Smoking Herb & Other Stories
By John D Robinson
Analog Submission Press
Review by Pete Donohue
A title may not mean what you think it does. This isn’t a tale about sucking on marijuana spliffs. The eponymous main story here refers to a character called Herb, a homeless drifter bereft of his family and profession, who one night in search of shelter stumbles across an unlocked wooden outhouse. He also happens to be a smoker – a bit like this tale is.
Some HIP readers will already know of Hastings born and bred poet, painter and publisher John D Robinson. Some of his poetry chapbooks and collections (and there are dozens) have been reviewed in these very Literature pages. This however, is his first published collection of short stories – a finely produced limited-edition chapbook from the cult underground publisher Analog Submission Press, based in York UK and Cape Town SA.
The title story moves along with an easy tension. Sentences are economical, words simple and carefully chosen. Like all Robinson’s work there are no unnecessary embellishments. The scene he sets could just as easily apply to Steinbeck’s depression era America as to today’s Covid-19 lockdown in Britain. Characters are real – people like you and me – and we only learn just as much about them as we need to know.
The outhouse is full of precious paintings. A young woman fleeing domestic violence seeks refuge there too. The artist, worn down from caring for a relative, is enraged to find his studio space invaded. Suddenly we have all the ingredients of a riveting playlet in the dark realism style of, say, Ibsen through to Pinter, or even some of the dramas in late-fifties/early-sixties US television anthologies. Three people’s lives are suddenly thrown together through mishaps and chance. Tensions filter in and out like gusts of wind through the bitter November night. The eventual dénouement is stark and unexpected. A very satisfying short story.
John D Robinson
The second tale takes place in a seedy sex shop. The narrator amuses himself watching the antics of customers such as Creepy Karl or Mr and Mrs Curious, in an attempt to relieve the boredom of repetitive retail work. A bigshot gangster/celebrity hires out the shop for a private buying binge. Identically dressed identical twins torment this temporary shop assistant. Things get darker, however, when a self-harming thirty-something woman turns up in flight from a man she thinks is stalking her.
The third and final story reads more like a confessional. An alcoholic drug addict tries to bury the trappings of a life he feels has become ‘petty and trivial’. This symbolic gesture seems to comfort him in some way, but when his wife comes home he suddenly rediscovers the good things he really has. All these stories concentrate on a theme of ‘refuge’, something that often crops up in Robinson’s poetry too. It’s an important concept to contemplate, especially in these times of pandemic disease, mass asylum seeking and the subjugation of minority groups. All in all this a fine collection.
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