Everything You Need by Michael Marshall Smith
Everything You Need by Michael Marshall Smith (Earthling Publications, 2013) is an outstanding collection of seventeen stories, six of which are original to this limited edition volume plus authorial insights into the process of writing them. It’s one of the best single author collections I’ve read in 2013.
“This Is Now” is one of these stories that deliberately tantalises and passes on. The set-up establishes a curiosity bump. Why should the military set up an electrified perimeter fence just outside this fairly obscure town. It’s just woodlands. And, of course, young adults with time on their hands, have every incentive to test the current at regular intervals along the fence. After all, if there should ever be a chance, they would always want to see what the fence is so keen to protect. Changing tone, “Unbelief” is a very elegant story about a contract killer. After a while, the professional goes about his business by a set routine. The job comes in, he completes it with his usual high standard of care, and receives payment without delay from another satisfied customer. Life with his family is comfortable. The question, of course, is whether this serene lifestyle can continue indefinitely or might there be a proverbial worm in the apple to disturb his appetite for more work. “Walking Wounded” grows out of P P Arnold’s hit “The First Cut Is the Deepest”. When a relationship gets into difficulties, there are several ways in which the partners can hurt themselves or each other. In some fantasy stories, the voodoo doll might come into play. In others, people would just feel cut up by the whole experience. If this happens, it leaves the problem of how the healing process is to be triggered.
“The Seventeenth Kind” is a wonderful shaggy dog story. For those of you not into British idioms, this is a longish tale that rambles all over the planet, with digressions and parenthetical wanderings thrown in to entertain us en route until we arrive at the revelation of what thing has seventeen kinds and the payoff which should always be delivered with a knowing smirk. Please forgive the divagation from the norm, but once I start a one-hour disquisition, I keep going no matter what happens. “A Place For Everything” is for those who agonise over the way to shelve books. Should it be alphabetical by author and then by title? Well, for those who prefer apple-pie order in their surroundings, here comes a cautionary tale of the ranking order in any given room from a mote of dust upwards in the hierarchy of importance. “The Last Barbecue” wonders whether the gourmet zombie, given the choice, would prefer a beefburger, lovingly grilled with special sauce, or a surviving human in a lakeside resort. The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. “The Stuff That Goes On In Their Heads” deals with the unexplored continent that is the mind of a six-year-old. Just how seriously should you take the words spoken by your child? For these purposes, it doesn’t matter whether it’s one or both parents or a teacher or the principal. No matter how well you know the child and how regularly you interact with him, it’s still guesswork whether to treat his words as credible.
“Unnoticed” retells the story of a man living on the streets. It explains why he’s now homeless, and is completely entrancing because it’s unclassifiable in terms of genre. I’d like to think of it as science fiction but there are all sorts of other possible explanations. It’s the uncertainty that makes it so attractive. “The Good Listener” reminds us there are always lacunae in our own recollections or the records people leave about their own activities. Of course, in this internet age, it’s possible to engage in a little archaeology, to dig into the past to extract the missing details. But equally there are times when it’s better to leave a hole in the data unfilled. It will just feel better that way. “Different Now” wonders how much your worldview might change if an unstable relationship finally ended. Obviously, if she leaves him, things will be different for him. But how different? “Author of the Death” is as elegant a piece of metafiction as you could ever hope to read as, in Luigi Pirandello style, two of six characters go in search of their author. Just think how much of a surprise it would be for the author if they found him. “Sad Dark Thing” is elegaic as those who have lost something dear to them wrap themselves in loneliness and wait for the pain to end.
“What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night” (reprinted in Best Horror of the Year Volume Two) reminds us of that some of us, when younger and less experienced, were afraid of the dark. We asked our parents for a light to be left on so that, should we wake, we would not be afraid. But just suppose, one night when we woke up, the light was gone. That would be a bad thing, wouldn’t it. “The Things He Said” is a rather pleasing riff on the post-apocalypse trope with a man determined to survive. He remembers well all those lessons his father taught him when he was a boy. Now’s his chance to put them all into practice. It would be unfortunate if his father should return and find things not properly organised. “Substitutions” (first appeared in Black Wings) teaches us that although life may sometimes be greener or at least less environmentally unfriendly on the other side of the hill, actually going to look may have its drawbacks. “The Woodcutter” is a rare incursion into fantasy in which a traveller tries to earn an honest penny doing tricks in pubs while waiting for the chance to go home. Sadly, things don’t always turn out as you want in fairy stories. And finally, “Everything You Need” is a story about the process of grieving and, instead of going through a number of stages, it counsels you savagely attack a filing cabinet to get over your loss. That way, you can move on with hope into a different future.
There’s delightfully creepy cover art from Vincent Chong to complete the package.
For a review of an interesting literary experiment by Michael Marshall Smith and Subterranean Press, see The Gist.