James Hutchings; The new death
(Available online, details below)
Review by Sue Bridgwater
“44 stories. 19 poems. No sparkly vampires.” This is James Hutchings’ own description of his collection, although it could be described as 63 tales, fables, parables or fantasies; the poems are also narratives, and regardless of whether or not the narratives rhyme and scan, they have much in common with each other.
Hutchings’ work is steeped in irony and intertextuality and pun and contemporary references that will doubtless date, but which bring a smile or a laugh. Here is one from ‘Everlasting fire.’
Often they would go to a McDonald’s (the only restaurant in Hell). There they would stare into each other’s eyes, needing no words (which is lucky, because the McDonald’s in Hell constantly have eight separate toddlers’ birthday parties happening at once).
Beneath this surface facility with comedy, however, lies a depth of imaginative creativity that hits one between the eyes all the more effectively for its contrast with the lighter tones. Hutchings acknowledges some serious influences; Lovecraft, Howard, Ashton Smith, Dunsany. I also detected a hint of Pratchett, a touch of King and soupcon of Jasper fforde. But as Tolkien reminded us, each writer creates their own dish from the ingredients bubbling in the cauldron of story, and Hutchings’ deepest source of inspiration is the moral fable, the tale with a twist, the stories of ancient cultures that have always carried instruction and guidance for those few who have ears to hear.
The collection begins and ends with death – in fact, like many of the tales, the opening one is short enough to quote in full as a taster;
The God of the Poor
In the beginning of the world the gods considered all those things which did not have their own gods, to decide who would have responsibility and rulership. “I will rule all flowers that are sky-blue in colour,” said the Sky-Father.
“I will listen to the prayers of migratory birds, and you all other birds,” the goddess Travel said to him. And so it went.
At last all had been divided, save for one thing.
“Who,” asked the Sky-Father “shall have dominion over the poor?”
There was an awkward silence, until the Sky-Father said,
“Come – someone must. Those with no gods will grow restless and cunning, and in time will cast us down, and we shall be gods no more.”
“Not I,” said blind Justice, and her stony face flashed a momentary smirk at the thought. “Why not Fame or Fortune?”
“Darling I don’t think so,” said the sister goddesses together.
There was a long pause. The gods shuffled their feet and avoided one another’s gaze. At last a voice broke the silence.
“I will,” said Death.
In the middle comes the title story, and at the end the tale in verse of the death of the last human being, mythologically expressed. I found every tale a delight; there are cats in a lot of them (definition of the Internet; a realm populated entirely by nude women and talking cats) which is an added bonus for some of us. However, the main strength of these works is simply good writing. Good storytelling in uncomplicated prose or verse styles with their roots in the oldest tales in the world. I recommend this collection heartily, and look forward to more by Hutchings.