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The Grinding House

by Kaaron Warren

(CSFG Publishing, Aus$15.50, Paperback, January 2005.)

Review by Andrew Hook

cover scanKaaron Warren is an Australian writer whose stories aren't for the fainthearted, yet their compassionate essence demonstrates that she's not a simple shockfester either. I'd commissioned her for the award-winning Alsiso Project (Elastic Press), and her submission ("Al's Iso Bar") remains one of my favourites from that book, impressing me with the audacity of its central, original, theme. That story is included here alongside eighteen others that demonstrate her breadth and unique creativity.

Her fiction shifts across genres smoothly and intelligently, never settling for the easy path. Similar to Roman Polanski, she doesn't flinch when she depicts unsettling situations and she places her characters in convincing moral dilemmas that are as compelling as they are realistic.

In "The Glass Woman", a glass automaton is subjected to what would be considered humiliating behaviour in a normal society, but she is still adored and envied by another female protagonist. "Smoko" is a peculiarly wonderful modern fable that takes the premise of cigarette smokers as dragons in human form, and uses it wisely. One of my favourite stories, "The Blue Stream", is an incredible, coolly written piece of SF, truly horrifying as young adults adjust to society after their Blue Stream experience -- a form of suspended animation which robs them of their teenage years, created by a government that wants to rid authority-bucking behaviour from society. Not unlike The Stepford Wives, the young adults become quite mechanical in their actions.

"The Left Behind" tells of those misfits who weren't sent to the stars following an ecological disaster on Earth and how they attempt to rebuild society in its wake. An important social allegory lies at the heart of the piece, although with Warren the story always comes first and never contains superfluous moralising. An interesting vampire story, "The Sameness of Birthdays", provides a take on the theme that I haven't come across before. You'll have to read it to understand why.

"Working for the God of Love and Money" is a terrifying account of a young boy's slavery to a God who cares nothing for human life. Evil is almost palpable in this story, for if the Gods are against us then what else is there to hope for? And in "The Grinding House" itself -- a novella that underpins much of the horror in Warren's fiction -- a disease begins to decimate the animal and human population, fusing each creature's bones into one. Disturbing and heartrending, the story describes how the disease affects family, friends, and the future.

As in any collection, there were a couple of stories I wasn't so keen on. "The Smell of Mice" and "Tiger Kill" both seemed to rely too much on an idea that wasn't quite strong enough to carry it, but these can be forgotten when reading stories such as "The Speaker of Heaven" where a mystic can foresee each individual's personal nirvana, or "The Missing Children" which summarises the essence of fear and hope in a world where reality has been twisted.

The Grinding House contains a wealth of original material written with a distinct narrative drive. I finished this book one hour before my wedding, and if the stories had been longer I might well have been late. This volume is well worth the postage from Australia to obtain your copy. I suggest that you do so now.

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