Anyone familiar with the Oxford quintet, Radiohead’s highly distopian album cover art and the pixilated visual nightmares on radiohead.co.uk, has the genius of Stanley Donwood to thank. Donwood’s meeting with York while they were art students at Exeter University was the beginning of their collaboration.
However, Donwood is also a brilliant short story writer, specialising in micro or flash fiction – a genre that does a speedy hit and run with the reader’s conciousness, being over, for example, in one page.
But Donwood’s stories are not just nasty, sharp and brutish; they are darkly funny windows into a distorted and disordered contemporary world in which humanity generally ekes out a bewildered (though socially proper) existence. And this is all recorded in amusingly inappropriate tones of English restraint.
A selection of story titles is illustrative of the volume’s tone: ‘Designer Outlet Village’, ‘For Modern Living’, ‘Stupid Hill’, ‘Dead Now’, ‘Machete’, ‘An Incident Involving Trellis’, ‘Seaside Town of Vampires’ and ‘Rubbish Time Machine.’ Radiohead’s ‘Fitter, Happier’ from OK Computer namechecks one story – ‘On Sundays Ring Road Supermarket’. In the story, a shopper witnesses a bull charging down the aisles, away from its slaughterers, after which he continues onto the till as if all is ordinary.
In ‘A Man Who Thinks He is a Pig’, a townie attempts to have a holiday in the countryside, only to wind up “wiping splatters of slime from my person,” and concluding despondently that “my recuperative powers are perhaps deformed in some horrible way.”
In ‘Down in the Tube Station’ it appears our hero has wandered into some subterranean, ghostly platform manned by the undead and dryly concludes that assurances given by the cobwebbed official that “the train will be ‘along presently’” are, in his experience, “flexible and could be interpreted in a number of ways.”
My personal favourite is ‘Haunted’ in which a woman receives consolation, somewhat Miss Haversham-esquely, from her pet mice – “I am oddly unmoved, but then, I have my rodents.”
You are unlikely to obtain the book directly from a New Zealand bookshop without placing an order first, but rather usefully, these stories are all FREELY available for your nervous, uneasy perusal at Stanley’s website, www.slowlydownward.com. You can also purchase the book from the site, typeset gothically in Caslon, “the oldest living typeface,”, and scarily illustrated (as you would expect) alongside some utterly strange Donwood ephemera.