|'Man, can this guy write. (He) has the power to introduce you all over again to the pleasures of reading good prose' - Ed Gorman|
This article first appeared as the Introduction to ‘Passport to Purgatory’, and re-appears here with the kind permission of the author and Gray Friar Press.
Tour Guide to Terror
by John Pelan
It’s time to take a journey – a journey into terror, as it were. Since you’ve bought this book (or perhaps are perusing the introduction while at a bookshop, trying to determine whether or not to spend a few quid on this collection), you’re either familiar with Tony Richards’ work (in which case why waste time reading the introduction when there are stories to be read!), or you recognize the name from anthologies edited by Stephen Jones or myself, and you assume (rightly) that if this Richards chap is good enough to sell to either or both of us, he must be the real deal. Or possibly the suitably eerie cover has caught your eye, or maybe you’re one of the cognoscenti that picked up an obscure novel entitled The Harvest Bride some twenty years ago and have dutifully followed Tony’s career since. Whatever the case, I once again suggest that you skip this introduction and get right to the serious business of reading the stories. All you need to know is that as good as The Harvest Bride was, Tony Richards has come a long way since, a very long way…
There are any number of fine collections by authors who prefer to stick to a milieu with which they are familiar: we have H. P. Lovecraft and his New England; August Derleth and the Sac Prairie; Ramsey Campbell and his grim depiction of Liverpool; the late, great Charles L. Grant with Oxrun Station, and many others. All of these have generated splendid works. On the other hand, we have authors that are widely traveled and find horror wherever they roam, and like the great Charles Birkin, Tony Richards is just such an author. While I can certainly enjoy a book that includes tales set in the same basic geography, I’m always a bit more partial to collections that can take me on a vicarious journey to places I’ve never visited (or having visited, missed the nuances of the weird that writers like Tony Richards have seen).
This collection is just such a tour. You’ll find the commonplace cheek-by-jowl with the esoteric. The familiar nestled closely with the strange. Tony Richards’ world is a dark and often terrifying place. One of the points of comparison to the late Charles Birkin is Tony’s eye for detail and ear for the nuances of dialogue. That’s the sort of thing that causes writers to lose their hair or turn grey. The devil is in the details and if you don’t get it right, you’ve made yourself a laughing-stock among the people you were trying to describe. Tony always gets it right; whenever he’s writing about a place he’s only visited once or twice, he’s convincing – convincing enough that the locals will surely read about their city as described by Tony Richards and shudder. And that’s what we call a writers’ writer.
I’ve made the comparison to Sir Charles Birkin; and for those that are familiar with my own work, you’ll know there’s no higher compliment I can pay an author. Like Sir Charles, Tony’s work can describe the most horrific of circumstances and maintain the restraint necessary to let the reader conjure up images far more terrifying than could be set on paper. Also like Sir Charles, Tony is well travelled, and has the eye for detail that conveys veracity. Both authors also share the world-view that a person needn’t be a right bastard in order for a horrible fate to come calling… Of course bad things happen to bad people, but more to the point, bad things happen to perfectly inoffensive normal folk who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Now although this grim outlook is where Tony Richards and Sir Charles Birkin share concerns, the areas where they differ are equally intriguing. Birkin used the supernatural rarely, almost apologetically. As you’ll see here, where Tony really excels is in utilizing the supernatural in a most convincing fashion. As a writer, when you can shift seamlessly between the supernatural tale and the conte cruel, you’ll always have your reader hooked and never quite sure what you’re up to. That certainly makes for suspense-filled reading.
Another important area of difference is the veracity and variety of Tony Richards’ characters. Sir Charles rendered the upper classes very convincingly; that’s what he knew. Tony Richards is far more versatile, and regardless of the background of his characters, he gets it right. Whether the characters in question are of the moneyed upper crust or what we refer to now as ‘chav-scum’, they ring true. Despite his great strengths as a writer, I can’t see the aristocratic Sir Charles pulling off a story like ‘Discards’, whereas Tony Richards is able to capture a sense of urban blight and hopelessness in just a few short paragraphs. The great weakness in much of modern horror fiction is that the author fails to deliver characters which are anything more than stick figures to be moved around in order to satisfy the plot. You’ll find none of that here. Whether you like the protagonists of the stories or not is immaterial; they’ll be believable enough that you’ll keep turning the pages to find out what happens. And after all; isn’t that sort of the whole point of good fiction?
What you’ll find here are great examples of Tony’s remarkable versatility and sense of place. Whether the story is set in a modern Canadian city or a remote location in Africa, you’ll see not only the sights and sounds, but also smell and taste the air. In short, you’ll be transported. This should surely be the primary goal of fiction: transporting the reader to another venue, and doing so convincingly. These stories accomplish that, that and so much more… These are tales that will stay with you long after the covers are closed and the book is returned to your shelf. This collection presents a wide array of destinations, not all of them pleasant, but all of them vivid and compelling.
The above paragraphs serve as a very brief introduction to the fiction of Tony Richards, but I haven’t yet told you much about his growth as an author. Earlier I mentioned his debut novel, The Harvest Bride – one of hundreds of first novels to appear in the horror boom of the 1980s. Coincidentally, this was about the same time that I began my practice of buying one novel a month by an author I was unfamiliar with. The results of this practice have been mixed: on one hand I’ve acquired some of the most ghastly dreck that you can imagine; on the other, I’ve been fortunate to discover some terrific authors like Tony Richards. His novel struck me as very different from much of what was being published at the time. There was about it more than a hint of Raymond Chandler and perhaps a touch of Fritz Leiber. I was impressed, impressed enough to start rummaging through my stacks of British small press ’zines and rows of anthologies from Pan and Fontana. Sure enough, there were some Tony Richards stories scattered here and there.
Nearly a decade went by before the publication of Night Feast, also an enjoyable novel, though very different in tone and style from his earlier book. 1995 was around the time that I started writing professionally, and I’m afraid that as much as I enjoyed Night Feast, I simply lacked the time to do an exhaustive search for more Tony Richards stories. I did make a mental note to watch for the name appearing in anthologies or magazines that came my way. Sadly, Tony Richards seemed to have disappeared. Not an unusual occurrence in a business where the rewards are scant and frustrations frequent. Still, it was sad to see a writer with so much talent seemingly walk away from the genre. I’m afraid I sort of forgot about this fine writer whose all-too-few works I had enjoyed. Forgot all about him, that is, before I received a submission for my anthology Lost on the Darkside. Yes, it was by a Tony Richards, and it was a particularly nasty piece of work! Just the sort of thing to lead off the book. After a few e-mail exchanges, it was clear that this was indeed the same Tony Richards and that he hadn’t walked away from the horror genre at all; he was still honing his craft and getting even better.
There have been at least three dozen Tony Richards stories since then, approximately over a third of them are gathered here. You’ll see that Tony is still travelling and that he still has that eye for detail I spoke of earlier. You may detect some influences here – perhaps a bit of Leiber, a dash of Birkin, maybe even a touch of Hemingway and Steinbeck. But the end product is a unique and eloquent voice: that of a tour guide who has seen beyond the slick facades put up for the tourists, and who reports with accuracy the horror crawling just beneath the surface…
You’re of the right stuff to stick it out for the entire journey, aren’t you? Well, aren’t you?
All Hallows Eve 2007
Copyright © John Pelan 2008.
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