Liam Hogan’s Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed is a collection of short stories fresh and new from Arachne Press. With only 156 pages and 27 stories contained within, these are short stories that are actually short stories, not collated novellas masquerading as such. Which – for me – is a blessed relief. Short story collections are almost always hit and miss, but when the average story is only six pages long, that doesn’t matter. In a short story collection where the stories are actually short, there’s no space to get bored, tired, frustrated or disappointed. When a short story collection doesn’t include ANY stories longer than 13 pages, we’re onto a winner. And when every story is a high concept, playful idea riffing on classical mythology, contemporary sci-fi and historic fantasy, there’s no shortage of new ideas and new images to keep a reader entertained.

Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed is good fun, it contains stories about witches, demons, banshees, kings, swords, genies, telepathically-connected twins, sinister scarecrows and all manner of other villains and heroes plucked and dragged out of fantastical tales from throughout time. We read about the secret extra emergency service that sorts out problems deemed as ‘Miscellaneous, Spooky, Weird’ in a story that includes spells cast from smartphones; we read about cruel medieval kings who set elaborate punishments for their enemies and destructive tests for their potential wives; we read about the blacksmiths who make magical swords and how their work is made harder by the highly gifted magical baby growing in the womb of the younger blacksmith’s wife; we read about an ex-soldier unable to help a farmer repel a gypsy’s curse; we read about the parts of the world that remain after the apocalypse, and how tiresome – and incestuous – eternity gets…

There are scary stories and exciting stories, poignant stories and happy stories. Some are funny, some are tense, some are silly, some are very original (though usually within the confines of pre-existing genre framework) and others are riffs on well-known characters (i.e. Snow White retold from the perspective of the dwarves, Ebenezer Scrooge a few years after his night with the ghosts, the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland explaining his tardiness, etc). Some of the stories – especially the one about the torture of telepathic twins – are genuinely unnerving, and all of them retain a key central element of play. This is fiction that’s made to amuse and entertain, and that is both its real strength and its ultimate weakness. Hogan’s stories here are great fun to read, and they’re conspicuously uncomplicated, which means that to review them with much more vigour than I’m currently doing would be somewhat unfair. This is fun writing, made for entertainment, and it would be wrong to judge Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed harshly because of that.

The “NOT” of the title kinda gives the whole thing away, really – this is fiction that could be lapped up more than happily by a young adult readership as well as a “grown-up” one. And I don’t mean that as an insult, the last two films I’ve seen in the cinema were The LEGO Batman Movie and Logan (which is definitely for children, despite the violence and swearing). In this socially charged era, regression is the new normal: why, in a world with President Donald Trump, Brexit, the far right rising, etc, would we want to engage on an intellectual level with anything? People watch trash television and films aimed at those decades younger than themselves (#guilty) and don’t feel ashamed, so why shouldn’t we also take pleasure from reading playful tales about wandering mercenaries in a fantastical medieval world? Why shouldn’t we read about witches and demons and immortals using internet-dating sites and the devil’s guitar and executioners and mild horror? Why shouldn’t I or anyone else take a simple pleasure as and when it’s offered? There’s nothing to stop us, but shouldn’t we – as a culture, specifically the part of the culture that still fucking reads real fucking books – shouldn’t we be aiming to expand ourselves, develop our understanding and our knowledge beyond what it already is? All the bollocks like Brexit, Donald Trump, ISIS and like Marine Le Pen have happened because people like us fail to connect with reality, fail to grow up, fail to take responsibility for ourselves and the culture we’re a part of.

Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed offers fairy tales that are non-allegorical and fantasy shorts that scare you but do nothing else. I shouldn’t have spent my reading time over two days reading this, I should’ve been ploughing through academic essays about the current political climate, I should’ve been engaging with problems that exist in my life and the wider world and working out what I can – and if I can – do to fix them. I’m not saying it was pointless for Liam Hogan to write this and for Arachne Press to publish it, because the writing in here offers a solid few hours of distracting entertainment, and that’s an acceptable thing to be, to do, of course it is. But are we not slipping into a culture where we choose to engage with cultural objects that make us question nothing, that pose no difficult questions? Intellectual engagement isn’t the purpose of Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed, I get it. But is there any purpose in anything that doesn’t aim to make the world a better place, or at least help us stop it from becoming worse?

Distraction, OK, fine, it has its place. All work and no play makes whatever happens in The Shining happen (murders, right?). And without rest the body shuts down. Maybe we do need to let our intellectual minds rest, relax, fall apart in our backyards, because if you act like that bee acts, nuh uh, you’re working too hard. If you jog all the time you fuck your knees; if you do too much shagging it hurts to piss; if you do not sleep you start hallucinating (#hottip). We must rest, our minds as much as our bodies. So, in that respect maybe the distractions of fantasy and silliness are appropriate, are apt, are right. Maybe, in fact, Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed is EXACTLY what we need right now, a book that asks no more from the mind than it brings emotion. Come and be scared, be amused, be excited – but without needing to think. Maybe, in fact, it is important that books are able to be both informative as well as relaxing. Maybe if more of the world’s dullards realised that books could be fun they might be more inclined to read some that’ll actually improve them. That’s optimistic, I know. But I liked this book and don’t want to seem like I’m attacking it directly. What I’m objecting to isn’t this book, but society itself.

I enjoyed Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed, I did. It is fun and funny, scary and exciting. It contains 27 consistently engaging pieces of entertaining fiction (at least, I presume they’re fiction, but you never know, do you?), and I’d happily recommend it to anyone looking for silliness, fantasy, horror and fun; in fact, I already have. However, I also think that before anyone wastes time having fun, we should look at halting what feels like an inevitable and international societal collapse. But maybe we should have breaks. Who knows?

I haven’t had a drink for five weeks. I am drowning in the horror I’m seeing through my unclouded eyes. Someone pass me a bottle. SMH out.


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