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The Traveller and Other Stories


The Traveller and Other Stories

THE TRAVELLER AND OTHER STORIES is the perfect short-fiction collection. It provides an irresistible introduction to the work of author Stuart Neville for those who are unfamiliar with him and his loosely connected series of Emerald noir books known as the Belfast novels. These stories, many of which feature characters and situations from those titles, sink the hook and draw one in. Those who are already familiar with Neville’s immense talent will find at least two stories that are new to them --- the previously unpublished title piece and “The Night Hag” --- and a number of others culled from a wide and diverse range of sources. Resistance is futile.

This collection is composed of 12 short pieces and “The Traveller,” a novella, but it is the wonderfully lengthy “Introduction by the Author” that sets the mood. Neville summarizes each of the stories and discusses how they came about, but he creates a bit of a problem in doing so. One is tempted to break off from the Introduction and proceed straight to the meat of the book, even as it is all but impossible to leave these opening pages unread. In any event, let’s proceed to the main course.

"The tales in THE TRAVELLER AND OTHER STORIES are beautifully crafted.... As you sit comfortably in your chair and bemoan the state of the world these days, read this book. It will put you and all of your blessings in perspective."

THE TRAVELLER is divided into two parts: “New Monsters” and “Old Friends.” The phrase “New Monsters” brings to mind horror and/or the supernatural, and both are in ample supply throughout the book. If there is a lesson here (as if it were needed), it is that monsters exist on both sides of the veil in the area where the natural and supernatural don’t so much meet as meld. We learn this all too quickly in “Coming in on Time,” which is about a young boy who seemingly has been abandoned by his mother. Neville subtly lets the reader know that this is not the case, which makes the story all the sadder as we watch the boy wait for her return as our suspicions are confirmed.

“The Green Lady” is based on a local Irish legend meant to frighten children away from an area. Neville demonstrates that it is equally useful in scaring adults as well. “Echo” concerns a young boy who is raised as the reincarnation of his deceased sister. We get the whole nine yards here: two birthdays celebrated, two sets of presents and the like. It isn’t a long story, but that doesn’t prevent the author from tossing a live hand grenade or two into the already creepy proceedings near the end. “London Safe” repeats the theme of the absent parent, with an extra layer of tragedy applied to the plot. A man travels to London to find his father, who apparently abandoned the family decades before. Some things are better left undone. As with many of the stories in THE TRAVELLER, this one offers a brooding take on the ripples formed in the aftermath of the Troubles that proceed to this day.

“Queen of the Hill,” as noted in Neville’s introduction, is a crime story based on Irish mythology and centers on a man torn between the impulses of his mind and his heart. Of course, as with most of the stories here, it does not end well. Set during the Christmas season, this was an entry in THE USUAL SANTAS, a Soho Press holiday anthology, but remains fresh and new in this setting as well. The aforementioned “The Night Hag” explores what occurs when a guilty conscience results in sleep paralysis. Hilarity does not ensue. Then there is a very short tale titled “Black Beauty,” which documents the horrific consequences of stealing a prized guitar from the wrong person.

I am prattling on too long and yet not long enough. “The Craftsman” concerns Albert Ryan, a hitman in the twilight of his life who retains his skills but has lost his drive and that which he holds most dear --- until he is motivated to do what he does best one more time. At least. Gerry Fagan, who first appeared in Neville’s debut novel, THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST, makes an appearance in several of these stories (sometimes as a surprise, so I won’t say which). He is a tragic figure, an enforcer with a conscience who is haunted in the most literal sense and who in turn... But that would be telling.

“The Traveller” closes the book and, as Neville notes, was written at the request of his fans, who wanted to know what happened to Belfast cop Jack Lennon and his daughter, Ellen, after the conclusion of THE FINAL SILENCE. The answer would be “Nothing good.” That said, it is a superlative tale in a collection filled to the brim with such.

The tales in THE TRAVELLER AND OTHER STORIES are beautifully crafted. They are also grim, dark and humorless, shot through with people whose lives are running out of a pot-holed road but who knowingly trudge gamely onward toward the inevitable without a deus ex machina or “happily ever after” to be had. How then can one help but be absolutely enthralled by every word that is found here? As you sit comfortably in your chair and bemoan the state of the world these days, read this book. It will put you and all of your blessings in perspective.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 16, 2020

The Traveller and Other Stories
by Stuart Neville