteriorates before our eyes into a figure of miserable delusion. The nostalgia is brittle as bone china, and all humanity laid bare. This is one of those rare stories that finds a dark nook of your brain where it will remain for good.
“The Happy Misanthropist” is an apocalyptic short take on genie in a lamp tales, in this case a discarded beer can, told with a wonderfully paranoid, bitter voice and concluding with a wicked flourish. I immediately reread the story, and enjoyed it even more once I was in on the joke. The same can be said for “Dance of the Selves”, which involves a devilish set of rubber-tipped pencils (I know!) and could’ve been one of the stranger segments in an old portmanteau horror movie.
Other definite peaks are “The Terror and the Tortoiseshell” and “The Mutt Who Knew Too Much”. Both are set in a speculative world after The Terror: an event that gave animals the size, abilities and intelligence of humans, and they’re now firmly in control. Our narrator is a noir detective cat by the name of Benji Spriteman, solving murders on the mean streets with his lieutenant, a scruffy basset hound named Dingus. They’re brilliant slices of droll crime fiction, and only improved by the fact that they’re cast with animals, especially ones so amusingly dead-pan. This just shows the author’s range of style and voice.
“Self Disgust” is an ice-cold piece of flash that inspires grave reflection, but we’re soon saved by the arrival of “The Arse of Dracula”. This bawdy homage presents an unearthed screenplay from 1970s “Anvil” studios, and is even more entertaining if you imagine Cushing and Lee in their pivotal roles.
“The Splintered Forest” is a old-fashioned, haunting tale that oozes a fractured reality, but it’s tales like “Reduced to Clear” that made me truly uncomfortable. Here, a discontented child and busy mum take us on a descent from hustle-bustle normal life into a nightmare of cynical consumerism and conformity. It left a bitter taste and the bleak undertones remind me very much of Susan Hill at her peak.
“The Strainer” is a 3-page delight, concerning the fate of a man who suffers from terrible constipation. The prose shines with ghoulish glee and while I expected the humorous tone, there’s a knowing menace to the imagery that rouses a shudder too. With shades of Pan, it would’ve sat nicely in one of Charles Black’s Books of Horror. The same goes for the drunken wild ride that is “Ode to Hermes #54”, rounding off the collection with a bang.
John Travis is a very gifted writer of weird fiction and possibly even ridiculous ideas are redeemed by his craftsman’s pen. We genuinely empathise with his characters, struggling to cope with the menace thrown at them, be it in the form of pyjamas, stationery or undead postmen. There is a Lovecraftian threat to many of the stories and several unpleasant truths are revealed along the way: themes of alienation and reflections on modern society.
John is an old-fashioned storyteller who cares not for rules or the beaten path, he strives only to take us on a journey that we will enjoy. His monochrome world shines with sharp dialogue and poignancy and we’re lucky that he has a whip vicious enough to tame his grinning imagination onto the page.
With a pleasant and revealing introduction from Simon Clark, “Mostly Monochrome Stories” is available from Exaggerated Press here.