By turns macabre and moving, horrific and laugh-out-loud funny, Robert Shearman's short stories come from a place just to the left of the corner of your eye.


Following his World Fantasy Award-winning Tiny Deaths, this new collection puts a bizarre twist on the love story. What is love, why does it hurt so much, and how is it we keep coming back for more?


Sometimes poignant, sometimes cruel - but always as startling and fresh as Shearman's fans have come to expect.














Okay, so it’s not Doctor Who, but it’s Rob Shearman. Some might say that’s even better. Whilst the Time Lord’s adventures are confined to all of time and space as we know them and the boundaries of the family format, Shearman’s stories are pent only by the limits of his extraordinarily dark and delicious imagination; limits that I feel he hasn’t even come close to pushing yet.

What I have here is the mass market paperback edition of Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical. It lacks the exclusivity of the various lush limited editions that saw release towards the back end of 2009, but at least I don’t have to brave the author’s handwriting. It’s still a nice thing to hold though; a shiny white and sparsely decorated cover suggests elegance and chic, clashing delectably with the exaggerated and barbaric array of human emotions that its contents probe.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Shearman’s first award-winning collection, the primary focus of which was death, I was intrigued as to how the author would broach the topic of love in this sophomore effort. Interestingly, there isn’t all that much difference; if anything, Love Songs is often more harrowing than Tiny Deaths as most of the characters that the reader faces here suffer a fate far more abhorrent than non-existence or even eternal damnation. Even the Devil himself isn’t spared love’s tender mercies, as the terror-strewn tedium of his day job kindles an urge to inflict his hackneyed romantic fiction on a world that will never quite appreciate it in the way that he so desperately wants it to.

Perhaps even more palpably than it did in Tiny Deaths, here Shearman’s unassuming and unconventional prose style sucks the reader straight into the minutiae of ostensibly ordinary lives, before leaping off the page, pulling their specs off, and then poking them hard in the eyes. Long sentences and even longer paragraphs lend each of these stories a colloquial feel, drawing in the reader with all the pull of a bedtime tale, and then refusing to let them go; imprisoning them within a world of slanted nightmares. Each story told serves as a window into a reality that isn’t quite our own, be it a slightly-skewed world teeming with half bat / half rabbits (“rabbats” or “babbits?”), a society equipped with technology capable of classifying and quantifying one’s love, or a recession-busting reality that offers the jobless the exciting employment opportunity that is becoming a tree (maybe even an Oak, if you have the right aptitude).

And Shearman never gives into the temptation to lift the veil or show his working. Many of the collection’s finest stories are those that are, in a sense, incomplete. When Luxembourg vanishes, leaving a water-filled lacuna in the middle of Europe, Shearman doesn’t waste words on the hows and whys. Instead, he mocks the lack of media interest. He charts the journey of a woman whose life is turned upside down as a result, and looks at her love, her grief. Or lack thereof.

The stories that I’m not quite so fond of are those which threaten to encroach upon the world as we know it; those that tell of cricket and kidnap, about widowers on cruise ships being tormented by Filipinos named Jesus and sucked-off by grannies. But for every such tale, there’s one about a man fretting that he’s only receiving 14.2% of his wife’s total love quota, who ultimately tires of his whinging and leaves him for a man she loves far less but wants to fuck more. One about a man writhing in the media spotlight following the brutal murder of his wife, never quite able to reconcile himself to the truth that she’s “the interesting one” now, and always will be. One about a dejected author nominated for some literary prize, looking for recognition in all the wrong places. It’s something of an irony that the one story in the anthology that purports not to be about love is the probably the one that captures its power most completely.

On balance though, I think that I prefer the one about death to the one about love (which is a bit of a worry for me) but in truth there’s little between them - tales of love and death flow in and out of each other as effortlessly as a pair of Shearman’s most amorous protagonists. Ultimately there’s a reason that Love Songs has been such a critical success. As the title promises, it’s bashful and belittling, coy and contemptuous, shy and cynical, and – above all else – unique. Pedantry won’t permit me to preface that ‘unique’ with a ‘totally’ or ‘utterly’, but if I could, then here I most certainly would.


Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2010


E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design

 and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

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