The Back Of Beyond – Alan Peter Ryan

Before we get to the review, we’d like to take this opportunity to introduce a brand new feature here at Dreadful Tales. We’ve recruited some fresh blood and we needed a trial by fire to introduce them. First up is Amaria Magus, another Toronto-born reader who like gothic horror, romance and fantasy.

We’ll be doing a point/counterpoint analysis going forward, however this post will be one side’s complete review, followed by the other. Confused yet? Excellent, let’s get started.

Continuing my tradition of reading short stories, I was presented with the opportunity to read one of the latest Cemetery Dance releases: The Back Of Beyond by Alan Peter Ryan. Four quick and dirty stories that clock in at 180 pages total means that this book can be read in one sitting. Does this collection go beyond expectations, or should it remain at the back of the pack?

Each of these four brand new stories from Alan Peter Ryan — the acclaimed author of The Kill, The Bone Wizard, and Amazonas — feature men who are haunted by different demons in different places and different times…

Ryan starts off with a love story gone wrong in Sexual Exploration Is A Crime. Set in Brazil, the odd title is quickly explained as we meet protagonist Jerry, a humdrum middle-aged horticulture expert who shies away from excitement. He’s almost hapless in an endearing way. A business associate tells Jerry about a specific type of woman that one can find in Brazil: a Program Girl. Folks in North America might call them “escorts”, which presumably would be cheaper and less dangerous for Jerry to buy, but he heads off to Brazil anyway. Good things happen for Jerry as he gets a Program Girl all to himself for a few weeks, and then she’s taken away from him. The horror/gore is quick and contained, used almost as a backdrop to Jerry’s pain. Brazil was a nice touch, but ultimately the story feels a bit like the movie Pretty Woman, just with blood and distress.

Ryan switches climates for The Winter’s Tale, which is a story firmly rooted in fantasy. Set in a secluded village subjected to a brutal winter, the protagonist is the man who dwells by the churchyard. The man is old and lonely, presumably outcast from the rest of the village. His goal is to share some of his food with the family down the lane, but winter and psychological damage have other ideas. I’m really not sure what Ryan’s intention was with this story, it’s neither scary or fulfilling. The characters are very one-dimensional and don’t add anything to what is otherwise a very well-described churchyard.

Ryan next takes the reader to Starvation Valley, which is a tale of a father and son road trip. Ryan creates tension and drama by crafting a distant and disconnected relationship between the two, and the better part of the story is the reconciliation and re-deterioration of their lives. Their trip takes them into a valley in the mid-west U.S., in which there is only one diner along the highway. There is a twist at the end of the story, but even so, I found myself waiting for this one to end. There’s just not much here.

The final tale, Mountain Man, is a welcome change, as it’s a well-crafted horror story. The common term would be ‘weird west’, which applies quite nicely. A man is found in the mountains, disheveled and near insanity. He’s treated like a criminal simply because he implies that he’ll eat the sheriff. Ryan does a fantastic job of creating tension around the insane man, and establishes a mystery and a paranormal vibe through the actions of the character, and the reactions of those around. This story is bloody, a bit visceral, and a better representation of Ryan as a horror writer. My only complaint with Mountain Man is that it ends abruptly without a real resolution, but that follows the theme of the previous entries.

I have a feeling that The Back Of Beyond as a whole will be regarded as a good collector’s item, even though it’s comprised of works that didn’t really excite me as a genre reader. This will be a limited edition signed hardcover, so grab your copy by visiting Cemetery Dance.

Now for Amaria Magus’ take…

Sexual Exploration Is A Crime is set in Brazil where a timid horticulturist/landscaper meets his destiny. He explores a realm he never has before while breaking out of his shy shell into a world of exotica and program girls – what we know as prostitutes. Who will do anything for just enough money to get by.

Jason stated in his review that the story is “a bit like the movie Pretty Woman, just with blood and distress.” I concur; the details Ryan provided were good, if a little too dramatic for my taste. The exotic setting was a relief from most modern day stories being set in bigger cities in the Americas…and I found this little point to be the deal- maker. I liked the personality that the main character was given however the ending left me wondering, in all honesty: WHAT THE FUCK? It was borderline necrophilia – unless body parts don’t count? There was nothing spooky, spine-chilling or even really enthralling about this piece.

The winter’s Tale is, from what I gather, about a man suffering from acute schizophrenia due to extreme cabin fever. He sets out in record-breaking storms to bring food to neighbors, all the while facing death. I wanted to give this story a shot and assume that the dissection presented results in it representing his starvation and freezing to death, in hopes that someone would come to him and reveal that he is a ghost. However, the story was rather lacking in detail. I would have really loved this one had it had more exposition – Who is the man who lurks? Who is the family terrified of him? Why does he dwell by the cemetery? I feel he could have done so much more.  I kept wondering why it was so important he make it across that road to that house, and bring the food. Almost as if he was setting a tale of trying to correct past error. So many questions remain with this tale.

Starvation Alley is about a father who attempts to rekindle a lost relationship with his son by arranging a road trip only to find out it never happened. Once again, the reader is faced with depression, abandonment and a myriad of mental health issues. I sense a wee theme happening, but in all seriousness this story was good. I felt there was a lot of character buildup between the father and son. When the father returned to the spot “Janey’s” stood on only to find out that it was not there and had never existed I was left confused. Wondering what the author was trying to conceive.  I sense the author was trying to relay that the father was actually accepting some child hood abandonment issues he faced with his father, hence the over compensation. Perhaps the boy never existed and was but a mirror image of his former self this was an interesting turn of events and I would have like to see this story a little bit longer.

Mountain Man is about a trapper who has clearly lost his mind, and threatens to eat men and has laid claim to eating his horse. I honestly did not like this tale one bit – I found it rather hard to read. It bounced into mystery and horror. Giving the reader and in-depth look into what it is to suffer from mania and dementia. Perhaps the story is too vague and just full of unnecessary filler. For example a scene goes into great detail about the buns they are eating for breakfast though I understand setting mood and detail this was a little too much for me. There were hints at the trapper being a bear, which piqued my interest momentarily but I truthfully found this a very hard story to finish.

Overall, The Back Of Beyond was not an awful collection. As someone who thrives on books, I was not repulsed nor did I find it entirely difficult to devour. I would recommend this book, with a word of caution and buyer-beware.  I would have liked to see them a slight bit more engaging and detailed in the sense that you are not left entirely wondering.

Amaria Magus

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