Look Where You Are Going Not Where You Have Been (The Harvester series book 9) by Steven J Dynes (book review).

Many writers at the start of their careers are told to write about what they know. Indeed, one agent told their author that she couldn’t possibly have her main point of view character who was a French priest as he was neither French nor a priest.

Authors, though will draw on their experiences in their writing, perhaps not overtly, but things that have been seen or overheard will creep into their writing, like the restaurant the characters visit may resemble a real one or the shop worker may resemble one encountered. Steven J Dines has taken this advice to heart.

Three of the eleven stories in this volume ‘So Many Heartbeats, So Many Words’, ‘The Harder It Gets, The Softer We Sing’ and ‘This House Is Not Haunted’, are a tryptic. They revolve around the same family, with the kind of issues that you could find on any street in the country. Dines, though, has modelled it on his own as he admits in the notes at the end of this volume.

Simon Fenwick is a writer who has had short stories published, some very similar to others in this volume, and looks after their son Alfie while his wife, Sue, is out at work. He also has a part-time job in a bookshop. Alfie has issues with language and this adds humour to the stories as he gets words wrong. The humour is needed as the house they rent is infested with mould. This is probably the cause of the chest infections all three develop and may play a part in Sue’s miscarriage at the end of ‘So Many Heartbeats, So Many Words’, the first of the three stories.

This sets the scenario for the latter two. Although they move to a better, mould-free house, Sue finds it hard to move past the loss of the unborn child and these two stories follow the ways in which the family tries to cope with it. Because there is a lot of autobiography in these stories and fiction and they have a deep feel of authenticity.

Dines has a great literary style and if he was to continue the story of the Fenwicks to novel-length it could make an impact in the mainstream of fiction. There are many families who have to live in the conditions they start in and who have a child whose educational needs do not fully fall into the categories where diagnosis and therefore help is difficult to assess. It is also not understood by all the deep impact a miscarriage can have on all members of a family and the way that they need the space to grief for the might-have-been. These stories take a step towards that understanding.

All the stories in this volume are meant to be horror but, in most, that comes out of the situations find themselves in rather than the supernatural elements that might be present. The emphasis is more on the detailed observations of the people and settings in which they take place. There are also connections between stories that would only be seen once they are collected in the same place, as here.

The initial story, ‘Men Playing Ghosts, Playing God’, is set in Wintercroft, a retirement home in which the father of Simon Fenwick from the tryptic also lives. The story, though, revolves around four elderly men who play cards late at night. When the husband of another resident dies, Henry, who is in love with the widow persuades his fellow poker players to help him pretend he is the ghost of her husband. During the subterfuge, they capture an intruder and lock him in the basement. They don’t realise at the time that they have captured death.

Grief is a theme in a number of stories. In ‘The Space That Runs Away With You’ involves a family trying to come to terms with a missing four year-old twin. Despite the quality of the writing, I don’t think the surviving twin would be physically capable of the actions suggested by the ending.

‘The Things That Get You Through’ takes James Greaves through the stages of grief after his wife is killed in a road accident while on her way to meet the lover she is leaving James for. ‘Pendulum’ takes a different slant and probably draws on some personal knowledge of the author, especially regarding the behaviour of the child. The grief is not just of the mother but of the child who faces rejection by a father.

Another theme that appears in some of the stories is guilt. It often goes hand in hand with the grief. This is particularly true in ‘The Broken And The Unmade’. This effectively has three stories woven into the narrative. It begins with the round-up of Jews in Nazi Germany and alternates between there and the present day with an elderly man suffering from survivor guilt which manifests as the ghostly presence of a boy he met on a train while being transported to the concentration camps.

‘Looking For Landau’ contains similar themes but strays more into the realm of fantasy. The biker narrator has been pursuing Landau for years. This is a Wandering Jew story as the narrator is trying to catch up with the being he calls Landau who is death.

‘Dragonland’ is superficially a surreal fantasy with the narrator and his younger brother living on the back of a dead dragon. Their father, king of Kuhl Amar, was fleeing with them from the usurpation of his throne on dragon-back when the dragon died. Their mother on another dragon also crashed on a mountainside. It is winter and Steven, the narrator, wants to stay in the diminished kingdom on the back of the dragon while his brother, Cai, wants to go in search of their mother despite the weather and the wild animals. Again, we have a story where the characters are motivated by grief and guilt.

The remaining story in this volume has a very different tone. ‘The Sound Of Constant Thunder’ is post-apocalyptic. The narrator is one of those people who are adversely affected by ionising radiation so the disaster is a relief to him. Having originally been employed as a litter picker he continues the task but adds a self-appointed task of disposing of the bodies of children he finds in the river so they will not be eaten by cannibals. He is a man of compassion whose actions are mistaken.

There is no title story but the volume’s title is a summation of the themes of many of the stories and an instruction to both the characters and the readers that dwelling on the past is not the most fruitful activity. Looking to the future and learning from mistakes is more profitable.

Despite the problems Dines has with endings to his stories, most end without satisfactory resolution, they are well worth reading for the quality of the writing.

Pauline Morgan

November 2021

(pub: Luna Press, Edinburgh, 2021. 328 page enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-913387-67-9)

check out website: www.lunapresspublishing.com

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