Earlier this year, Cemetery Dance published the first of two posthumous releases from author Alan Peter Ryan, who died in 2011. That novella, Amazonas, was an atmospheric creeper about obsession and madness. In Cemetery Dance’s follow-up, The Back of Beyond, Ryan gives us four stories that further showcase his effortless storytelling ability, stories that are grounded and relatable even as they take us through the darkest recesses of the human heart.
The first of those stories, “Sexual Exploration is a Crime,” is an almost breezy travelogue about a man named Jerry, the nondescript owner of a landscaping business who’s mired in an ordinary, vanilla existence. Jerry’s never really felt compelled to change course, until a chance meeting with the son of a client opens his eyes to a world of unexplored possibilities. Phil is about to embark on a trip to Brazil, a place he visits several times a year, and as he regales Jerry with tales of women who “just won’t quit,” the older man discovers an adventurous spirit he never knew he had.
Weeks later Jerry is in Brazil, and soon finds that Phil wasn’t exaggerating. He meets a woman and spends several idyllic days with her, and it seems that going abroad may have been the best decision Jerry ever made – until, that is, tragedy intervenes. Suddenly, this straightforward tale of the misadventures of an in-over-his-head tourist becomes a surreal nightmare, complete with an ending that hits you like a bucket of ice-cold water.
This is followed by “The Winter’s Tale,” a chilling – literally and figuratively – story of a man who “dwelt by a churchyard.” Ryan does a superb job of setting the scene with his descriptions of the man’s big, gloomy house, which is surrounded by an overgrown and abandoned cemetery and an old, soured orchard, its trees “bent and twisted, both trunks and branches gnarled like arthritic fingers.” When the old man, facing down loneliness in his giant stone house, decides to make the dangerous trek next door to visit his neighbors, wanting only to bring them some food, and to maybe share the warmth of their companionship for a little while, he finds that not all kind gestures are appreciated.
The great thing about these stories (as well as their companions “Starvation Alley” and “Mountain Man,”) is their approachability. Ryan didn’t write like someone who wanted to impress you with his writing; instead, he wrote like a man who wanted to disappear, to fade completely into the background so that only the story remained. There are no “Hey, look at me!” moments, no showing off – nothing that gets in the way of the story that is being told.
This is as it should be.
I’d urge Cemetery Dance to consider an audiobook version of this release, because all four stories feel like tales that were meant to be told aloud. Dialogue is kept to a minimum – is, in fact, almost completely absent in the first two stories – which only adds to the “campfire telling” feel of Ryan’s work.
With this book, and Amazonas before it, Cemetery Dance has made it clear what a huge talent we’ve lost with Ryan’s passing. I know I’ll be hunting down his 1980s novels The Kill and Dead White, both of which are considered to be classics of the genre, just as I’ll be revisiting the stories in The Back of Beyond. When it comes to compelling storytelling, it’s going to be difficult to find a match for this collection.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.