Twelve Stories
 by Paul Magrs

Salt Publishing
2009, Paperback
First collection? No

Paul Magrs is a prolific writer with credits ranging from Doctor Who to the Times Literary Supplement. His latest novel is Hell’s Belles (Headline, 2009), part of the Brenda and Effie Gothic Mystery series.

Read an interview with Paul Magrs

"You read and reread books, and go back to them again, because you suspect that you’ve left something behind. In them, inside them, caught up inside the latticework of their pages."

Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson

This is a lumpy, bumpy collection of stories that never lets you get comfortable but propels you forward with its dark, edgy energy. The opening story, Kept Safe and Sound, is grand, even grandiose in scale, strong-arming together a series of bizarre, uncomplimentary, downright bonkers themes: a lonely boy’s addiction to horror stories, an uptight mother’s desperation to preserve lost songs, a slowly disappearing robot dog. Ideas are wrenched together and it worked – not in the sense of everything lining up neatly next to each other, and isn’t the writer clever for making so many different things mean the same thing: this was altogether more raw and more magnificent. The mess of parts caught echoes off other disparate pieces and threw them back, changed. The reader is almost overwhelmed by unanswered questions and untold stories, and yet left strangely satisfied. Something that was nearly lost has been saved and a new story can now begin.

It was only after as I flicked through the credits that I realised that this story was originally published in an anthology of Doctor Who stories. The decaying robot dog, the missing father eaten by a dinosaur – not to mention those themes of loss and alienation – how could I be so stupid? And me a Doctor Who fan who can (just) remember the original K9. The shame. Or Magrs is just that good.

This love of big ideas is again apparent in Never the Bride – a subtle and intellectual unfolding of whatever happened to the mate that Dr Frankenstein cobbled together for his monster. According to Magrs, she is running an immaculately kept B&B in Whitby, as far away from B-movie schlock-house as you could wish. There are plenty of sly references for aficionados of Mary Shelley – "The only books I have are the Bible and Milton, of course" – that make the story a clever, intelligent game and a joy to read. Apparently it’s also the opening to a wider series of YA books – I wouldn’t have guessed it; it feels complete in itself and with no hint of speaking down; Magrs waves the gauntlet and its up to his readers to run and catch up, if they can.

Both these stories typify Magrs’ habit of seeking out the gaps in other people’s stories, the spaces that he can inhabit and make his own. It doesn’t always work. Whereas Kept Safe and Sound felt complete and independent of the larger world it references, Sunseeker never quite took off for me; it felt an entrance into a bigger world that could not quite stand alone. However, mostly this is a rewarding preoccupation for Magrs. The Foster Parents is grand, gothic and extravagant, a mischevious and moving story woven around the euphemism of finding babies in the cabbage patch. Magrs then returns to his uncomprehending witness in The Girl from Victim Support, expanding on a reference to a break-in. This is an understated tale of loss, loneliness and fear that gives stature and dignity to previously comic characters.

The Great Big Book Exchange is the logical place to end this review. Insanely metatextual, this is half a story about a boy who read stories, and half the writer’s (apparently genuine) notes-to-self about writing that same story ("Oh, God. As soon as you start PLOTTING it always turns melodramatic. You shouldn’t even bother."). It’s a piece about the books that haunt and drive us throughout our lives, the stories that will not let us go and a writer fighting back and asking what it is he’s trying to do.

"I think all I ever write about is losing stuff and finding it again. Or never getting it back. Loss and time and love and books."

It’s impossible to know how unadorned these "notes" are or are meant to be: extreme artifice or naf realism? But they convinced me – perhaps because I have written so many similar interrogations and criticisms of my own writing process. Placing them here next to the finished story unbalanced it in an interesting way. The notes prevented the story from closing, showed all the various other paths it might have taken. It also managed to restore a lost library, the deeply personal set of references that go into shaping a writer, and gave them it its own brief spark of immortality within someone else’s story.

Read a story from this collection at Salt Publishing.

Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson's short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and, among others. She has, finally, completed her novel, The Examined Life and is changing forms to work on a radio play about death, deals and Ernest Hemmingway..

Elizabeth's other Short Reviews: Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"

Michael Chabon (ed) "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories"

Sylvia Petter "Back Burning"

"Best American Short Stories 2007"

Tom Bissell "God Lives in St Petersburg"

Nora Nadjarian "Ledra Street"

Andrew McNabb "The Body of This"

Willa Cather "The Bohemian Girl"

Deborah Sheldon "All the Little Things That We Lose"

Alta Ifland "Elegy for a Fabulous World"
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