Michael Marshall Smith is the author of three books, Only Forward, Spares and One of Us, which have assured him–in Britain, at least–the status of Hot New Author. This status is quite rightly deserved. Only Forward is a true masterpiece of modern fiction, weaving a unique blend of science fiction, psychological horror, fantasy, dark humour, and genuine literary charm. Smith has an engaging narrative voice that draws you into his books like a snake charmer hypnotising a cobra. You’re led into a world that you know is strange, but because his characters are so convincing and sufficiently comfortable with their own reality, you go along with it, thinking, yeah, this is cool, this is interesting, and then suddenly–snap. The trapdoor shuts behind you and you can’t get out. The protagonist is on a nightmare ride, and you’re right there with him.
What You Make It is Smith’s first story collection, and it brings together eighteen pieces from 1988 to 1998. The stories range from humorous (“Diet Hell”) to downright disturbing (“More Tomorrow”), with several excursions into tender and deeply touching (“The Man Who Drew Cats”, and “Always”). What they all have in common, though, is Smith’s confident narrative. Whether his protagonists are witty and urbane bachelors bemoaning their lot in life, or old men sipping their beers in their favourite bar and swapping tales of old times, they are always believable. You know these people. You see them every day. You live and go to work with them.
This is exactly what makes you uncomfortable when the world in these stories suddenly takes a turn for the worse (which it does in most cases). Rather than choosing the option of supernatural horror (although in “A Place To Stay” he does his own take on vampires), Smith stays firmly with the psychological. Inside the human mind lie terrors far more upsetting than the worst creature from the dark dimensions.
One of his recurring themes is the continual questioning of reality: has the world gone mad, or have I? As in his novels, Smith explores the possibilities of this question in several of these stories. “The Owner” and “The Fracture” follow the protagonists through their descent into insanity. In “Foreign Bodies”, like in all three of his novels, he examines his characters’ reaction to the revelation of truths so hideous they’ve kept them hidden from themselves.
Another common thread running through the stories is that of (romantic) relationships gone awry. Many of his characters have been through a psychological wringer, involving painful break-ups and the inability to find or keep hold of love. Smith’s sharp wit is at its finest when he lets his twenty-something single males rant about women, work and life in general; his tenderness and compassion shines through most when he talks about love. Here is a writer with a lot to say, and I have a lot of time to listen.
If this all seems a bit heavy and deep, well, it is. This isn’t an easy read. In places it is profoundly unsettling. The first story, “More tomorrow” built up a feeling of genuine dread in my stomach, and left me feeling shocked at its end. “Always”, the second-last story, produced a lump in my throat. It took me about a week to read through the whole collection, because I had to give some stories time to sink in before I was ready to read the next. Like strong drink, it doesn’t take much to intoxicate. Take too much too quickly, and you’ll feel like you’ve been kicked in the head.
There are inevitably a few weaker stories here as well. “Sorted” is blunt, and covers the same ground as “More Bitter Than Death” but with much less flair. “The Dark Land”, one of the earlier stories, is fairly perfunctory in terms of its plot, but is interesting in that it seems to lay a lot of the foundation upon which Only Forward is built.
On balance, though, the good stories outnumber the bad, and the excellent outnumber the merely good. I can’t give the book anything other than a top rating, but I should warn that it will not be to everybody’s taste. To draw a somewhat inaccurate analogy, in terms of the experience it provides it is far more Blair Witch than Scream: deep discomfort rather than slash ‘n splatter. Read it and be impressed.