The output of some writers defies conventional classification. Andrew Humphrey is clearly one of them judging by the thirteen stories in 'Other Voices', his second collection to be published. Elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery and mainstream drama can be found in various combinations; if one word had to be chosen to categorise them it is slipstream: "the fiction of strangeness".
A common factor is that each story focuses on a relationship – usually but not always between a man and a woman – which is under stress of some kind. His invariably male protagonists tend to be emotionally detached, unable to respond adequately to the demands of their situations. There is little in the way of upbeat themes or happy endings.
'Grief Inc' is set in a future or alternate Norwich (his stories are generally set in Norfolk and have a strong sense of place), in a country slowly disintegrating into social and organisational chaos. The protagonist, Carter, has a unique ability; just by hugging people, he can permanently remove the deep grief of bereavement, and in a world of frequent random death he is much in demand. He has a complicated relationship with Josie, his kept mistress, and is faced with the need to decide what to do as their world collapses around them. Unusually, this has a cautiously optimistic ending.
'Mimic' focuses on a small group of men who have been closeted for years in an underground bunker in a country threatened by war and an unexplained alien invasion. They are occasionally sent captured aliens to examine and dispose of, but their latest delivery has a disturbing tendency to mimic the appearance of Carter, the protagonist. The ending is rather predictable.
'Dogfight' concerns a man who is trying to establish a better relationship with his teenage son by spending a weekend away with him in a seaside caravan. He recalls his own difficult relationship with his violent grandfather, who told him gruesome tales of his exploits as a Battle of Britain fighter pilot. When out walking, they twice see a Spitfire roaring overhead – the second time being chased by a Messerschmitt. These phantoms of a bygone age gradually take on a strange and threatening reality.
Those are just the stories which stuck most in my mind, perhaps because they are the closest to conventional SFF. It might seem an unpromising collection, and I must admit that it is not my preferred type of fiction, but there is one other common factor in Humphrey's stories: they are all very well written and held my attention throughout.
(This is an extended version of a review for the British Fantasy Society)