Colin P. Davies, Tall Tales on the Iron Horse
reviewed by Danielle L. Parker
Tall Tales on the Iron Horse
Publisher: Bewildering Press, 2008
Paperback: 207 pages
Is it something in the national character? It’s true we Americans have raised crude sophomoric humor to an art form equaled by none, from the early flashes of genius shown by the Three Stooges to the stratospheric glory attained by the cast of Animal House. But we just can’t do Despicable with the glorious style the Brits attain.
The clue to the success of this peculiarly British art form might be found in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series. Flashman was a complete bounder, to borrow another Britishism. He was lecherous, lewd, traitorous, lazy, and most of all, cowardly. No one ever raised the Yellow Flag as high as Flashman. An unlikely candidate for worldwide fame, wouldn’t you think? Yet when Fraser died, his obit made the New York Times and other newspapers and journals of note around the world. I read the Flashman series myself-I still remember how my jaw hit my chest with the first one-and the reason soon became clear. The stories are a riot, if you have a fine appreciation for black humor.
So, what is black humor? I don’t know how the dictionary defines it, but I would say that when something nasty happens, and it’s somehow still funny, even though it shouldn’t be, that’s black humor. It’s no coincidence so much black humor takes place in the funerary parlor.
An even better example is a video that circulated among the police officers I worked with years ago as their Y2K project manager. The film that had these fine boys in blue in stitches (taken from life) showed a hapless delivery man hit by a car and flipped head over heels-into his next incarnation, so far as I know. Why was it funny? Because it was exactly like those classic cartoon sequences shown on Wiley E. Coyote. Of course it was horrific. Black humor is.
Colin P. Davies doesn’t do Nice Guy, either. If you’re a ninety-pound, chinless weakling looking for a paper Conan to appease your secret fantasies (the real Robert E. Howard apparently being a mother-dominated loser in desperate need of Dr. Freud) or a nearsighted, romance-free female (like someone I know far too personally) secretly fantasizing dominant beefcake with well-developed abs and Harlequinesque dialog, don’t look between these pages. There’s nothing to identify with here in that sense.
Instead, we’ve got Mandi, an artificially growth-retarded child beauty contestant, whose burning goal is to Destroy Mother and Have Sex with Dad, if only she were quite mature enough to grasp the concept. Clifford is a hapless weenie in the grip of powerful pubescent hormones. His burning desire is to materialize the busty Zondra Amazon in the flesh from his perspiration-dabbled books. Richard, who volunteers for virtual reality in the form of a sensory deprivation tank, can’t escape the throttling grip of the wife he killed in a car accident. In “Pestworld,” the biggest, baddest pest wins. On we go.
A few of the better stories edge into Ray Bradburyesque surrealism. One of the best in the collection is the title piece, “Tall Tales on the Iron Horse.” It is ambiguous and multi-layered enough to make you muse after you’ve finished the last page. “The Hay Devils” is another in the Bradburyesque vein. Being from the wrong side of the pond and thus not a true connoisseur of British Black, I admit these were among my favorites in the collection. Of course, since I once read, from cover to cover, a Bradbury anthology so thick that the book could have doubled as the corner post for a mobile home, I’m an obvious sucker for moody surrealism (also, very near-sighted).
It’s great to find that our own Bewildering Press has brought out such a quality anthology. Congratulations to Jerry Wright and to Mr. Davies. Black never goes out of style!
Copyright © 2008 by Danielle L. Parker