by Kim Newman
published by Pocket Books
340 pages, 2000
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
The area where history and fiction meet is Kim Newman's playground. He takes a perverse pleasure in revisiting the stories of the recorded or imagined past with a perspective all his own. And a twist. Always a twist. And always challenging history with fiction, facts with truth.
History and fiction: both are made of stories. History -- an assemblage of ostensibly factual stories masquerading as truth -- is used by the dominant group to justify its lies and position of power. Fiction -- imagined stories -- is a web of lies that strives to reveal ineffable truths, often challenging the hegemony of history.
Newman's latest collection, Unforgivable Stories, like its three predecessors, explores hidden facets of the stories that comprise our cultural heritage. This time, Newman moves us from "Further Developments in the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde," to the events occurring in Russia during George Romero's Night of the Living Dead trilogy, to the rantings of a crazed Edgar Allan Poe, to the connections between British class inequalities and the popularity of Victorian ghost stories, to an episode of Dracula's visit to England left unrecorded by Bram Stoker, to the pop culture mythology of Paris, to the ultimate television satellite system, to the inner thoughts of a character living in a superhero comic book, to a satyrical look at fan conventions and fantasy bestsellers, to UFO contact and to several 20th-century alternate histories. One such alternate history tale, "Teddy Bear's Picnic" (culled from the mosaic Back in the USSA, written in collaboration with Eugene Byrne) describes a world in which the communist revolution happened not in Russia but in the USA.
One great appeal of Newman's metafictional and metahistorical explorations is his ability and compulsion to expose the often ignored political and ethical implications of well-known stories. He juxtaposes ideas and stories not usually associated with each other in order to create cognitive dissonances and provoke readers into a discourse with those shocking permutations -- a discourse which puts into question the accepted interpretations of the various fictional and historical narratives that make up our culture. Sexual politics and Jekyll & Hyde? Zombies and capitalism? Schizophrenia and Poe? British classicism and Victorian ghost stories? Aristocratic vampirism and the internal combustion engine? Tintin and the Nazi occupation? American-style frontier life in rural Britain? Frankenstein folklore and satellite television? Memory and superhero comics? Aztec rites and fantasy fandom? How do these relate? Why are they combined? What happens if they are -- or aren't? What do these juxtapositions express or reveal? Newman's stories compel readers to ask themselves these questions and ponder their ambiguous answers.
Another of Newman's strengths is that, even if readers are unfamiliar with his source material, he makes the stories work within their own context. For example, I have never seen any of Romero's zombie movies, yet I found Newman's "Amerikanski Dead at the Moscow Morgue, or: Children of Marx and Coca-Cola," with its deft portrayal of Russian society and its eccentric characters, completely engaging. Similarly, readers need not be familiar with the pantheon of fictional archetypes that parade through "Une Étrange Aventure de Richard Blaine" to be moved by its evocation of Paris, nor is it necessary to have read Bram Stoker's Dracula to be entertained and chilled by "Dead Travel Fast."
In Unforgivable Stories, as in most of his work, Kim Newman entertains by mingling lies and truth, fact and speculation, horror and humor, fiction and history. In his hands entertainment is never the vapid dreck the talentless and unimaginative insist it must be. It is stimulating, fun, clever, erudite and thought-provoking. And, of course, filled with unforgivable truths. | January 2001
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.