Reviewed by Robert Runté
Cliff Burns has been writing professionally for over thirty years and self-publishing through his Black Dog Press before self-publishing was even a thing. He has a modest but dedicated fan base for both his writing and his blog, Beautiful Desolation, in which he regularly rages at the universe in informed and articulate rants. His latest story collection, Electric Castles: A Book of Urban Legends is typical Burns and is as good a place as any to introduce yourself to his work.
Two cautions: First, don’t let the subtitle put you off. Burns often skirts the boundary between Canadian literature and horror so I confess, “A Book of Urban Legends” drew me in because if you wanted a literary take on urban myths, Burns would be the guy to write it. This is not that book, however, and “urban legends” gives entirely the wrong impression.
Second, the book opens with my least favourite story of the collection, an unfortunate choice which, if one could find his book in bookstores, might elicit a ‘meh’ and the volume returned to the shelf. “Restitution” is a short take on Dr. Phil-type reality TV shows, with perhaps a gender switch on an old theme, but—nothing much to see here.
Once passed this unremarkable entry, one quickly becomes immersed in a series of oddly engaging, compelling and relatable stories. There is an undercurrent of satire that prevents any of these from becoming too depressing to read, but they all address human frailty and sometimes really awful people behaving very badly indeed. In contrast to “Restitution,” for example, “More Real Than TV” is an original and very dark satire of reality TV gone too far: an actor too easily cast as the bad guy and unleashed on an unsuspecting neighbourhood. Similarly questionable is the narrator of “Stations,” who recounts his misdeeds as he falls into drug addiction before he finds the determination to turn his life around. . . only, the reader cannot help wondering if he doth protest his renewed innocence a bit too much. My favourites of these bad-people-doing-terrible-things stories is “The Curious Mr. Cavendish,” a quiet little gem in which a couple of low-life criminals choose the wrong—oh, so very wrong—house for a home invasion. It definitely crosses over into Edwardian horror but manages to remain mildly amusing and still says something serious about how seniors can become stuck in their ageing, declining neighbourhoods.
Other stories feature flawed or broken protagonists who are nevertheless sympathetic. “The Lure of Ancient Places” immerses the reader in the final breakup of a marriage as each spouse takes turns complaining to the reader about the unreasonableness of the other’s demands, the unwillingness of the other to even make the effort anymore. There but for the grace of God and compromise go you and I. Or take “Coping”, the opposite story of a completely unsuitable couple considering getting back together in a moment of stress and weakness. Or “Family Day”, my favourite of these stories of ordinary people, in which a single mom drags her teen and preteen through Kingsmere mall. There isn’t a parent anywhere who won’t relate to that one, but with an ending that provides a remarkably satisfying emotional punch.
Less satisfying is the ending to “Magic Man,” both because the reader gets there a good deal sooner than our viewpoint character and because I am uneasy about the ambiguous moral. I’m okay with my take-away from the story, but I’m nervous that others could read it differently, and that would definitely raise questions for the story’s acceptability. But then, maybe raising questions is the point.
In his afterword, Burns states his personal favourite is “The New Neighbors,” a tiny surreal story that may indeed become one of his signature pieces—for good or ill. Burns’ brain frequently steps out of the box into some parallel universe which may appeal to poets and speculative fiction fans, but less so to the more literal-minded.
Finally, I have to mention “The Toxic Cinema of Alain Marchant,” a scathing satire of Quebec cinema and the CanLit establishment, as an excellent illustration of the passionate, opinionated column Burns writes regularly on his blog, only in this instance with made-up examples.
Overall, Cliff Burns epitomizes the difference between a writer independently publishing and vanity self-publishing. The writing here is clever, thought-provoking, and easily on a par with anything else in the CanLit section of any major bookstore. Burns deserves to be more widely known than he is, though it would be tough to find a Canadian author with a more dedicated fan-base. Recommended.
Electric Castles: A Book of Urban Legends is published by Black Dog Press.