Loners, the debut collection of short stories by Adrian Slatcher, as often as not takes its starting point from the end of things. Its protagonists, predominantly male and largely tight-lipped, are at the furthest edges of their tethers, their lives, the country, even the world itself.

Fittingly, its most effective piece is the one in which all these fraying ends come undone together. Static Caravan has something of graphic novelist Daniel Clowes’ haunted quotidian vision; a sort of tainted mundanity, as though the skin of everyday life is beginning to break down and ulcerate. In its slow apocalypse, it shares a kindred spirit with the unnerving BBC children’s television series from the 1970s, The Changes, in which a contagious mistrust of technology ushered in a peculiarly tea-time unfriendly societal breakdown. It climaxes, in the manner of all millennial cults, at least to date, in irresolution and deferral. The end, it seems, is always nigh. And after it, there can be no words, not even the blank page at the foot of a story’s conclusion.

The Cat is cut from a slightly different cloth, manufactured earlier in the 20th century, somewhere in the vicinity of Prague. Like something from Kafka, the titular feline metamorphoses from allegory into something more substantial – a jealous, vampiric presence which seems to grow ever stronger as the narrator fades to grey. The tale has something, too, of the lineaments of an article from Fortean Times; a case report of an apparition whose existence skirts the margins of the provable. 

If the shape of The Cat can be mapped out as a ghost story, then, suffused with regret though it is, A Cold Night For Drowning shares a blueprint with one of Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected. With a protagonist who once ‘wrote songs, even stories’, the temptation is to read it as a portrait of its artist, part of the literature of doomed introversion, and to take the title for prophecy. Slatcher’s denouement is more subtle, though hardly less bittersweet. 

In other stories, the reticence of Slatcher‘s protagonists maintains their opacity. There’s a mystery at the heart of Last Testament of a Lighthouse Keeper, for instance, but, despite its loaded service revolver, it’s hard to feel an investment in what might or might not be at stake. The best of his pieces, by contrast, are semi-permeable, sufficiently porous for empathy.

It’s no slight on the quality of the writing to make mention of how exquisite a miniature the volume makes. Slender enough for a jacket pocket, Steve Heaton‘s paintings complete the package to fine effect. His municipal constructivism in waiting room colours evokes something of the melancholy ache that bruises Slatcher’s pieces. Like ultrasound readings of the psychic interior, they reveal the damage below the unbroken skin.

By Desmond Bullen

Images by Steven Heaton 

      

Loners is out now. For more information, click here