The Red Phone Box: darkly magical, indeed

RedBoxIn this ambitious anthology, there are many Londons. And many possibly realities. And other places. Humans who transform into cats (or vice versa). An Egyptian god with the head of a lion and the passion of a satyr. Blood-sealed mystic circles. All are under threat, from deities ancient and awful and some wonderfully modern, in yer face creations which aim to unseat the established order. These are not separate stories, to be read in isolation or in any old order. Instead they’re an impressive collaboration, a melding of voices and imagination, each writer telling one or more chapters in a sprawling, bewildering contemporary saga of mythical proportion.

At a guess, many of these writers grew up absorbing the same influences of me. Some of these tales simply reek of Morpheus and the Endless; others echo the tales of Alan Moore’s uncanny imagination, and I’m damn sure I saw John Constantine lurking on one of the many dingy London streets, cigarette glowing, collar turned up. Classical influences also abound so there’s something for fans of Lovecraft and Crowley. The styles chop and change between golden age ‘found manuscripts’ and books bound in human skin, to the surreal monologues of those marooned between realities, and the Glasgow slang of a hardcase thug with a penchant for pentagrams and severed limbs.

This is a substantial book, not a rapid read. Even on holiday, and able to devote big chunks of time to it, I found it hard to keep track of all the threads, to fathom where the myriad narratives and characters were going. Instead I allowed each chapter to present itself afresh: some showcasing a new person who arrives, enacts a morality tale and vanishes altogether – while others return time and again, their plots thickening around them into an increasingly chilling menace.

So definitely bear with the opening third of the book, which introduces myriad characters and sets them on their converging paths. Some of the stories don’t seem necessarily to contribute to the overall arc, but many overlap slightly, each casting a shadow elsewhere in the collection. By the final quarter it’s become an almost conventional quest novel, with the players assembled into distinct teams, and lines of combat drawn.

I have to say that the ending perhaps doesn’t live up to the story’s early promise – perhaps too many characters in play, too many threads left dangling. I paid close attention but I’m pretty sure that a couple of choice characters simply vanished from the arc, their part in the tale left unfinished.

Even so, the majority of Red Phone Box kept me captivated. I loved the contrast in styles, the skill of the editors in blending it all together, the myriad in-jokes (‘indigo starfish’ indeed) and the accomplished interpretations of street-level London, and of the otherworldly low lives which might lurk between the seams. A great book to indulge in over a few days; monstrously more accomplished than the average anthology of short stories.

8/10

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason

The Red Phone Box is available as an ebook

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