Paul Haines

The Mayne Press (2009)

ISBN: 978 0 9806159 0 6

Reviewed by Simon Petrie, May 2010

A great many scurrilous, degrading, and downright libellous things have been written about Paul Haines, most of them by Haines himself. Suffice it to say that if Paul Haines, the writer, is guilty of merely one-tenth the activities attributed to Paul Haines, the character, then the man should be locked away, without prospect of parole, and provided solely with bread, stale cheese, water, and pencil and paper.

“Slice of Life”, the story, is appropriately the first tale within Slice of Life, the collection. It’s an effectively unsettling introduction to Haines’ (hopefully) fictional-autobiographic style, and the charming, urbane, psychotic character that the author puts forward as his alter ego. The danger of reading Haines’ stories in this vein is that the reader can come perilously close to accepting cannibalism, sexual sadism, or any of a myriad other vices as representing innately reasonable behaviour – because, in the context of Haines’ stories, this is very much the category such activity falls into. If iniquity needs a poster child (and I’m not sure, in this day and age, that it does), then the protagonist in stories such as “Slice of Life” will do just nicely, thank you.

“The Devil in Mr. Pussy (Or How I Found God Inside My Wife)” is perhaps the collection’s signature statement, a brilliant extended blurring of reality and drug-induced delirium. Is Haines hallucinating? Is his cat really talking to him? Is it possible to overdose on cat food? And does his home’s former tenant genuinely harbour sexual designs on him (for, of course, the soundest of ethical reasons), or is such imputation just the fevered imagining of Haines’ overactive brain? The result is sometimes hilarious, sometimes excruciating, ultimately profound.

“Mnemophonic” is deceptive and disorienting – there are a kaleidoscope of viewpoints used, in a quite short shory. I’m still not entirely sure, on a second reading, of what has transpired here…

“This Is The End, Harry, Goodnight!” is another story which feels, on first pass, to be unnecessarily complicated. But it’s only on reaching the end that you see the point of what Haines has been trying to achieve here, as the enforcer Robert Butler’s world pretty much falls apart around him.

“(It’s Not Like) The Good Old Days” is a cynical, clinical take on the perils of letting yourself become literally starved for bandwidth.

“Going Down With Jennifer Aniston’s Breasts” has a title that’s at once misleading and entirely appropriate. It’s a riveting, desperately compact tale of impending doom, played unflinchingly.

“The Punjab’s Gift” is one of two stories in the collection which, with exquisite deftness and economy, skewers cultural prejudice. This one should be required reading in high schools, or something.

“Failed Experiments from the Frontier: The Pumpkin” is a seemingly straight-edged, traditional fantasy story. But the edges in Haines’ stories are seldom as straight as they might appear on first approach, and ‘Pumpkin’ is no exception.

“Slice of Life – Cooking for the Heart” marks the return of the debonair cannibal. If anything, the repressed tension within these stories accumulates incrementally, with each additional page: by this stage, we already know what the fiend-character Haines is capable of, and the narrative needs only the subtlest of nudges to foreshadow something terrible.

“Inducing” is a more overtly comic piece, SF-tinged, but with appropriately dark overtones and a deliciously illicit, druggy sensibility.

In “Lifelike and Josephine”, Denise is focussed on aggressively twenty-first century beauty treatments, while Bernard harks back to the history of the Napoleonic wars. It’s a mismatch made in purgatory, and something between them has to give. Or does it?

“Yum Cha” manages, in three short pages, to be both politically and gastronomically incorrect, big time. The result is a black-comedy masterpiece in miniature.

“A Tale of the Interferers: Necromancing the Bones” is a gross-out story that reads like the fevered result of a creative (or possibly procreative) liaison between Chaucer and Cronenberg. It’s atrociously overdone, but I suspect that’s at least partly the point.

“Shot in Loralai” is brilliantly executed: to say more would be to risk giving the game away.

“Doof Doof Doof” carries so many different flavours of “wrong” that it’s difficult to know where to start. But, if fairytale porn’s your thing, who am I to argue against it?

“Where is Brisbane, and How Many Times Do I Get There?” is a comparatively unfocussed story of geographic desperation. It’s enjoyable enough – Haines is always, at the very least, readable and entertaining – but “Brisbane” feels a little slight in comparison to its neighbours.

“Slice of Life – a Spot of Liver,” the collection’s most recent story, demonstrates that Haines has lost none of his abilities, nor his unsavoury appetites. Do not accept an invitation to dinner from this man.

Paul Haines is a singular, twisted, unforgettable voice within contemporary Australian speculative fiction. If he’d written nothing else, his brilliantly dark novella “Wives” in the recent X6 anthology would pretty much assure him his place in specfic folklore. But he’s written plenty else, with much of the best of his output (up to now) compiled in this elegant, troubling, and  multifaceted collection.