Tell No Lies by John Grant (book review)

Storytellers are good at lies. It is their stock in trade. A good storyteller is able to be convincing while being a master of misdirection. The reader is sucked in to the power of the tale before realising that everything is not how they expected it to be. In some cases this leads to a ‘groan effect’ as a twist is revealed that, although unexpected, is provided without the clues that on looking back were present. A subtle bard leaves the reader with a feeling of satisfaction. John Grant belongs to the latter school. Thus it is often difficult to discuss the themes and tropes within his stories without the game away. From this selection of his work, it is clear that he is a clever writer. These twelve stories, from a period of ten years from 2004, provide a good showcase for his skill.


Almost anything can spark an idea and, in some instances, it is possible to imagine what that was. In ‘All The Little Gods We Are’, it starts with a simple mistake. Instead of phoning his friend, Bill, to suggest a meet for a drink after work, Jak misdials and the person answering the call is, apparently, himself. The narrator is a bachelor but the man on the other end of the phone appears to be married with a child and his wife is someone that Jak used to know. This initiates memories of what was and what might have been. With a story like this, it is important to remember that first person narrators can sometimes prove to be unreliable witnesses and what we recall might not be what others do.

A common factor with many of these stories is the first person narrator. In ‘Q’, the narrator is Cello, the Deputy Director of the CIA. She is in the post because the President and her boss have been killed in a ‘terrorist’ attack. That background is just there to put her in the right place for the rest of the story. Part of that is to examine a project her predecessor was involved with; the other part is philosophical concerning the nature of God. It is a lot to unpick in a short story and a reader might well be frustrated by all the things left unsaid. There is scope here to build the background and make a longer story with more pace. As it stands, it is in stasis.

‘Baited Breath’ is a total contrast and full of humour. Again, there is a first person narrator but the voice is very different. He and his wife, Natalie, discover that they have an infestation of dragons. These are small, mouse-sized dragons but they do breathe fire and they leave fluorescent droppings about the place. They have exactly the same problem as if they were mice, how to get rid of them.

The voice changes again with ‘Has Anyone Seen Kristie?’ The unnamed protagonist (third person this time) is in Edinburgh at festival time. He is still grieving after the death of his wife eleven months before. He is surprised when he meets Kristie, a young woman on her own, who is willing to team up with him to visit various shows. For the first time since his bereavement, he begins to lose some of the sense of loneliness. Sharing time with Kristie is therapeutic.

‘Only One Ghost’ is a mystery of the supernatural kind. Some people put their names in books as a mark of ownership. Most of us did it in our younger days but those who collect them don’t any longer. When the first person narrator never has but, when he buys a couple of old books on his way home, he discovers his signature inside a book that he is sure that he never owned. It is also very faded. Then he and his wife discover that all the books they own have one or other of their signatures in them…except one. The story has a mystery that is never explained but leaves the reader unsettled.

Artists and poets use ‘found’ objects in their work. A glimpse of the unusual can spark off ideas in a story-teller’s mind. ‘Two-Stroke Toilets’ is an example that has generated a Science Fiction, timeslip story. When the narrator and his wife come to live in a small English village, they discover that it has a gateway to the past. Although the narration is straightforward, it generates other issues, suggesting that the nature of time is more complex than most think. Like many of the stories on this volume, it has a philosophical heart to it.

‘Memoryville Blues’ combines a number of different tropes. Maybe they are familiar but not in this combination. First, we have the unreliable narrator. Benny Kettleby, a musician, is unlikely to reach the gig he expects to play at due to adverse weather. He ends up in Memoryville and, although he has never heard of the place, finds things that are vaguely familiar. We have all come across stories where situations are repeated and the reasons are various. Perhaps Memoryville is not so much a place in the real world, but part of Benny’s conscience, one that surfaces on a regular basis.

Even Grant’s seemingly frivolous stories have a serious vein running through them which is not always apparent until the end is reached. Children have wild imaginations and the ability to invent imaginary situations which they enter in a way that becomes alien to most adults. ‘Commander Ginfalcio Beeswax And The Menace From Deneb’ is one of these scenarios in which young Harold believes implicitly and the adults humour him, up to a point. A well-crafted story has a turning point at which all our preconceptions change. It may come at any point in the story and in the best ones, it sneaks up on us without us realising it. Grant does it here and in many of the others included in this volume.

‘Lives’, too, has a point at which the reader appreciates the subtlety of the story. The narrator is talking about his son, Christopher, who manages to survive situations in which others are maimed or killed. Titles are a very important element of a story, as are names. Here both are carefully chosen and add to the story.

Memories are strange things. ‘Ghost Story’ contains some of the resonances present in the first story in this volume in that it plays with the imagination and the unreliability of what we think we remember. The narrator is married to Dverna but receives a call from the daughter of old friends who claims that he is responsible for her pregnancy. The story plays with the question: what is a ghost? Don’t expect answers.

Again, ‘His Artist Wife’ plays with the readers expectations. What initially purports to be a story about grief changes to something far more sinister as the narrator (first person again) sees that the cracks in plaster are an image depicting his wife’s death in her style. The drawing, though, keeps changing, showing different outcomes. The joy of this story is that it changes direction several times and, when the reader thinks they know the situation, it changes.

This volume ends with tongue-in-cheek humour. All the title character of ‘Benjy’s Birthday’ birthday wants for his thirteenth is a universe, the latest must-have for all the kids on the block.

Summing up, John Grant likes to use the first person as he can play with the idea of the unreliable witness. It is easier to surprise the reader if the narrator is discovering things at the same time giving the stories a subtlety that using third person might not have. Many contain an element of the supernatural but the concepts are not too wild for the non-genre reader to appreciate. Not all the stories here will suit all tastes as, in some, Grant has a tendency to philosophise slowing down the pace with exposition. A volume worth dipping into.

Pauline Morgan

August 2015

(pub: Alchemy Press, Cheadle, Staffs, UK, 2014. 343 page enlarged paperback. Price: probably £10.99 (UK), $16.99 (US). ISBN: 978-0-9929809-3-1)

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