last year, when we were young
I should have written this review months ago. It was sometime in June that I finished Andrew J McKiernan’s Last Year, When We Were Young and it’s close on September now, and in all that time I’ve been mulling on what I could possibly write that might do justice to this extraordinary collection of stories.
To say it is a diverse collection is both to state the obvious and to understate the breadth of ground—the genres, the ideas, the voices—that these fifteen stories cover. The tales are so varied, you might think that the only thread binding them is the restless imagination of their author. With enviable facility, McKiernan shifts between literary horror, contemporary supernatural, alternate history, steampunk, noir, and the classic, old-fashioned ghost story, without ever descending into the archness of “genre-busting”. This dissociative identity disorder is a great strength of the collection, but it also caused me no small amount of frustration; I came to the end of so many of the stories, enraptured, clamouring for more of the same, only to be dragged off in some entirely other direction. But the stories are so stylish, so effortlessly cinematic, evoking worlds that bloom outward far beyond their handful of pages, that I would soon be sucked in again, only to face the same disjunct at the next story’s end.
While I enjoyed every course of this unusual degustation, there are some clear standouts. McKiernan is an able fantasist, and his vivid otherworlds—the steampunk un-Sydney of Calliope, the Alien-like space nightmare of The Wanderer in the Darkness, and the incomparable All the Clowns in Clowntown—are all intelligent, compelling, and vividly realised genre pieces. But the stories that really shine, that grab you, fiercely, by the heart, are those that sit just askew of the everyday—the dreamlike ache of The Memory of Water, the claustrophobic and unutterably creepy The Message, and, my personal favourite, the all-too-real roadside horror of White Lines, White Crosses.
I said before that the only thread connecting these stories was McKiernan’s restless imagination. That is not entirely fair. There is another strand on which they hang like baroque pearls, that animates them, that breathes real life into the people and places, and that is an earnest, sensitive, honest-to-goodness compassion. Underpinning every one of these stories—no matter the horrors or honeytraps, the betrayals or brutalities that lie in wait for their protagonists—there is a tenderness and an empathy, an open, aching heart.