infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

Open The Box and other stories

by Andrew Humphrey

(Elastic Press,, £5.00, 163 pages, paperback, published 1 February 2003.)

One of the greatest services of fiction is to allow cover scanthe reader access into realities other than their own; to demonstrate the workings of other minds, to illustrate psychologies that might otherwise remain hidden to us in our locked-in view of the world. The best art and literature does this. At the same time as showing different states, good fiction should also connect with the reader, giving us glimpses of the familiar, the particular, in the universal.

The strength of Andrew Humphrey's unclassifiable, and often quite brilliant, short stories, is that he shows us a world we would often rather not see, and does so with an unflinchingly honest eye for the seedier, cynical aspects of individual lives wrecked by misfortune and apathy and personal inability to affect circumstance.

Open the Box is a collection of thirteen short stories reprinted from magazines such as The Third Alternative, Crime Wave, and Roadworks. Eleven stories are mainstream, slice-of-life, gritty realism (Norwich nihilism, I thought to myself halfway through the book), while the two remaining stories are steeped with the same pessimistic, scalpel-sharp view of contemporary society, but filtered through a vision of the fantastic: "Less and Less" is about a psychologically disturbed young man convinced that he is vanishing; "Time Bleeds" features a central character bequeathed portents of the future from casual strangers. The strength of Humphrey's writing is the searingly honest portrayals--which ring absolutely true--of individuals tortured by the same self-doubt, insecurity and angst that touch us all from time to time. While his vision is bleak (a word that crops up again and again in this book) and hopeless--and not one all of us would subscribe to--one receives the impression that it is a vision arrived at not merely as a fashionable pose, but as a fully-thought out, or felt, response to the world as perceived by the writer.

The best stories in the collection are "Family Game", "Helen Said", and "Simply Dead". They are also the longest stories in the volume, and allow Humphrey the space to fully explore the respective central characters' tortured psyches, and the reasons for this torment. In "Family Game" Humphrey portrays a disintegrating marital relationship against a background of ruptured family history and emotional insecurity. In "Helen Said" we are allowed into the head, the very psyche, of alcoholic Mike, his stultifying daily ritual of drink and despair and his doomed relationship with pathological liar Helen. "Simply Dead" is an appalling glimpse into an underworld we know exists, despite our desire to turn a blind eye. On the surface it's a story of crime and revenge, but underneath--as ever with this author's intelligent writing--an examination of the conditions that underpin individual failings and suffering. Humphrey writes in a spare, economical prose style admirably suited to his subject matter, and he has an enviable knack of capturing the seedy side of life in graphic detail and few words.

The only story that didn't work for me was "Burning Bridges", which deals with a serious subject in a throwaway style (it would have been better if longer and if the motivations of the central character more rigorously explored). And while I'm quibbling, I might as well record that the book is printed in a Courier or New Courier font, which makes the whole thing appear amateurish.

I can't bring myself to say that I actually enjoyed the stories in Open the Box--they're too searingly honest and despairing for that--but I appreciated the glimpse of Humphrey's vision of reality, and the expert way in which he made believable a cast of characters that will live with me for a long time.

Review by Eric Brown.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)