“There are two police cars outside the nursing home. Their lights are off and they sit silent and the moonlight makes them look like something else. Like something in a song from the ’40s. Something that rhymes with moon and spoon and June.”
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone… In the late season, Stephen Hines unpicks the quiet implosion of unexceptional lives, most of which take place…in the bleak midwinter. (The writer is Canadian, so…) That this is no light-hearted read is thus understood, however its tone does not vary – the darkness in this collection is unrelenting. Hines does not let even a chink of light in and yet each story, as well as the collection overall, is breath-taking. The achievement in avoiding all ‘go-to’ themes – youth, beauty, love, sex, money and power – and yet create a work that is un-putdownable, is frankly astonishing. One story within the collection (excerpt above), ‘what old 78s cost’, is among the most powerful pieces of short fiction I have ever read. And all this from the author’s debut story collection, published by the independent Tangerine Press.
Whilst the tone being struck from story to story is similar, there is huge variation in other aspects – the situation and life circumstance of each protagonist. The characterisation is granular and vivid, the prose often poetic in its beauty, and for the technical reader there are points of note, such as the occasional switching of point of view. But it is the grist of these stories that really stands out – lacking as they do any fluff, any bright colours, and yet being so completely immersive. From the man who has run out of steam following the death of his wife, to the father who cannot express his love for his grown-up daughter. The son, wracked with guilt over sending his mother to an old people’s home, and the young man hitting the buffers of his life before it has even begun. Hines is like a god of small things, finding magic in the everyday; that rose in the gutter.
Any Cop?: Short fiction, when compared to the longer form, is often more literary. (The term ‘pulp fiction’ rarely seems to apply). And the late season is certainly in line with this trend. The completeness of the darkness here will not be for everyone, however this is pristine literary fiction – what it is saying (and what it leaves unsaid) concern the state we find ourselves in; who we now are. And that crystalizes slowly but inexorably, with the moment of recognition being uncomfortable. Just like in all the best art.