Recently described as a "master of modern fantasy, horror and slipstream", Allen Ashley has three books in print: his debut novel,
The Planet Suite (TTA Press, 1997); his collection of short stories Somnambulists (Elastic Press, 2004); and
his recent editorial debut The Elastic Book of Numbers (Elastic Press, 2005). Crowswing Books will publish a second
collection of Allen's short fiction, Urban Fantastic, in May 2006.
||A review by David Hebblethwaite
Here we have the second anthology from Elastic Press, following on from 2004's The Alsiso Project. Like its
predecessor, The Elastic Book of Numbers is based around a single broad theme; as its title suggests, all the
stories in the volume are connected to numbers in some way. The resulting tales are highly varied, as I hope to illustrate.
In honour of the anthology's theme, numbers are central to this review; and, since the book has its own quiz, and an
introduction in code, the review is also interactive. Yes, you can read this review in the way that suits you
best. Simply choose a number from one to ten, and read the appropriate numbered section. Continue in this way for as
long as you wish, then read section 11.
"The One Millionth Smile" by Neil Williamson begins like this:
"Anthony Dowden stands at the window of his mother's hospital room, his face to the cool glass boundary between the
inconsiderate world on one side and the end of a dwindling life on the other."
It continues with similarly beautiful
writing for another 11 pages. I could mention that Dowden's mother has suddenly fallen ill after a healthy life, and that
she owns a book which seems to show the precise number of heartbeats, breaths and smiles that her ancestors had. Instead,
I'll just mention the wonderful characterization and let you bask in Williamson's luminous writing for yourself.
Donald Pulker's "Dial 1-800-2-To-Live" tells the story of Edward, a dying man who sees the instruction of the title
in a newspaper ad. He calls the number, embarking on a desperate hunt to cheat death. It is the ending, the very final
sentence, that makes this story great. You will surely feel a shiver down your spine as you read it.
Charles Lambert's "The Zero Worm" is a powerfully written piece that really does get under the reader's skin. The protagonist,
Dougal, becomes infected with something that causes livid red numerals to appear on his body. The story's main strength is
its writing, which is remarkably vivid. After reading Lambert's tale, you may just find yourself checking for numbers on your own skin!
In "Sixty Thousand Pieces of Glass" by Sam Hayes, Alice, an artist, is drawn into the Reach Life cult by her friend/lover
Coot (who has the ability to count the exact number of a set of objects instantaneously). There is some striking writing here,
but it can misfire: images of broken glass recur throughout the story (owing to the mosaic that Alice is making), but they
recur so often that they become laboured. Hayes also introduces a twist at the very end, but it is quite clumsily handled,
and ends up feeling like nothing more than a gratuitous attempt to shock. The tale has its moments, but ultimately disappoints.
"When We Were Five" by Marion Arnott is the longest piece in the book, and a wonderfully atmospheric tale. A student
travels to the Soviet Union in 1969, where he meets Valentina, an old woman working in his hotel. She tells her story,
including the murder of her father and how she came to be deported. Meanwhile, the young man dreams of figures from
Valentina's past, identities blur, photographic images become fluid. Arnott's writing, her plot, her characterization,
are all very good indeed.
Mark Patrick Lynch contributes "Breach of Contract, Clause 6A," the bizarre and mysterious tale of Juan, whose job consists
of solving a puzzle each day based on the contents of a briefcase. The chilling purpose of these puzzles gradually becomes
clear, but the identity of Juan's employers never does. We don't find out how Juan came to be in his current situation; but
we do discover what happens to those employees who fail in their task... Lynch keeps most of his cards hidden, but his story
is all the stronger for it.
In Jeff Gardiner's "351073," a priest names his daughter Eloise after reading the titular numerals upside-down. As she grows,
Eloise becomes fascinated with numerology, eventually becoming a cult leader. Gardiner draws his characters well, and his style
is engaging; but the story lacks a certain spark that would turn it into something really special.
Eric Shapiro's "3:21" is a great little story about Sanders, a boss who comes to believe that he can make contact with his dead
wife by saturating his life with the numbers three, two and one. Sanders' efforts to do so grow increasingly absurd, and Shapiro
narrates them in a wonderfully dry tone. There's also a neat sting in the tale which rounds things off superbly.
"Two Moon City" by Tim Lees doesn't shout about its use of the number in its title, but that doesn't stop it being a fine
tale. The setting is a planetary-romance Mars, where a prince spies a beautiful girl and decides he wants her for himself. The
two moons, Phobos and "Diemos" [sic], affect the Martian worldview in a subtle yet profound way, giving the story a philosophical
dimension that makes it stay in the mind longer than it perhaps otherwise would.
"Approaching Zero" by John Lucas tells of how, over the period of eight days, one woman's desire to clear a few things out of
the house blossoms into something much greater. It's short, but crisply told, and strangely plausible. It's also a neat comment
on some of the fads of contemporary life.
The Elastic Book of Numbers is a mixed bag; but, of course, that's precisely the point. What works for one reader is not
necessarily going to work for another; indeed, we might suggest that if the anthology provokes strong differences of opinion,
then that is a mark of its success. Hence, this review has tried to provide a snapshot of the volume instead of arguing a
case about it. As likely as not, you will find something in the book that you enjoy, so why not give it a go?
Copyright © 2006 David Hebblethwaite
David lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread
books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.