Jenni and Marc have it all, almost. A relaxed relationship, equal parts attraction, affection and respect. They enjoy their youth to the full, and look forward to growing old together, too—but not before they’ve made a small army of babies to take care of them later.
And what better place to start a family than the idyllic little village they live in? It is “a beautiful, safe place, but sometimes beautiful and safe isn’t enough for Marc.” Sometimes, sadly, Jenni espies a look in his eyes that speaks of his “need for fear. [His] delight in danger.” So when one dark day the enemy emerge—whether from the heavens or the earth, even now no-one knows—he’s one of the first people to volunteer.
He doesn’t come home a hero, however. He doesn’t come home at all. Hardly anyone does. The enemy are a wholly overwhelming force, thus this and every single instance of resistance since has proved to be brutal, and in the final summation futile. Indeed, you could measure the cost of man’s defiance in disemboweled bodies; each action has only added to the enemy’s ever-lengthening otherworldly wonder: the Road of Souls. Which is made of mooshed human.
All Jenni has of Marc when Still Life begins is his memory, though this takes a strange shape in the milieu of Tim Lebbon’s immensely messed-up new novella: at a local plunge pool, formerly a favourite spot of theirs, his reflection still watches from the water. She often goes there to gaze at it… to lose herself in the blessed memories his image brings.
Jenni doesn’t know if it’s normal, now, for the dead to appear to the living like this. It could be, conceivably; most everything else has been different since the incursion. She’d ask, perhaps, but she’s afraid to, for though the enemy are certainly present, no-one can say with any certainty what they are, or where. As Jenni reflects, “in truth, no one really knew what the enemy wanted, where it had come from, or why. Sometimes not knowing made everything so much worse.”
Music, if I may, to this reader’s ears!
In any case, the enemy—and that’s all Lebbon calls them—leave it to their embedded agents to ensure the obedience of the surviving villagers. These Overseers—or Finks, if not to their faces—are merely evil people, keen to flaunt their newfound power, thus trust has become a rare commodity in this subjugated community.
But as the synopsis says, “in a subjugated population, there is always resistance,” and a plan is being fashioned to kill the Finks: merely a small step to pave the way for more significant strides, yet if Jenni refuses to play her pyromaniacal part, the entire village could be crushed—and initially, at least, she is unwilling. However when Marc’s mirror image urges her to fight back for once, she realises—too late, I dare say—that there may be a better way.
With a Star Wars novel, three volumes of his YA series Toxic City, Coldbrook for Hammer Horror, a collection of short stories and The Heretic Land all published since 2012, Tim Lebbon has been particularly prolific in recent years, but Still Life is his first novella for quite a while, and I think it’s no coincidence that it is the finest thing he’s written since Echo City. In part this is because it doesn’t, at 80 pages, overstay its welcome, as to my mind a number of the author’s full-on novels have. Its lesser length also allows Lebbon to establish an atmosphere, create a compelling character and elaborate his narrative without falling into that dastardly dark fantasy trap of explaining the inexplicable into insignificance.
Now it’s not without fault. I’m afraid there isn’t a great deal of depth to Jenni’s relationship with her late, lamented lover—would that their pairing had been a little less picture perfect—and parts of the piece lack polish: one last pass could have made Lebbon’s prose all the prettier, which may have made the bubble our protagonist exists in to begin with that much more convincing.
But by and large, this is bloody good stuff, with no paucity of plot—Still Life reads like a short novel rather than a long short—an admirable unwillingness to undermine the unknowable nature of the enemy, and, in the Road of Souls, the single most horrific idea anyone has had in years.
I’ve had my ups and downs with the tales Tim Lebbon has told in recent years, but Still Life is undoubtedly one of the former sort, to the point that I wish this edition weren’t so strictly limited—to just 225 copies in toto for the time being—particularly considering Jim Burns’ fantastic cover art. To wit, dark fantasy fans would be well advised to order Still Life direct from Spectral Press before it’s gone for good.
Still Life is available now from Spectral Press.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.