The Butterfly Man and Other Stories
 by Paul Kane

P S Publishing

Awards: BFS Dead of Night prize 2008 for one of stories in this collection, A Chaos Demon is for Life …

"He knows what you've done and he's coming for you."

Reviewed by Sue Haigh

I chose to review Paul Kane’s seventh collection for this edition of The Short Review because I felt it might present something different, a challenge, to me as a reader new to fantasy/horror; a thick, bubbling brew which includes comic horror, the surreal, vampire literature and straight horror. OK, it's not the sort of stuff I read every day, but would it be enough to entice me into the circle of fans? Looking at the online image of the extraordinarily beautiful cover, I thought it might be possible. (The eye-watering cost of this signed hard-back edition (£39.99) probably gives a clue as to why the publishers, P S Publishing, only provide review copies in PDF - although an unsigned edition is available for £19.99)

The elements I expected are all in there, fighting for supremacy – tormented souls, ghosts, angels, avenging spirits from beyond the grave, the Spirit of Death, monsters of the night, side by side with chocolate-box sexy women (why did I suddenly find myself longing to read about a the ghost of a lesbian stand-up comic?). Kane clearly revels in the notion of the Dark After-Life; indeed, he’s obsessed with it. Sometimes it works wonderfully well and sometimes it disappoints.

Opting not to look at the introduction by Christopher Golden or Kane’s own end-notes on the stories until after I had completed my own review, I was surprised by the colourful diversity of style, which ranges from pastiche, through cinematic sequence to straight literary, and by the unity of bloodthirsty theme. Sometimes a happy ending seems to be within a hair's breadth before devastation strikes - read Windchimes to get a taste of the particularly unpleasant bitter aloes in the final twist – and sometimes the reader is led to an inevitable and horrible conclusion.

I have to show my hand right away and say that my favourite story in the whole collection is a delightful (would Kane approve of that description, I wonder?) page-turner of a pastiche. The style of The Greatest Mystery was just right on the button and did it for me. This could have been Conan Doyle himself speaking, immediately recognisable to both afficionados and casual readers. Here, Kane is word and plot perfect, that sense of place transporting us right into the world of Baker Street – post mortem. Actually it sent me right back to my own library and the original stories and novels.

By contrast, I find the Dickens-themed story, Humbuggery somewhat less appealing. With its occasional awkward intrusions of information overload and a particular ghost scene in which the narrative style is difficult, it fails to engage this reader, at least, as it should. This semi-pastiche trick is a difficult one to carry off and I feel Kane succeeds only partially on this occasion.

Windchimes, however, is a moving story of quiet, unseen madness, delicately balanced and expressed with ample grace. Kane writes with admirable understanding of the psychological disarray and guilt which might follow the death of a small child and of the suspicion which could fall upon the capabilities of a parent. The stresses which can, and often do, tear a marriage apart in such dire circumstances are examined in the character of Jon, the lonely, bereaved alcoholic. Kane examines, too, the emotions which might ultimately draw such a character to another partner who finds herself in similar straits (indeed, they meet in a children's graveyard).

I had to read this story (which has a very nasty, but just believable - given the background - ending) several times to decide whether it sits well in this book, a complex collage of stories and characters ranging from the surreal Fred and Rose West type individuals of Rag and Bone and Baggage to the pure comic horror of the television-ad world of Life-o'-Matic and the Dahl-like A Chaos Demon is for Life (these latter are two of several of the earlier stories I found strangely disorientating, geographically speaking, both shot through with a distinctly American flavour and vocabulary, though clearly set in Britain). In my view, Windchimes is a piece which reflects Kane's true potential as a 'straight' writer and might probably belong in the pages of another collection. But that's just my personal view.

In the short space available to me here, it would be impossible to comment on every one of Kane's eighteen stories – the Benjamin Button - in-reverse of the title story, The Butterfly Man; Speaking in Tongues, about a Tourette's Syndrome sufferer, which reminded me initially of Jonathan Lethem's story, Tugboat Syndrome, but with a surreal, supernatural-horror aspect; the basically cinematic One for the Road, a tale to remind us all of our mortality. (Although set in Kane's home county, Derbyshire, I sense a certain surprising sketchiness in the local detail, those things which ground a story in a precise place, in One for the Road). The unknowable and unstoppable demons of the night in Masques and Keeper of the Light threaten to engulf whole worlds, not only that of the despairing souls in The Suicide Room; every story echoes in those dark and hidden corners of the house of the human spirit.

This roiling patchwork of a collection reveals all of Kane's enthusiasm and the flexibility which has led him down many creative pathways and which will clearly point the way to others. Has it drawn me into join the dark circle of readers? Probably not, but, I enjoyed the journey to the edge.

Read one of the stories from this collection at ScreamingDreams (PDF)

Sue Haigh’s fiction has been published by Women of Dundee and Books, Chistell Publishing, Sunpenny, Cadenza, Chapter One Promotions, Mslexia and others. She has written a début novel, Missing Words, a collection of Scottish stories, The Snow Lazarus and a bilingual children’s book, Stories from a Cave. She lives in France.
Sue's other Short Reviews: "Women Aloud" audiobook
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Paul Kane was born in 1973 in Derbyshire. He has written six other fantasy/horror collections, including Touching The Flame, The Lazarus Condition and  Funnybones. His novels include The Arrowhead Trilogy.  He has worked as a writer, editor, lecturer, artist and illustrator. He is also involved in film adaptations of his stories.

Read an interview with Paul Kane