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The Cranes That Build The Cranes, by Jeremy Dyson

Gothic tales in a League of their own

In a florid shirt, Yani stalks the footpaths of England meeting strangers who drop dead when he beckons to them.

Powerless to arrest this demonic trudge, the government parlays, but Yani's only demand is to be made chief executive of a bookshop chain. Having worked for Dillons, I enjoyed a personal grimace of horror at the notion of a boss whose finger of death could terminate cringing staff for the most piffling infractions. With a splash of super-nature, Jeremy Dyson (of The League of Gentlemen) vamps this simple idea up into a snappy tale where elements of slapstick strain against more sinister forces.

The other eight stories pull mostly on the same strings. Half of these – a needy businessman goosed by his associates, a monk attaining mortal release through the ministrations of a hooker, a paranoid security fetishist and a brutish Victorian cleric – are tightly plotted stories whose subjects push at the bounds of normal behaviour. The other four stride across that boundary, making deliciously macabre sorties into gothic territory.

"Out of Bounds", probing the courage of a taunted boy in a school cellar, and "The Coué", hinging on the "terrible provenance" of a grisly talisman, deliver ghoulish punch lines. "Playing with the edges of fear seemed like a new hobby," muses Danny, the self-harming youngster in the penultimate story. That could equally apply to the author. Dyson's style is assured, with only one weak tale among the nine.

A habit of toying with his characters' vanities and insecurities places Dyson alongside Roald Dahl, whose twistily mystifying stories generate a similar sense of unease. An apology lets the goosed businessman see the agent of his humiliation as grotesquely insecure ("tiny and vulnerable like the homunculus inside a dalek"), which typifies Dyson's skill for peeping under the carapace of mundane encounters. Following an indifferent first novel, this collection confirms Dyson's mastery of stylishly disquieting short fiction.

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