Book review: Last Call
This inaugural anthology from students in the creative writing program at Flinders University comprises stories by 13 committed emerging writers, driven by a sense of immediacy, social concern and, most of all, experimentation with the possibilities of genre.
As the introduction makes clear, Last Call was a collaborative effort between the students, their lecturers, Glimmer Press and many others, which carries with it the benefit of that collective spirit.
The individually authored tales are bound together by shared characters, interwoven narrative threads and their setting, which is – appropriately – the simultaneously ubiquitous and strangely liminal context of a university pub crawl.
Our motley cast are all members of the campus Astronomy Club, which one character tells a bartender is “odd as a clockwork orange” in one of several knowing intertextual nods to the classics of dystopian crime, pulp, horror and science fiction. The club is a vaguely unsettling entity, based in fading, out-of-the-way rooms and unable to avoid confusion with the far more mystical otherworldly practice of astrology. This recurring misnomer is no accident, of course, and the initially straightforward, realist exploration of inexperienced egos, hidden desires and fanatical delusions soon begins merging with mythic fantasy, gothic visions and cosmic horror.
The great strength of genre has always been to provide a predictable frame through which our own particular, ever-evolving, contextually bound concerns and anxieties can be explored. That is certainly the case here, with a mix of imagery and world building well enough united by thematic concerns that an overall sense of coherence remains to engulf readers. By the end, we have encountered dragons, faeries, werewolves and Death himself, but what is really at stake throughout are more familiar experiences of love, pain, longing and monstrosity in all too human forms.
There are also many effective instances of challenging, or inverting, previous assumptions of the various genres in play – of playing with expectations to place the fears of a prior era in new and revealing juxtaposition with contemporary reality. “Dreams in the Deep”, by Leigh Briar, a standout example, engages with the dread and loathing evoked by HP Lovecraft’s weird fiction in a way that re-directs the infamously reactive, xenophobic fears of Lovecraftian mythology back onto themselves. Here, the threat of otherness is not that monsters might rise from the deep to destroy the established order, but that society so often alienates individuals from their own identities and sense of self.
Other stories leverage ironic reversals and sudden, supernatural intervention to reflect on the close-to-home horrors many cannot run from. There is also a particular pleasure that comes from the narrative perspective of less-than-likeable characters who leave their mark on this milieu – these points of view provide welcome texture to a volume that works, apart from anything else, as accomplished character study.
Part of the interest in a collection like this is being able to see new voices striving to express themselves, to create stories that build on connections to what has come before, showing us unexpected angles through which to view each experience, as part of an often disconcerting, but nevertheless hopeful, whole. This dual sense of continuity and change, exemplified in the best genre fiction, finds itself in competent hands with this cohort.
Last Call – We’re Dying for a Drink, Flinders University Creative Writing Anthology, is published by Glimmer Press.