Stephen Dedman

Prime (2005)


Reviewed by Tim Kroenert (this review was first published in March 2007)

To readers and writers of Australian horror and dark fantasy, Stephen Dedman needs no introduction. In addition to authoring four novels, countless short stories and non-fiction, he’s also served as a former associate editor of Eidolon and is currently the fiction editor of Borderlands. He’s both a veteran and an authority, and he brings both qualities to bear in Never Seen By Waking Eyes.

The collection showcases some of his best short fiction, published in such prestigious publications as Andromeda Spaceways Inflight MagazineTiconderoga OnlineAgog! Fantastic Fiction plus numerous others during the past 13-odd years. The collection demonstrates Dedman’s thorough knowledge of genre, his affectionate approach to research and his skill as a prose and storytelling craftsman.

The first story is one of the collection’s most interesting. In “A Single Shadow”, Dedman contemporises a Japanese myth involving ghost-like apparitions that materialise as a result of unrequited love. Set in Tokyo, the story’s educated Western narrator speaks with some anthropological authority, and the story is emotionally haunting as well as spookily haunted, if a little stilted in its structure.

One of the strangest stories comes in the form of, in Dedman’s words, an “erotic cross-dressing lesbian cowboy romance ghost story”, that goes by the name of “’Til Human Voices Wake Us”. Dedman’s one-line synopsis might seem like a quirky joke, until you read the story and realise it’s actually a perfect description. And while it might seem at first glance like a heady cocktail of genres that shouldn’t quite mix, Dedman writes with such devotion to character and place that it works sublimely.

It seems there’s something for everyone’s taste here. If it’s an intelligent gross-out you’re after, then look no further than the skin-crawlingly effective “The Completist”. This is the kind of technophobe/technolust sticky nightmare that would make David Cronenberg piss his pants with excitement. The story’s speculative fulcrum is a brand of futuristic sex toy known as Realskin — the cloned genitals (only the genitals) of celebrities and porn stars. Of course, with new technologies come new risks, and Dedman’s hapless narrator contracts, from his favourite toy, a bizarre STD that will make your stomach turn.

In quite a few of his stories, Dedman demonstrates a keen interest in folklore and the origins of myths and stories. Several tales seem, at first glance, to exist solely as a framework through which a character can share, via monologue, “true” — or at least early — versions of certain classic stories. When it works — which it usually does — the results of such layering of fictional narratives are both highly literate and thematically complex.

So while the bulk of “The Dance That Everyone Must Do” comprises a horrific re-imagining of the Pied Piper of Hamelin myth, it ultimately serves as a haunting reflection on Denmark’s experiences of World War II — which is where the teller of the story is located — rendering this an exceedingly intelligent horror story.

Other attempts are less highbrow, though no less enjoyable. The extrapolation, in “Heir of the Wolf”, of a supposed gruesome early draft of Little Red Riding Hood finds some nice, darkly comic territory to play out in: a father shares the gory details over dinner with his mortified son’s latest girlfriend. It’s simultaneously intriguing, stomach-churning and laugh-out-loud funny — a tremendous feat of depraved storytelling.

Even when the subject of the story is wholly original, it’s clear that Dedman thoroughly enjoys this particular structural approach — having the bulk of the story shared not by the (usually first-person) narrator, but by a character within the story.

It’s an intriguing and time-honoured approach that adds an extra level of divide between the reader and the story while also, paradoxically, helping to draw them more deeply into the narrative. In this model, the story’s primary world — that which is described by the narrator — provides a stage, upon which the storyteller can relate their tale. The reader then becomes part of the fictional storyteller’s captive — and captivated — audience, and is privy to their mannerisms and individual storytelling techniques.

Again, it is a tribute to Dedman’s insights into, and ability to render, authentic characters that he is able to successfully make use of this approach time and time again.

And he is successful, no more so than in the story entitled “The Lady of Situations”. It seems unfathomable that, as Dedman reveals in the collection’s afterword, this particular story received more rejections than any of his others, prior to its eventual publication in an anthology entitled Little Deaths.

In this reviewer’s opinion, this story is one of the collection’s best. In it, a charismatic but somewhat inscrutable intellect relates a compassionate and eerie tale about a woman with a perfect memory. The woman in question had suffered unspeakable abuse in her past, meaning that this attribute is more a curse than it is a gift. The story is brimful of pathos, yet highly original and a far cry from soap opera.

There are more straightforward stories, and these are, for the most part, as effective as Dedman’s denser, more difficult tales. “A Sentiment Open to Doubt” contains a standard, linear narrative that provides an insight into the world of high-stakes environmental activism, although the story’s final gruesome (and slightly silly) pay-off comes as somewhat of a cop-out on the author’s part.

Likewise “What You Wish For”. This story involves a schoolteacher in a remote rural Australian town who, feeling equal parts isolated and sexually frustrated, is visited by a woman who can take the physical form of anyone the man desires. The story’s dark psychological overtones are a joy to explore, to such an extent that the more visceral climax comes as a bit of a disappointment.

No such sense of cop-out in “Double Action”: the conclusion to this twisted little story, in which a representative of an arms manufacturer invites a mass murderer to “promote” certain underperforming weapons, is impeccably judged and — ahem — executed.

There’s such a mixture of the depraved and the empathetic in this collection, and the most powerful and memorable stories combine both. This reviewer’s particular favourite is entitled “Salvation”, and relates a man’s reluctant stopover in a beautifully evoked, “nowhere” country town whose major claim to fame is that a former resident has found international success as a porn star. The girl in question, the subject of the town’s sole tourist attraction — a decidedly disturbing museum/shrine — becomes an object of great sympathy for the nomadic narrator. During the course of his forced stay in the godforsaken town he not only seeks physical emancipation for himself but also a more symbolic emancipation for her.

Considering the title of the collection, it’s no surprise that entering into its pages is akin to passing through a series of dream worlds, some of which are very sinister indeed. Among the stories you will discover nightmares that are anything from merely unsettling to downright disturbing and even, on occasion, strangely uplifting. Overall it’s a thoughtful collection that also manages to pull quite a few heartstrings, while offering some harrowing scares along the way.