Reviewed by Richard Webb (@RaW_writing)
The first point to make perhaps is that the clues are all in the title: ‘Reading’ actually refers to the town of Reading (rhymes with ‘wedding’) — a town where, coincidentally, this reviewer grew up, which gave my reading (‘rhymes with weeding’) of this novelette a distinct twist.
The story itself is told in epistolary form, an exchange of letters between two estranged friends. One, Oliver, is rooted in the reality of present-day Reading, whilst the other, Jed, is adrift in the surrealism of an alternative Reading which is inextricably intertwined with the former. The presence of this Underside sends dark ripples through into the empirical world, driving on the plot and maintaining an interconnection between the two letter-writing narrators, separated yet weirdly inhabiting the same spaces.
With numerous references to actual places in the town, it has perhaps most resonance for someone who is familiar with them. Some locations in Reading like Cemetery Junction (yes, the same one that inspired the film directed by Ricky Gervais), have long held a place in local street-lore, with several real-life murders taking place in the vicinity during my adolescent years. The long-defunct canal system had a similarly forsaken feel as did other places name-checked in the story.
Here is where the notion of being ‘Between the Lines’ comes in; Tchaikovsky and Ashbless tap into a kind of split personality the town has, it’s historic gothic (small ‘g’) qualities seeping through into the mundane contemporary world, creating a disturbance Jed is drawn towards.
You don’t have to have been to Reading to appreciate this; one can often note an unnerving edge to a place when the lines between the layers of reality wear thin — many cityscapes invoke a similar sense, with older fragments still showing through the modern layer, a reminder that the bygone age hasn’t ‘gone’ at all, but lingers on as a kind of undead echo of another world.
The story takes this notion and runs with it, the two narrators describing the morbid curiosities of this alternate town and its inexorable pull downwards — it draws in the reader just as both characters are drawn in: in the case of Jed, to venture between the lines, and for Oliver, to understand his friend’s plight. It is not just a case of the streets being haunted but the streets doing the haunting, as the town channels some sort of Cthulhu-like presence, the ghosts of Reading past unexorcised from Reading present.
The novelette has something of split personality too, as you might expect from something with two writers and two narrative voices. It feels like it developed from a writing exercise, the authors alternating their contributions, but if so, it is a successful experiment. As a novelette, it is a quick but engaging read, best consumed in one sitting. As it was, it felt slightly curtailed in its conclusion — the premise could certainly sustain further exploration. (One can hope.) A word too on the artwork, contributed by Vincent Sammy: it is not merely a design contribution, but genuinely part of the fabric of the story, a facet of its atmosphere.
So, an intriguingly off-centre publication by Pandemonium published to a very limited print run to preserve its rarity and now sold out. Hopefully commercial opportunities for other collectible short-form-but-individual (and illustrated) speculative pieces are expanding within the indie publishing environment.
All in all, curate’s egg, both one worth cracking open.