Stephen Bacon is an author I've been meaning to read more of for awhile, after enjoying his stories in the Ill At Ease and Anatomy Of Death anthologies. I find it can go two different ways when you read a collection by an author you've only read a few pieces by; sometimes they are revealed as a one-trick pony, with deadening repetitive prose and similar story lines providing ever diminishing returns as you struggle through a whole book’s worth of their stuff.
Fortunately, Peel Back The Sky proves to be the second kind of experience, where the stories have enough thematic connections to make this a coherent collection, but enough individuality to stand out from each other. There’s a wide range of different supernatural and horror ideas explored, all told in Bacon’s quietly controlled prose. There are some MR James style ghost stories and old-fashioned chillers, but for me the best pieces here are where Bacon allows himself to move away from the more traditional tropes. The Trauma Statement is a very dark and original story about collective and personal responsibility, and how much we might tolerate the misfortune of others, whereas Catch Me If I Fall is so darkly comic that it wouldn't be out of place as a League Of Gentlemen sketch. Another fine piece, Concentric, is different again: horror on a vast scale as an oceanographer is called out to investigate a hole in the ocean… The grim nostalgia of Last Summer is another highlight, in part because of its evocative account of the dying days of a mining community in the Thatcher years.
Perhaps best of all is the head-messing I Am A Creation Of Now, which is one of those stories that upon finishing you immediately want to reread. A chilling exploration of such ideas as self-deception, non-linear time, and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Regular readers will know how much I like ambiguous stories about fractured reality; well this is one of the best such stories I've ever read.
Ultimately this is a collection where readers are likely to have their own favourites; there’s not a bad story here and the range of styles means there’s something for dark fiction fans of all stripes. Thoroughly worth your time.