Stephens’ debut collection offers stories and vignettes set in post-apartheid South Africa and featuring dark, punchy conclusions, as well as unrelated poems of love, introspection, and spirituality.
A love poem, “Ode to Kathy,” featuring images from astrology, astronomy, and religion, opens the volume. Other verses vary in subject matter and structure but have little to do with the macabre, except perhaps “Traffic,” about a man hoping to take out a carjacker. Although the poems don’t really fit the collection’s overall theme, they don’t detract from the quality of the stories that do. In “Ali Fafi—You Stupid Man,” a lazy, despotic village chief hears a recurrent thumping ostensibly caused by animals but which actually has a more sinister source. In keeping with the tradition of the horror genre, bad things happen to innocent people in these tales. In “No Drinks for Free,” for instance, a Soweto man who enjoys a simple but happy lifestyle—in part due to his father’s pension—contrives to keep the checks coming after his dad’s death; however, it’s a plan that holds grim consequences for a hapless drunk. In other stories, however, evil gets its just deserts; in “The Transplant,” for example, a nurse uses trickery on a racist heart-transplant patient. Stephens’ light, breezy style (“Life was, indeed, really good for Joseph Shadrack and his wife, Jasmine”) nicely counterpoints the grim subject matter, and it’s similar in tone to such masters of suspense as Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock. Overall, the tales in this collection can be enjoyed by all readers, but some will have an added dimension for those who are well-versed in South African culture. A few intricate stories, such as “Political Games” and “The Mugging,” offer specific commentary on South African politics.
An enjoyable compilation of dark tales for readers who prefer twist endings.