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Ocean Eyes Stuart Hughes (illustrated by Madeleine Finnegan). 4.00 (+60p postage) in the UK; elsewhere US$12.00 (payment preferably in dollar bills). 114pp, trade paperback. 1997. Peeping Tom Books (4 Pottery Close, Belper, Derbyshire, DE56 0HU, England).

I have a confession. I'm prejudiced against books like this. In fact I have this awful tendency to prejudge just about anything that comes with the 'Small Press' label attached. So when I have to read a book from a small press publisher, featuring stories that were first published in various small press magazines I make all kinds of pre-judgements: dull plots, flat characterisation, lack of atmosphere, over-reaching for effect.

I should have known better. I should have expected more from the publishers of Peeping Tom, an award-winning magazine which publishes top horror writers, including Graham Joyce, Ramsey Campbell, Ian Watson, Stephen Gallagher, Brian Lumley, Mark Morris, etc, etc, et bloody cetera.

I should have expected far more.

I wouldn't have been disappointed.

While we're all confessional, I'll add that I have a problem with horror, too, even though I write the stuff myself. Science fiction or mainstream are far easier: everything out of the ordinary has to be explained at some point, and the writing stands or falls on how convincingly the author does the explaining. Horror is all about the unexplained. The unexplainable.

The unknown is hard to handle. When the reader stops believing, horror descends into the comical, as all those camp horror movies testify. At other times, a lot of fine writing is undermined by the sudden intrusion of the unbelievable. Stuart Hughes, his writing always clean and convincing, teeters on the edge of the latter of these two sins. For example, in the first story, 'Home Run Hero', an engaging study of a disintegrating father-son relationship is marred by fantastical intrusion at the end.

But why am I bitching about one or two stories that don't quite work? Why should I complain, when Hughes has just knocked my prejudices into touch with powerful and moving horrific fiction (rather than mere horror), such as:

  • 'Weird' - strange happenings (or not-happenings) in the night, fear of toilets, too much lager
  • 'Faith' - a superb study of a man having to come to terms with a massive realignment of his beliefs
  • 'Clock's Runnin, Mister' - a seedy and violent tale, spoilt only by slightly pulling its punches at the end
  • and 'In His Own Way' - a miniature masterpiece of sadistic black humour

Buy it. Subscribe to Peeping Tom. And never miss the opportunity to knock the prejudices of narrow-minded folk like me.

Review by Keith Brooke.
Elsewhere in infinity plus:
stories from Ocean Eyes - Clock's Runnin, Mister and In His Own Way
features - take our advice and find out more about Peeping Tom

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© Keith Brooke 6 July 1997