Our Elaborate Plans – twenty stories and novelettes by Ralph Robert Moore

A review

Ralph Robert Moore’s latest collection features stories previously published elsewhere, but also six new substantial tales. I’d read the Black Static ones before, but RRM notes that the stories appear here in a slightly different form. I didn’t look back at the originals, but I did detect some minor changes in the plot lines. I suppose this is the equivalent of a music artist re-mastering their classic albums, tweaking and polishing them so as to produce a new experience while not losing the essence of the original.

This overview of the book is not so much a review as an essay on why RRM’s stories affect me and draw a reader in. I tend not to do reviews of books I don’t like. What’s the point? If an author wants constructive criticism then I’m happy to give it privately. So, suffice it to say, this is a great book. You should buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

Anyone new to the author’s writing will be struck immediately by a short, even terse style which may take a little adjustment at first. For me, it’s like a welcome narrator’s voice, instantly recognisable and original. The ‘voice’ is characterised by descriptions in the present tense with pronoun removal, occasional mixed tenses and an unconventional grammar. Somehow, this all works and helps build an essential picture of the characters and plunges you into the scenes with minimum fuss. Another stylistic feature is how RRM juxtaposes the mundane and the horrific, creating conflict and tension effortlessly. You’ll also get lots of references to food and culinary insights!

These tales aren’t always horror stories per se, but they certainly disturb and affect you.

There now follows a story by story analysis. My aim here isn’t to dissect them clinically, but to give one perspective (mine) that highlights how the pieces provide impact and create something that is uniquely memorable.

China

I first read this tale in Black Static. It features a man with an obsession for digging holes. Is this a metaphor for escape? If so, escape from what? Childhood trauma, a dark secret, the darkness the MC feels within? The ending leaves you with questions — chief amongst them: what happens next, and is that good?

It Might Be Cancer

The basic plot is about how an everyday act leads to the discovery of cancer. This has a knock-on effect leading to eviction of the MC. However, this double-whammy of misfortune seems to kick start a virtuous cycle aided by the ghost of a deceased daughter.

Will You Accept These Flowers From Me?

RRM immediately creates a subtle atmosphere of suspense that poses questions in the reader’s mind. It starts with a ping pong ball. Where is it leading? Spoiler — a magic show. Again, a mini-surprise, as it’s revealed that Michael’s assistant is an ape (deftly revealed when it says Michael gives her a piece of banana.) The story unfolds with succinct descriptions of Michael his past, his aspirations, and his character, all dispersed judiciously in the narrative. This has the effect of making you identify with the character enough to care about what’s going to happen to him. Yet, all the time, you’re waiting to see if the story introduces the supernatural or the weird … or not (as the case may be.) Whatever the outcome, the result is never disappointing. As it happens, there is a ‘weird’ element to this story. Michael purchases a top hat with mysterious properties; but will it be enough to save his flagging career? The story is about love too. Love between a man and a woman, and between a man and a monkey.

The Fear All Women Have

With a title like this, what on earth could it be about? What is this fear all women have? More curiously, the story starts from a man’s pov, fumbling around in the dark, goes back to his bed, switches the light on and finds a strange woman in his bed rather than his wife. What’s more, she doesn’t miss a beat! She knows and recognises him but he has no memory of her. I won’t say any more. Suffice it to say, this story is full of surprises.

Do Not Pet

Yet another story that originally appeared in Black Static. Maybe it’s my memory playing tricks, but I thought I detected a couple of places where additional descriptive details were added in this new version. I’ll take a moment here to mention the placement of RRM’s stories and the pacing of book as a whole. The previous story had a lighter tone. This one is DARK. As you eat up the stories in this volume, there’s certainly a sense of light and shade, of rising up and down hills and valleys of experience.

In another place, I read that RRM treated this story as an extension of his novel ‘Ghosters.’ It follows the fate of a man called Karl. Haunted by the death of his son, he buys a place on a ghost safari. He wants to know if ghosts exist. Story inexorably leads to a point of choice for Karl. He wants to pass from this life to the next seamlessly, without creating a ghost. Bud, director of the establishment, has a way to accomplish this.

Another interesting side note, is how RRM lays down rules about ghosts (e.g. how sperm and other bodily fluids keep ghosts away, one can bottle them, they can be confined in other ways, such as the old factory where the story is set.)

Finally, it has to be said that Karl is not actually that nice a man, yet thinks he is. The overall effect on the reader is to ask: should we feel sorry for him?

Hold My Hand and I’ll Take You There

By contrast, this a story is about a boy who is inherently good, or, at least, becomes someone who is good through the trial of circumstance. The boy in question suffers from childhood leukaemia and has run the mill of all kinds of invasive treatments. The story is also about a teenage girl who suffers from severe mental illness. The two of them meet and form a relationship. The story flicks between present day and childhood flashbacks, painting a picture of tragedy, hope, and patient endurance. Yet again, the author originates a story with a unique premise and, more importantly, manages to cram a cornucopia of emotions into the space of a few thousand words. Like so many of RRM’s works, it’s a story that stays with you and causes you to reflect on life’s joys and traumas, how different people cope with them, and the power of imagination.

I write Your Name

At the heart of many stories in this collection is the subject of relationships and their numerous complexities and subtleties. If I had to choose a theme for this particular tale then I would say it’s about communication between partners — how difficult it can be and also how precious. This is a particularly sad story because it deals with the barriers to communication created by the debilitating disease, Alzheimer’s; how this erodes a once easy flow of understanding between two partners and creates alienation. It also explores, through a weird twist in the story, how we take the ability to talk to another human being on a deep level for granted. Even after having read this story before in Black Static, it still has the capacity to surprise with its unexpected twists and further layers of nuance. The sign of a great author — that you can read their work over again and find significant new ways for it to affect you.

Born With the Deaf

This tale illustrates perfectly how RRM draws you into a story. It starts with a thesis statement of sorts, introducing the MC, a character named Cassie. It’s not until you’re several paragraphs in that you get to see who her character is. As the story progresses, and the weirdness increases, you find yourself guessing which direction this is going to go. I guessed wrong every time. The story also evokes a horror that RRM is so adept at. The kind of ‘pit of the stomach’ churning that arises from the way some people can manipulate others and abuse them in unimaginable ways. RRM achieves this, not through typical blood and gore violence (although that’s not a device he’s averse to when appropriate,) but through the dialogue and descriptions he employs.

The story has one of those endings that leaves lots of questions hanging. No trite or overly-clever wrap-ups here, just a tale, the memory of which stays with you, particularly the phrase: ‘My brother is like Jupiter. You get too close, his size could drag you down into him. Best for you in life to stay away from Jupiters. Unless you want to get sucked down. Some people do.’

The Night I Almost Died

A new story, previously unpublished. Once again I found myself asking the question: where’s the story going to go? The ingredients? An audition for a role in a porn film; a latino guy fed up with his job turning eggs in an eatery; a chance encounter in a bar; a superman costume; a baby drowning — wtf? These elements are all arranged around a unifying theme that’s defined and yet open to interpretation. An unforgettable story with all sorts of questions left hanging unanswered at the end.

(Waiting in the Hole)

This one is ostensibly about a boy and girlfriend passing through a housing development. She gets caught short and they decide to enter a show home where she avails herself of the facilities. While the guy is waiting, a plumber shows up and they get into conversation. But who is this guy really, and how much truth is there in his story about the ‘grippers?’ Under the surface of the story are questions. Questions about how ancient secrets can be buried in modern settings, and how those who pay us compliments don’t always have our best interests at heart.

She Used to Know the Names of all the Different Types of Clouds

Cillian is a shy teenage girl with no friends. She has to cope with bullying, the death of her mother, looking after her ageing father and entertaining the ghost of her dead dog. A mini coming-of-age story with unexpected twists and an intriguing title. This, in itself, sums up the theme of the story better than any explanation.

Wishing They Were God

RRM has a wonderful way of painting a thumbnail sketch of his characters within a couple of paragraphs. By the time you’ve finished the first page of a story you have all the ingredients needed to put you in the scene convincingly. This isn’t to say that there aren’t plot twists and surprises, but the most important element — that you want to know what happens to the character — is established. In this case, the MC is a writer, recently moved to New York and whose ears hurt whenever he goes up in an elevator. The story progresses to describe his first meeting with a girl who is also a writer. Things move fast and she invites him to meet her father (on the same night.) He works on a construction project below the Hudson river. Bizarrely, he keeps cattle below ground, and the mc helps the father feed them. So where do you think this story heads? That’s the beauty of RRM’s stories; they’re like some of Ray Bradbury’s in this respect. You have no idea which rabbit hole you’re going to be sucked down; whether there’ll be some horrific twist, or if the story will be left hanging with unanswered questions. One thing you can be sure of: the story will be memorable and leave you reflecting on one or more themes or profound statements, lying there, understated, full of gravity. This tale is no exception to the rule.

Confusion Requires Firetrucks

A weird title and a weird story. It’s about a fucked-up relationship that, from the get-go, is strange and unhinged. Yet it is also about how love can peep through the strangeness and keep people together. That’s all I’ll say about this one. I still have a lot of questions about it.

The Smell Comes Through the Paint

The story features a male MC with a particular character trait common to many RRM stories – a barely concealed passive aggression and underlying ability to coerce and abuse others. This, I’ve found, is a major ingredient to the disturbing quality of this author’s stories, meaning that he doesn’t have to rely on supernatural horror to create a sense of impending dread. This was the only story that contained a minor hiccough for me. RRM’s style is to produce very condensed descriptions, an economy of style that plunge you straight into the story. I found I had to re-read the second scene in the bar to gain a sense of who did and said what. Once done, I was there. I knew the pay-off would be a tale that led me down a twisted avenue, the destination of which was completely unknown. You can never accuse RRM of writing a predictable story. What’s it about? Amongst other things: a guy who produces meat flavour ice cream, the same guy concocting a situation where he gets his rocks off in a bi-sexual scenario; the everyday problems of coping with anxiety and its accompanying symptoms. That list only gets you half way through the story. Want to know the rest of it? Then read it for yourself, but one thing I will add: out of all the stories in this book, this one has the most unexpected ending.

For Whom the Dogs Bark

Another one originally published in Black Static. The tale is about getting old, and the different fears one has during the course of your life. Which ones turn out to be real and the ones that don’t. Which of them are worse? The imagined or the actual? Can you always tell the difference?

The Patience of the Middle Aged

This follows a more conventional structure in that there are twists all the way with a supernatural element. I thought I was predicting the outcome at one point but then it took me by surprise again. I know RRM ruminates for a long time over the titles to his stories. Suffice it to say that this one doesn’t hint at the plot at all, but it does act as a place marker to remembering the underlying theme.

Hoodelay.

This one’s every bit as intriguing as the title would suggest. Part of its mystery lies in the language used by the creepy TV host — very reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. The tale features two MCs — two boys, one of which is much younger than the other. A picture is painted of their respective domestic situations, neither of which is ideal. So to the plot. Underneath the narrative of the older boy’s search for the mysterious gagadoon, somewhere inside a secret castle, lies the story of two youngsters trying to find their way in the world. Each of them face fears, struggles and choices, all suggested at through a series of mini-scenes so reminiscent of RRM’s style. The ending is, once again, an unexpected twist.

Before the Storm.

To me, this had a Stephen King quality to it, in terms of the scene setting and parochial small town vibe. The backdrop is an unexpected impending snow storm in Texas, the arrival of an unknown young man whose car has broken down, and a father who has set up his home to withstand everything from a weather crisis to a small apocalypse. This is one of those stories that leaves the reader with a host of queries. In this respect, most of it is played out in the theatre of the reader’s imagination. Clever stuff.

Monkeys on the Beach

This story is about a family on holiday who run into bad luck, a lot of bad luck, an improbably large amount of bad luck. I guess bad things can happen to good people and this story takes that concept to the extreme.

Peelers.

The final tale starts with a relatable scenario. A man and his partner/wife discuss the news that they might possibly be able to start a family. Next minute, the man has hurried himself to the rest room and is banging his head repeatedly against the porcelain of the toilet. What is the meaning if this bizarre, self-inflicted violence? As the story, (spanning several decades) develops, we hear more about the sinister eel-eye’d individuals that seem to be closing in on the man. But will his ability to ‘peel’ save him this time? This is the perfect closer to a collection that leaves you reeling with wonder and terror.

 

*Draws breath* In conclusion, Our Elaborate Plans charts a route through a bizarre world of relatable, unique characters set in unpredictable scenes. Take the hand of RRM and let him lead you through his fantastical world. Only don’t look too closely, the images you see might burn themselves onto your retinas forever.

You can get your copy of Our Elaborate Plans here

Check out all the author’s work on his  Amazon author page here

Ralph Robert Moore’s website is at www.ralphrobertmoore.com

 

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: