Broken on the Inside by Phil Sloman
Black Shuck Books, PB: £4.99, eBook: £0.99
Reviewed by Dave Jeffery
Phil Sloman has been quietly making a name for himself on the UK Horror scene for some time. His novella BECOMING DAVID garnered a Best Newcomer nomination at the 2017 British Fantasy Awards, and his reputation for quality writing and brooding atmospheric narratives is becoming difficult to ignore. So it is we can see BROKEN ON THE INSIDE (part of Black Shuck Book’s SHADOW RANGE) as, perhaps, a natural showcase for Sloman’s approach to the genre, and as an introduction, it does not come much better than this, save for BECOMING DAVID, of course.
BROKEN ON THE INSIDE comprises five tales of psychological horror covering a wide range of themes and settings which gives it a very contemporary vibe. Primarily Sloman has compiled stories that ensnare the human condition and binds it with the shackles of guilt, obsession and narcissism.
In the titular story, we are introduced to Kira who becomes part of a pioneering, experimental treatment for an unspecified illness that includes the nano-technology based Patient Artificial Monitoring system – PAM – that alerts her of any harmful elements putting her body at risk. What starts out as a calming, reassuring voice in her head becomes intrusive as Kira, given a new lease of life, attempts to live a little. Add to this a caring, albeit cosseting mother, and the scene is set for an inevitable conflict.
DISCOMFORT FOOD sees Sloman in a macabrely playful mood as a fast-food worker, Rebecca does battle with conscience and justice following an incident of workplace harassment. The slow reveal as to the incident and how she ultimately deals with it is written with a comedic flair worthy of Dhal.
THE MAN WHO FED THE FOXES is another tale that tackles the murky waters of guilt and grief as we find a man whose wife has had an affair and now lives in self-imposed isolation, in the hope that, one day, his estranged wife will return. A trio of foxes appear on his lawn one evening and he feeds them titbits on the promise that they will bring his wife back to him. I can’t talk too much about this story as I would not wish to spoil the plot, needless to say, not is all as it seems.
THERE WAS AN OLD MAN focuses on health-conscious pensioner John Hinklow who manages to swallow a fly and goes to extreme, obsessive lengths to be free of the creature he fears is up to mischief in his stomach. This story allows Sloman to artfully play with the nursery-rhyme trope, and we end up with something that isn’t a million miles away in delivery from the “They’re Creeping upon You” segment in King and Romero’s CREEPSHOW movie. Great stuff.
VIRTUALLY FAMOUS is an intriguing tale where a washed-up celebrity’s life has now become a virtual reality game in which he can be repeatedly killed. This very quickly becomes a macabre twist on what is or isn’t real. In some ways, this story reminded me of Sloman’s approach in BECOMING DAVID. This a mind-bending tale in which ambiguity and misdirection leave the reader wondering what the hell is really going on. Even by the end of the story, we’re never sure if we’ve missed something or you truly ‘get’ the conclusion. As I love tales that challenge, this easily became my favourite of a very good bunch of stories.
Sloman has managed to pull together a smart collection, the narrative is both seductive and engaging, meaning the reader is led merrily by the hand through some deeply disturbing stories and is happy to go along for the experience of seeing how it all pans out. One of the joys of this collection is the writer’s ability to change the tone from one page to the next. Take for example DISCOMFORT FOOD as we see guilt-ridden Rebecca lectured by her lunch:
“We know what you did.”
It was the burger who spoke first. It always was. The lips of the bun quivering marginally with each syllable, exposing the cheese-draped meat inside. A sliver of lettuce fell from its mouth as it continued. “We heard it all from the freezer room.”
Rebecca slurped on.
“It’s true,” interjected the fries, an excited twittering of voices, high pitched like a nest of sparrows tweeting in unison.
Now take the next scene,
There were two shadows in the confines of the cubicle, hers and his. After all, who else would it be but him, his coarse hands grabbing her biceps, his fingers digging into her sagging flesh. His fingernails were ragged, four of them missing completely from fingers covered in blistered skin. Yellowing bone poked through the flesh in flashes of colour, contrasting with the ripe pink surrounding it, the pus of decay oozing from the open wounds.
To conclude, BROKEN ON THE INSIDE is a book of its sum parts, both inventive and paying homage to the likes of Dahl’s TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED, leaving us with a wonderfully fresh reading experience. As collections go, this is by far the most consistent I have read this year and deserves to be recognised in awards lists on this fact alone.