‘What’s your earliest memory?’
So a young girl is asked by her grandfather at the end of the world, and her answer, like much of what is contained in the pages of Tribulations, will surprise you. This short story collection by Richard Thomas, released earlier in 2016, is something of a miraculous rarity, a collection that is as thematically unified as it is diverse in its explorations, as coherently stylised as it is eclectic in voice. There is increasingly a trend in the music world for the album which is a collection of songs, far flung from the days of Origins of Symmetry, where an album hung together like stanzas in a ballad. The same is mirrored in the literary world, with many short story collections functioning more like a timeline of stories penned by the same author. Tribulations is different, and stands out as such, but it is not only the thematic unity which sets it apart, but also the deft, confident handling of narrative prose which marks a real master at work.
There are 25 stories in this collection, which is quite a considerable number (and I must say that fact made me nervous initially, as there is definitely such a thing as too much); thankfully, this is not an issue for several reasons. Firstly, the stories are compact and to the point – this is a far cry from the bordering-on-novella stories of King. Expect your “punchline” quickly and expect it hard and in the guts. Secondly, the stories are all written with a captivating atmosphere that draws you in, making you want to read on as though there was a singular narrative to follow. I’ve quoted it before and I will quote it again, as Dean Koontz once said in his introduction to Songs of the Dying Earth: ‘I can forgive a writer many faults if he has the capacity to weave a warp and weft of mood from page one to the end of his story.’ And Richard Thomas can certainly do that, with scintillating, rhythmic prose that casts a kind of hypnotic spell.
Mood is all-important to horror, and in this way Richard Thomas creates the perfect eerie atmosphere to his tales. Neo-noir would be one way to describe it, the sense of lives desiccated of colour, morality, the deepened shadows of the protagonist’s environs, the sense of criminal intent just below the surface of things. This atmosphere particularly comes across in tales such as Chrysalis (which will have you sweating with tension), Misty (which oozes a sense of degradation) and Shackled to the Shadows (which takes you into what feels like a mind in dream-state).
However, this frightening, intense atmosphere is never at the expense of real, deep emotional feeling. If you’ve ever read a Best American Short Stories collection, you will know that the American writers are, generally, much better at striking to the emotional heart of things than we Brits, who are over-conscious of avoiding sentiment to the point of Freudian repression. Richard Thomas demonstrates his lineage from this US tradition and delivers some powerful emotional punches that are memorable and original. Stories such as Vision Quest and On a Bent Nail Head in particular will leave you emotionally drained and more profoundly than that, will deliver a deep catharsis for you. I do not know if Richard Thomas has experienced a deep personal loss, and it would be impertinent for me to ask, but he certainly delivers bone-deep insight into what loss does to your mind, how it alters perception, behaviour, and ultimately, belief systems about the universe we inhabit. The supernatural current, constantly at the edge of detection much like in True Detective, is at once a brilliant observation on the reality of how we experience the world (which is often not logical or orderly) and a commentary on how grief, rage, regret can change the way in which our world operates, catalysting the apparent incursion of demonic, or seemingly demonic, forces.
The mark of a great collection, however, in my humble view, is not that the whole collection leaves an impression, but rather that one or two outstanding stories, stories so powerful you will never forget them, are framed by other exemplary works. Think of it like the stand out track on an album: Tunnel of Love on Dire Strait’s Making Movies, where we step from rock ‘n’ roll into the realms of epic. Stephen King’s Night Shift was full of brilliant, memorable stories, Strawberry Spring, Gray Matter, Graveyard Shift to name a few, but it was The Woman in the Room that left people gobsmacked, that showed us beneath King’s humble veneer of ‘I’m like you but I just got the gift of the gab’, there might be a literary giant, a second Homer, waiting to burst into the stratosphere and change how we think about stories. Like the master, there are stand out stories in Richard Thomas’ collection that must be mentioned: Little Red Wagon is a masterpiece in which a seemingly innocuous motif returns to goose-bump-raising effect, leaving you with a final image and question so powerful it makes you feel bloodless. I immediately had to re-read this story upon finishing it to determine whether my interpretation was correct and to piece together the subtle evidence in the narrative. I am still left with questions, but this is a good thing. A good writer knows when not to spell it out.
Misty also deserves a special mention for its ingenious subversion of what I call the ‘turn of the screw’ genre (after Henry James’ chilling ghost-story masterpiece). The concept, in brief, is that each successive turn of the screw makes the story worse, more frightening, more dreadful, more compelling, as you drill down to some final focal point of absolute horror. Richard Thomas subverts this in Misty by giving us a final turn of the screw that is at once unexpected, chilling and intelligently tapping into societal concerns and expectations. This could almost be considered the beginnings of creating a new subdivision of horror, as the type of horror I experienced reading this story is so different from any other I’ve encountered; in an age where we are de-sensitised by the graphic nature of TV, pornography and news broadcasts, it is a triumph to create a narrative that can still evoke a new type of horror.
As you know, it is traditional for me to make critical comments on a piece I review, regardless of how much I enjoyed it. It is honestly difficult to come up with anything in this instance, as Tribulations is clearly a meticulously crafted modern masterpiece, but if I did have one concern, it was that at times a couple of the stories felt like they were too focused on eliciting an emotional response as opposed to telling the story itself. Dance, Darling, for example, was perhaps my least favourite of all the stories, because, in my humble view (and I am not a master like Richard Thomas), it was too focused on inducing pathos for its suffering characters rather than reaching some climactic or revelatory point of narrative. However, this comment may be more a case of personal taste than anything else.
Lastly, I’d like to talk about the unity of Tribulations. How do the stories pull together? They pull together because of recurrent echoes, images, themes, events. You will start to notice three or four stories in that a certain woman seems to be an echo of another woman, but slightly different. A certain child stares with the same intensity as another. There are even some stories which appear to dovetail in terms of their narratives, such as Fireflies and Playing With Fire, but then again, it could be my mind playing tricks on me. This collection will do that to you, make you see things which aren’t there, which incidentally is another thematic strand running through the whole thing, particularly well captured in the paranoia of Chasing Shadows.
Tribulations is cutting edge both in execution, theme and setting, but it is also classic in that there is a mastery on display here, a surety of hand in the direction and intention of the stories. Poetic and magical at all times, but down to earth in the way it reflects the tribulations of everyday people. It is refreshing that in the midst of a world in which increasingly the focus is on issues – political, societal, topical – that a great writer can remind us the best writing is timelessly about people, feelings and experiences. Basically, to shed light on the tribulations and triumphs of being alive.
You can get Tribulations here