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September 25, 2015

Review – Last Year, When We Were Young by Andrew McKiernan

Andrew McKiernan’s collection Last Year, When We Were Young (2014 from Satalyte Publishing) is a fine example of a strong writer testing his limits by stretching in different directions. As you might expect from an Australian writer with a well-deserved reputation for compelling dark fantasy and horror, outback ghosts and urban nightmares are represented.

One of my favourite stories appears early in this volume: “White Lines, White Crosses” is a grimly familiar tragedy of teenage isolation, testosterone-fuelled recklessness and car culture, with a smear of the supernatural to amp up the stakes. “The Memory of Water” is haunted by childhood memories of beach holidays tinged with tragedy. And “The Haunting that Jack Built” is a classic yarn of strange and sinister goings-on in a country town.

But McKiernan shows his range with some unexpected variations on theme and setting: the Middle East appears in modern and mythological states, in “The Dumbshow”, “The Desert Song”, “They Don’t Know That We Know What They Know” and the excellent clash of espionage, battles handed down across generations, old gods and chess in “Daivadana”. He does a creditable Stephen King-like grotesque in “The Final Degustation of Doctor Ernest Blenheim”. He does old-fashioned SF horror in “The Wanderer in the Darkness”. He even does a noir tragedy soaked in betrayal and cheap whiskey in “Torch Song”.

But where this collection stands out is in the weird and absurd corners. The title story is a brief piece of deranged survival horror set in the aftermath of a more than usually disturbing apocalypse. But the jewel in the crown is probably “All the Clowns in Clowntown”, which is perhaps a parable about surviving an epidemic or could be a metaphor for involuntary unionism or hostile corporatism, but in any case is probably the only story you will ever read about the last surviving resistance members of the clown counter-revolution.

Last Year, When We Were Young had a remarkably high hit rate for me. McKiernan’s quality as a short story writer is consistently strong across the collection. Highly recommended.

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