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Spotlight on: The Spaces Between the Lines by Peter Crowther

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The Spaces Between the Lines by Peter Crowther Peter Crowther, The Spaces Between the Lines

Besides being the head of PS Publishing, and the editor of Postscripts magazine and numerous anthologies, Peter Crowther is also a widely acclaimed short story writer. His novella collection Lonesome Roads won the British Fantasy Award, and Songs of Leaving was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, but readers will likely be more familiar with his debut short-story collection The Longest Single Note, which contains twenty-six "compositions." The Spaces Between the Lines gathers together a dozen more.

After an introduction by Jack Dann (not in my advance copy), we start off with "Stand By," an intense ride involving a grieving widower and his wish to have his wife back again. When he gets the chance, he finds it's a little more complex a situation than he thought. It's a skillful weave of suspenseful and moving. "We're All Bozos on This Bus" is simpler in structure, as a young foster child's imagination gets away from him on a bus trip. (I feel I must mention here that the title comes from a classic Firesign Theatre comedy album, since Crowther does not say so in his story notes section, "Playing Deity," even though he uses the line in one other story included here, as well.)

"Days of the Wheel" is shorter but manages to fit into its eight pages an insightful examination of old age and its inevitable successor, with the Ferris wheel playing the part of Death. Another carnival attraction reveals a community secret when "The Last Vampyre" comes to town. Crowther slyly contrasts "fantasy" and "reality" in this effective portrait.

But none of these prepared me for the pure power of "Even Beggars Would Ride," a collaboration with James Lovegrove (with whom Crowther also wrote the novel Escardy Gap). This story of a diseased girl, her dreams, and her mother alternates scenes of stomach-knotting life-like horror -- and I mean I was truly _horrified_ by these scenes, which any horror fan will tell you is a rare occurrence indeed -- with scenes of heart-leaping hope and triumph. From the most twisted cruelty to the deepest sorrow to the zenith of bliss, I can't remember the last time a short story has put me through the wringer like this. I was utterly in awe, and Crowther managed to impress me continually.

With "Conundrums to Guess," he steps into both worlds of Lewis Carrol (fictional and real) and does quite a good job at combining the two, crossing back and forth with controlled abandon. "Sitting Pretty" chronicles the travels of a chair, made from Christ's cross, that brings greatness and peace wherever it goes. Writing with Simon Conway, Crowther does a wonderful job expressing the joy the chair brings to its owners while avoiding the schmaltz that could have resulted from such a lofty subject. Even the circular ending (a conceit that becomes a cliche at times) seems right somehow; perhaps the authors sat in the chair while writing it.

Crowther's response to all the college-aged characters in horror films is this: why not have a couple of seventy-somethings get in on the action? Add an inexplicable darkness, a mysterious book, and a heavy dose of Lovecraftian menace and you've got "Dark Times." What it lacks could be made up with some expansion, and with any luck, it will start a new trend. I'd certainly read a book or see a movie where a couple of "old farts" fight the forces of black magic, and so, I'm sure, would others like me. The recent anthology Damn Near Dead has given us a taste of "geezer noir," so who's to say the horror genre couldn't use a shot of "old blood"?

The title story, "The Space Between the Lines," starts out with a clever party trick: David's uncle Alan can pause the sunset by taping down the lengthening shadow of his house. He says it has something to do with "the space between the lines" in a story (or between the panels in a comic): the place where nothing happens. The only drawback to stopping time is the Monitor; it comes after you. And so an older David has to race against the Monitor to get his "paused" wife to the ER in time to save her life. Crowther's best move is in making the Monitor an unseen threat, so that we imagine the worst. But it is the clever backstory that raises a simple (but effective) suspenser to another level entirely.

This surprisingly consistent collection from an author with many varied ideas really only raised two complaints, but even those are minor. Style triumphs over story in "Bedfordshire." I was so impressed at Crowther's ability to jump among five different years (and back and forth even within the years) that I sometimes forgot to pay attention to the story he was telling. And "Three Plays a Quarter," about a jukebox whose records bring up dark memories, could have used a little more characters involvement, because I found myself not caring about the protagonist's predicament, despite a record-playing scene that was more than worth the reading.

The stories in The Spaces Between the Lines are tied together not only by the pet phrase "time-to-go time" (which appears in at least three of the included tales), but also by the height of their imagination and ambition. And also apparently a favorite subject (or fear) of Crowther's: there are three stories featuring men trying to prevent (or reverse!) the deaths of their wives. A curious coincidence, or fodder for a psychoanalyst? You decide. But before you try to read into the stories, first enjoy them on their own terms; they deserve it.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission.

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