James Everington is a new name in fiction to me. He says on his website that his main influences are writers like Ramsey Campbell, Shirley Jackson, and Robert Aickman and that he enjoys ‘the unexplained, the psychological, and the ambiguous’. Following the self-published The Other Room (2011), Falling Over (published by the UK’s Infinity Plus and available as both a paperback and ebook on both sides of the Atlantic) is his second collection. He has also published a well-reviewed novella, The Shelter. With writers Alan Ryker, Aaron Polson and Iain Rowan, he is one quarter of The Abominable Gentlemen, who publish Penny Dreadnought, an ebook anthology series of weird fiction.
The title page aptly describes Falling Over as weird fiction. It consists of 11 stories, or ten and an epilogue, which is a transcription of the events of ‘A Dream About Robert Aickman’. Falling Over is certainly weird fiction in the British tradition of Aickman, subtle, understated, enigmatic. The book also contains a section of author’s notes with a paragraph or two about each story. Interesting as these notes are, they are not the place to come for answers, though you will learn something about how the stories came to be written.
As Everington says, the collection takes its title from one particular story but several of the tales feature falls of one sort or another. ‘Fate, Destiny and a Fat Man From Arkansas’ begins with a dream of a car plunging off a flyover. ‘New Boy’ starts with the central character nervously observing the roof of a tall office building. ‘Sick Leave’ contains the famous nursery rhyme with the line ‘we all fall down.’ One might say this is almost a themed anthology. There are other recurring elements; in two of the stories the central character is returning to work after a leave of absence. In two the protagonist works as a temp. Images are important, whether unexplained in a newspaper, or all too horrifically explicable on a computer screen. Most of the main characters are young, students, just out of university and struggling to find direction, working in unsatisfying jobs, or worse.
Falling Over is a book about perception, about characters who come to doubt their sense of the reality of the world, whose perceptions are doubled, who extrapolate alternative realities or timelines or encounter, or imagine they encounter, doppelgängers.
The title story was originally written for an anthology on the theme of epistemic doubt, and if that sounds too serious, it is also explicitly an homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Over one winter holiday four students stay behind in their university hall of residence. Sexual and romantic tensions arise, but beyond that the narrator isn’t sure Michelle is the same person she was before she went into hospital following a fall. Will paranoia spoil the possibilities of romance, or are they really out to get him? It is an intricately layered tale, very well done, with an ending which implies more than is ever explicitly stated.
‘Fate, Destiny and a Fat Man From Arkansas’ is the most conventional story. A gripping page-turner about two burglars who pick on the wrong house with inextricably nightmarish consequences. ‘New Boy’ follows a similar relentless logic in chronicling an office manager’s fall from grace. In ‘Sick Leave’, a young and isolated teacher, Emma, returns to school after being ill and suspects her class has changed. Again Everington pays homage to classic horror. You may pick up hints of Quatermass or The Midwich Cuckoos, or something more supernaturally sinister. But have children really changed, or is it all in Emma’s fevered mind? Have the disappearances begun yet? ‘Sick Leave’ reads like a more satisfying, more developed, more terrifying version of ‘New Boy’. it is one of the best pieces in the book, and at 28 pages, one of the longest.
At precisely 100 words including title ‘Haunted’ is a clever homage to a very famous ghost story. ‘The Man Dogs Hated’ is an odd piece about a neighbourhood where is it best to be the right sort of person. Everington notes that he doesn’t quite understand the story. On the surface it is clearly about conformity and the value of not fitting it, but the subconscious does strange things.
‘Public Interest Story’ expands on the theme of the non-conformist outsider. The protagonist is a young man who finds himself the Kafka-esque victim of the madness of crowds, which might have something to do with the unexplained appearance of his photo in a tabloid newspaper. Again Everington shows considerable craft in developing a surreal premise with remorseless nightmare logic.
‘The Time of Their Lives’ is another lengthy tale. A few pages in I was reminded of Terry Lamsley’s ‘The Break’. I didn’t know if this was coincidence, but Everington acknowledges the inspiration in his notes. Vince is on holiday with his grandparents. He meets and makes friends with Alice. Everyone else in the hotel bar the single member of staff is old. There is mysterious music late at night and a terrible price to be paid. There’s a ghost of The Shining here but ‘The Time of Their Lives’ is a fine chiller in its own right.
Finally there is ‘Drones’. A short piece which is ingenious and terrifying, and carries an implacable moral challenge. A soldier flies drones, calling in remote Hellfire missile strikes. Everington dismantles the whitewash of the blameless employee, the soldier just doing his job, following orders, being professional. Not taking responsibility. There is horror both all too real and fantastical. ‘Drones’ has something of the spirit of the notorious BBC drama Ghostwatch. It is simply superb.
In the title story, ‘Sick Leave’, ‘Drones’ and ‘The Time of Their Lives’, Falling Over offers four outstanding stories which taken together comprise almost half the book. The remaining stories are not quite to the same standard, but they are all very good. A handful of typos, the very occasional wrong word, let things down slightly, but then almost every book published now seems to have a fistful of mistakes. Falling Over is an excellent collection, well-crafted, imaginative and chilling.