LEAVING THE COMFORT ZONE
Ian Kennedy Williams Ginninderra Press, $33
In his fourth short-story collection, Launceston writer Ian Kennedy Williams uses the malleability of the form to good advantage.
Although most of the 11 stories in this aptly titled volume share a gritty noir reality, the author’s imagination frees him from whatever restrictions that might appear to impose.
He writes without artifice, in prose that is lean and to the point and devoid of literary flourishes and furbelows, and he tailors it to fit the tone and subject of each story.
Williams knows character is what drives good stories and is a dab hand at creating memorable ones to fit his often unusual fictive ideas. Consider A Fire Starter Speaks of His
Love, the chilling self-portrait of an arsonist as he gleefully watches a woman’s house burn. More soliloquy than story, it breaks one of the conventions of the form, master storyteller Geoff Dean’s dictum that “something must happen”, for nothing does – at least in terms of action. Yet as a depiction of a warped individual, it is perfect.
“Conflagration … deflagration … phlegethon … You know these words from Pop’s thesaurus,” he writes. “So many words, you never knew half of them existed. When no one’s around, you sing some of them out loud, like it’s a poem you’re reading. “Fiery … flagrant … ignescent … piceous … “Emblaze … incinerate … cremate … “Some don’t sound like fire words at all, but you sing them all the same. “Calcinate … cauterise … self-immolate …” As he watches a fire crew’s efforts to save the house and a policeman struggling to restrain the woman, the narrator muses: “It’s just a big game, sporting with nature, Pop says. After October till the autumn rains come, it’s the only game to play.”
Williams’ understanding of morbid psychology peaks in his creation of Franz, the narrator of the long story Real Estate.
Franz boards with young married couple Trent and Jodi. They become firm friends until Trent inexplicably orders Franz to pack up and leave. He does but continues to communicate with Jodi, and eventually again with Trent.
By the time communications resume, the nature of the three-way relationship is as puzzling as Franz’s motivation for fostering it. His renewed interactions with Trent and Jodi at first appear innocuous, so much so that at times nothing seems to be happening to advance the narrative.
Only with the shock ending does the game Franz has been playing become clear. As the blurb succinctly puts it, he has been “a sociopath walking his victims along their fault lines until they crack”. Williams got the pace of this dark tale absolutely right.
He is never afraid to leave his comfort zone, especially that of genre and its expectations and constraints.
The Sicilian Boy is a detective story and Eidolon a psycho-thriller involving a murder, yet supernatural elements make both of them anything but ordinary whodunits.
On the other hand, Nin’s Father is as simple and classic as a story by the Irish master Frank O’Connor, as is Traces – although with a slight leavening of noir unease. Aficionados of Williams’ last collection,
Fugitive Places, will relish this new opportunity to follow the twists and turns of his vivid imagination.