Liam Hogan

REVIEW

SCOTT MANLEY HADLEY REVIEWS
HAPPY ENDING NOT GUARANTEED  (ARACHNE PRESS)  BY LIAM HOGAN

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.

PLEASE CHECK OUT MY NEW WEB SERIES

Elevenses

 

BY LIAM HOGAN

Tick, tock: repetition, routine; the things we cling to at the bookends of our lives, from the toddler watching the same videos over and over until the parents pray – or perhaps arrange? – for a malfunction, to the OAP sitting in a retirement home fretting because her normally punctual eleven o’clock tea is a quarter-hour late.

I’d ignored the morning’s commotion, the usual noises of mayhem and distress. Berrylands is not the quietest of places at the best of times and if you’d been here as long as I had, you get used to the incoherent screams of frustration as Mrs. Woods and her helper search once again for her missing upper dentures. Perhaps I’d been unwise to turn a deaf ear. Perhaps the noises – the thuds, the crashes, the animal howls – and my missing cup of under-brewed, over-milked lukewarm tea were somehow connected.

Still, it’s quiet now. Even the usual car alarms and police sirens from the busy London street outside have fallen silent. I wonder if I’ve been forgotten. Or is this punishment for flipping Ms Prenderghast – the thickset and sullen manager of this mouldering nursing home – the bird? I can’t even remember why I’d done so, but this – I am quite sure – is not a sign of senility. This is having too many reasons to recall which particular offence might have sent me over the edge.

And anyway, aren’t us old folk allowed to misbehave? Doesn’t my grey hair, wrinkled features and Zimmer frame give me free rein to say and do as I feel?

I don’t think Ms Prenderghast would agree. I’m sure she’d be far happier if we were all permanently drugged to the eyeballs, and not just on ecstasy, either.

Oh, that’s really rather clever. Wasn’t ecstasy originally invented as a cure for dementia? I must tell Muriel that. Unless of course it was LSD? Or something else altogether? I was born a little too late for all that stuff, though it pays, I think, to drop the odd comment into the conversation. Stops them thinking I’m some sort of fossil. Stops them forgetting about me.

The little mantel clock with its fat green arms shows twenty-five past, and still no tea. Definitely, incontrovertibly, late. Very well then, it is time to sally forth – I will make my own blasted cuppa! At least I’ll get the colour right, and maybe it will be scaldingly hot, just how I like it.

I creak as I push myself upright, click and pop as I pull the Zimmer towards me. I am serenaded by my very own orchestra of arthritic and aging joints. Such is old age. I shuffle my way to the door.

Which is locked.

They’ve never gone this far before, this is more than wilful neglect. As I hover in my crouched forward position, I imagine smuggling a letter out to the local newspaper. Social services raiding the home, finding me frail but stoic, the reporter breaking down in tears as I describe my distressing plight, Ms Prenderghast taken away in chains, a blanket thrown over her bovine features.

Though come to think of it, didn’t the local paper close down fifteen years ago? Perhaps I should tweet it instead :

Hashtag SOS. Elderly lady imprisoned in Berrylands Nursing home. May not survive the night. Send help, urgent! P.s. Bring a thermos of hot tea.

Like I said, I wouldn’t want them to think I’m a fossil.

How many followers did I have last time I checked? Two, I think: Derek and some guy from Zimbabwe who claims I hold the key to our mutual fortune. I somehow doubt he will be coming to my rescue. But blast it, this daydreaming isn’t getting me anywhere. I drag the Zimmer and my own protesting frame over to the patio door that leads onto the little courtyard and try the handle : NOT locked! This is one pensioner they can’t keep down!

I ignore the other curtained bedrooms and head straight for the double-doors to the day lounge. Stupid bloody name for a room, that – it’s not as if we have a night lounge, though maybe we should. Soft lights, cocktails, maybe even a piano. Now that would be a way to run a home.

I slide the glass-paned door back and see my first glimpse of a human since Jennie brought me my breakfast at around eight. And Jennie hardly counts, she’s not exactly the chatty sort and this morning she was even worse than usual – distracted, jittery, must have asked me at least three times if I’d taken my meds.

From the pink cardie it looks like it’s Silvia. Though what she’s doing on the floor, I can’t imagine, she’s probably dropped a Murray Mint or something. She looks up as I call her name, looks up through bloodshot eyes, her face contorted, a ragged, oozing wound reaching from one cheek all the way down to the little silver clasp at her throat, a glimpse of something white behind the red, and that’s when I realise that she doesn’t really count as human either. Not anymore.

She snarls, and starts towards me, and in an instant it’s only the Zimmer keeping her false teeth and her nicotine stained hands at bay. I twist the frame sideways, spilling her to the floor, and as she tumbles I lift the Zimmer and bring it down sharpish on the hip that has been on the NHS waiting list for some eighteen months now. She howls, and glares at me but this time stays down, one hand clutching at her side as I totter past, sans Zimmer, into the hallway.

Truth is, I don’t really need it – the Zimmer – not most days, anyway. But when you’re the archetypal little old lady competing for corridor space with walking sticks, wheelchairs, and the occasional gurney, a Zimmer gives you a certain intransigence, an uncompromising width that demands and gets respect.

Though I do feel a little naked without it, especially as I turn the corner and come face to face with a similarly zombified Muriel. Which is a horrific shock to the system and a dirty rotten shame to boot, because at my age cribbage partners who still have their marbles intact are a rare breed indeed. I think she’s as surprised to see me as I am her, and I dodge past before she manages more than a guttural groan. I don’t tell her my quip about Ms Prenderghast feeding us ecstasy, I kind of think it would be wasted on Muriel as she seems to be missing both of her ears.

I’m beginning to fear the worst, and half think about returning to the safety of my room, but I’d have to go past Silvia and Muriel on my way back and by now I’m marginally closer to the kitchen. I wish I had my iPhone with me though, much as the damn thing baffles the heck out of me. I’d call my nephew, Derek,and ask to speak to his nine year old son, Alfie. Last Christmas – the same Christmas Derek gifted me his reconditioned phone while trying to hide his brand spanking new generation one – Alfie shoved an Xbox controller into my hands and instructed me in the fine art of killing zombies. “Shoot them in the head, Nan!” he’d hollered as his parents had prepared dinner.

I wonder where the nearest gunshop is? It hadn’t seemed particularly difficult on the screen, even for an old duffer like me, and I kind of liked the colourful way the zombie heads exploded when I shot them right.

Not quite as colourful or realistic as Jennie’s head which I pass a good few metres before I have to pick my way over her fallen body. She’s got a bunch of keys clutched in her hand – room keys. I guess it was she who locked me in. Probably saved my life – or what little I have left of it. If this is the end of the world and if the game my grand nephew was playing was anything to go by, then all that will be left by now is a few hardy souls desperately fighting for survival and powerups. The game had been remarkably coy on the prospects for a geriatric with a heart murmur.

The hallway lights blink off and then back on again, and I quicken my tottering pace with one single minded and all-consuming aim – a cup of tea before the power and gas goes out, forever. A last post-apocalyptic cuppa. And I’m close now, real close.

I should have known Ms Prenderghast would be waiting for me in the kitchen. Or rather the ex-Ms Prenderghast, the recently departed but not gone very far and certainly not gone far enough Ms Prenderghast. Ms Prenderghast, undead. She’s not alone, either, and as Mr Robbins rears up I deal him a swift clout to the ear, and his glazed over eyes roll back and into his head as his top of the range hearing aid takes a direct hit. Even I cringe at the piercing whine that spills from the shattered device. Thick black blood runs out of his other ear and he wobbles and then drops untidily to lie on the recently mopped linoleum floor.

Ms Prenderghast will not be so easy to defeat. Ms Prenderghast is not an eighty year old man in a bowtie and with a thin wisp of hair carefully combed over his shiny pink pate. Ms Prenderghast is a pitbull of a woman with matronly hips and a fearsome chest, her sleeves rolled up to show her muscular arms, her sensible shoes dangling below prodigious ankles, and with a lifetime of suppressed rage suddenly cut loose.

She snarls, baring her bloodied teeth, and I experience a warm stillness as she lumbers towards me. Silvia, Muriel, the decapitated Jeannie, even Mr Robbins : this isn’t a zombie plague spread like wildfire by the infected. I have no idea whether or not my fellow denizens of the home have the inclination, but what I am damned sure of is that most of us simply don’t have the teeth for it. No, this is a one woman crusade, a zombie Typhoid Mary, the simmering fury born of years trapped in the job she hates – of looking after the incontinent, the infirm, the senile – erupting like a dynamited dam into a mind swept clear of all other thoughts. Ms Prenderghast is a malevolent force of nature, a berserker, and here am I stood directly in her murderous path.

I’m kind of surprised my heart doesn’t give up then and there. Perhaps it’s the sight of the hot water urn gently steaming away behind her. Perhaps it’s just that I already know how this is going to play out, so what’s the point of getting overly excited about it?

Only, as the calm descends and as I take a half step back to press against the tiled wall, something red catches my eye. It’s the defibrillator unit, ripped open, and with the charge light blinking green.

Oh well, it’s worth a try at least.

I grab the paddles, and Ms Prenderghast does the rest. Really, I don’t move after that – I’m not sure I could have if I’d wanted to. She stumbles forward, trips over poor Mr Robbins, and her bullet shaped head connects with a sharp zap as I’m still trying to read the upside-down sign on the paddles that warns “FOR USE ON THE CHEST ONLY”.

I’m not certain she’s dead. I mean, deader – no longer undead. So when the green light flashes once again I stoop and carefully hold the paddles against the greying hair at her temples, hold until the unit is discharged, until there’s a faint and unpleasant smell of burning. Even so I’d do it again, just to make sure, but my knees can’t take anymore. I’m too exhausted and – like the defibrillator – spent.

I totter over to the urn, bypass it and with shaking hands reach for the backup kettle. This cup of tea demands properly boiling water. I’m even going to warm the cup up first. It’s just a shame it’s not bone china, that delicately thin pottery that elevates a mug of tea into something epic.

I’m just taking my first tentative sip when there’s a soft exhalation from behind me and I turn to see a once again vertical Mr Robbins looking at me with undisguised hunger. At the door, a couple more mashed up faces lurk, Muriel, and Silvia, and even Mrs Woods, her denture-less gums dribbling bloody saliva down her wrinkled chin. Liver-spotted hands reach across the threshold, a chorus of bronchial moans fill the air – I know what drives them on, and I suspect I’m the last person alive in Berrylands who can give them what their turned to mush brains ache for.

I slowly put my cup down and as clearly and as loudly as I can, I say – “I’ll make a pot then, shall I?”

*     *     *

Liam Hogan was abandoned in a library at the tender age of 3, emerging blinking into the sunlight many years later, with an aversion to loud noises and a head full of words. You can find some of them via happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk

He dreams in Dewey Decimals.

This story first published in Open Pen Issue Eleven, April 2014.