In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley
Connoisseurs have been nurturing a clichéd idiom for some time, waiting for it to blossom. Some years ago, people could actually say, “push the envelope” without flinching in shame. Now those of us who remain sane (and who have yet to succumb to the lure of digital correspondence) just wish we could go back to using envelopes to send letters. The usage has become so common it’s actually quite difficult to avoid the phrase in so many different contexts from mathematics and engineering through to that fake management consultancy language where tremulous directors are encouraged to take a risk to make some money. So, when you see someone titling a collection, In Extremis: The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley (Underland Press, 2011), you know you are in the presence of death and other extreme events, metaphorical or otherwise.
I like John Shirley as an author. There’s a pleasing directness about his writing style that gets you to the point of the story with minimum fuss and bother. In this case, he offers us a collection of stories in which he was consciously pushing the boundaries of taste. Now that, in itself, is a bit of a moveable feast, is it not? Taste is essentially ephemeral, constantly shifting depending on the audience and the context. In some places, it’s impossible to have a conversation without using “fucking” as a noun, adjective or verb in almost every sentence — and that’s before you get to all the other anglo-saxon words we all love to reserve for outbursts where we want to create an effect. The use of these words is routine in some cultural niches. So, if an author declares he’s attempting to be “extreme”, this rather “begs the question” (deliberately misusing the phrase), where is he hoping to publish these stories and who is to judge whether they are actually extreme? Actually that’s two questions, but we can pass that by. Obviously, if an editor accepts a story for publication, he or she judges the story will appeal to the target readership. So, by definition, the story is not too extreme. It’s just what the readership wants.
Given this contradiction, let’s survey what John Shirley serves up as his most extreme. In fact, it’s rather an odd mixture and many of the stories are, by my standards, quite amusing. There’s the usual amount of swearing, none of which is even remotely extreme. Many of the characters are regular drug users and this, again, has been a routine part of “edgy” fiction and nonfiction once the Beat Generation of writers really got going in the 1950s and spread their more hedonistic lifestyle into the drug-soaked hippie culture of the 1960s. There’s also quite a lot of sex — perfectly natural as an activity — and some interesting cruelty — attempting to microwave the dwarf is a pleasing idea, albeit not for the dwarf, of course. One or two stories flirt with the notion the Christians can be outraged. Nothing can upset the heathens and atheists, of course. They’ve been immune to outrage since they abandoned the conventional paths our society expects and espoused divergent beliefs. Then there’s the odd piece of body-modification. . . But, after a while, there’s a certain monotony about this collection. We have a lot of shortish short stories, all striving to be extreme and therefore shocking in some way. But the reality is rather different from that intended. It all gets a bit boring.
I’m not saying John Shirley is lacking inventiveness. Some of the ideas are quite provocative. It’s just there’s no real attempt to develop the characters or the situations in which they find themselves. We have the idea, see how it works and then move rapidly on to the next. It’s all a bit perfunctory except, in one or two cases, we do get a stand-out stories like “You Hear What Buddy and Ray Did?, a really pleasing noirish story of wrongdoing, “Raise Your Hand If You’re Dead”, as good a science fiction story as you’ll find, and “The Gun As An Aid To Poetry” which is vastly amusing when a muse goes missing and a poet’s output dries up. The ending is somewhat clichéd, but it’s a great way of resolving writer’s block.
Overall, this is not a collection I would recommend you try reading in one sitting. I ended up dipping into it over a period of days, consuming the stories in sequence, but stopping before I tired. In Extremis is not a patch on Black Butterflies, a wonderful collection of short stories that rightly won both the Stoker and the International Horror Guild Awards in 1999. If John Shirley is new to you, don’t start here. If you’re already a fan, add it to the collection.