Book Review – The Last Days of Kali Yuga by Paul Haines
Paul Haines’ third collection of stories, The Last Days of Kali Yuga, was recently launched at Swancon 36 in Perth. I had the pleasure of attending the launch and hearing Haines read from his story “The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burned.” Having recently read the author’s earlier collection, Slice of Life, I was eager to get my hands on this latest collection from Perth-based Brimstome Press, and it didn’t disappoint. The Last Days of Kali Yuga firmly establishes Haines as one of Australia’s best horror writers (yes, I know he’s from New Zealand).
Haines warned me when he signed my copy of this book that the material was dark and perhaps disturbing in nature. It guess it says as much about me as it does of him, but I didn’t find anything particularly objectionable in these pages, although it’s true that some stories were very provocative. The writer Haines reminds me of most is M. John Harrison, whose work is similarly sardonic and sometimes vicious. A number of recurrent themes run through many of Haines’ stories, including but not limited to: the pressures and angst of urban living; sexual frustration and jealousy; and the cycle of seemingly inevitable violence. The author pulls few if any punches in his depiction of the more sordid side of life, and he keeps us close to the edge as readers. William S. Burroughs once said that ‘writing should have the immediacy and danger of bullfighting'; Paul Haines is certainly a writer whose work fits that bill.
Aside from his story ‘Wives’, Haines’ work is not speculative in the ordinary sense. His is a dark horror of a type I would not normally read, but some of his work is so precise that one must admire the craftsmanship. The Last Days of Kali Yuga also contains afterwords to each story, which often shed light onto the background of each of the pieces. Because these stories span about a decade in terms of composition, we also gain an insight into Haines’ development as a writer.
The first story in this collection that really got my attention was “Her Collection of Intimacy”, which is a perfect blend of sexual tension and horror. The structure and especially the ending were immaculate, and this is the kind of story one must immediately read again upon finishing. Many of Haines’ stories concern the blurring of dream and reality, in which characters vacillate between skepticism and belief. “Festival of Colour” is an impressive example of such a tale.
Similarly impressive are “I’ve Seen the Man” and “Taniwha, Swim With Me”, the latter of which the author claims to be ‘Haines by numbers’ in his afterword. While it’s true that this story contains all of Haines’ usual themes, notably here the fundamental ‘dis-ease’ of the life of the urban dweller, it is still an effectively and unsettling piece. A less ambitious writer than Haines might have reworked the basic material in this story again and again over the course of an entire career, but Haines is nothing if not ambitious, as his most recent work will attest to.
The last two stories in this volume, “Wives” and “The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burned”, are quite possibly the best. The novella-length “Wives” is Haines’ only attempt to fully flesh out an SF future, and it’s a nasty future indeed. In some unspecified post-apocalyptic future Australia, girls and women are seldom seen in country areas, such as the town of ‘Shepp’ where our protagonist Jimbo lives. Most women exist in a state of enslavement to the Cartel, a shady, Mafia-like organisation that incarcerates and sells women to those who can pay the piper. As the unfortunate Wazza discovers, much to his detriment, the Cartel will go to great lengths to protect their property. Throughout the story, we follow Jimbo on his quest to obtain a wife and, later, a child. Haines subverts pretty much every social norm you might care to mention, including the parameters of heterosexuality, the entrapping nature of patriarchy, and the biological boundary between man and woman. “Wives” is dark, violent and brutal, and it’s a very effective piece of work indeed.
The final story in The Last Days of Kali Yuga, “The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burned”, is a fitting finale to this volume. Self consciously autobiographical, and yet subtly playful in its interrogation of the nature of dream and reality, it is an extraordinary tour-de-force of a story. Consisting of many short, often apparently unrelated sections which seem to mirror the narrator’s confusion, “The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burned” takes us on a journey through past and present times, in New Zealand and Australia. There were a couple of serendipitous associations I made while reading this story. Firstly, Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge features prominently here, and I crossed this bridge for the first time on a bus at 2am a matter of hours after completing the story (in the outside lane, no less). Secondly, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read Haines’ reference to a classic PC adventure game, Star Control 2, a game I know and love well. I was inspired to find a screenshot for those of you who never had the pleasure of playing Super Melee with a friend.
“The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burned” is one of Haines’ most powerful works, and the ending is truly surreal and transformative. Here is an artist at the height of his powers, even if (as we learn in the afterword) this story took many years to write. Upon reviewing this collection, I realised that I prefer by far Haines’ more recent stories (say those published 2006-10) to his earlier efforts. We can only hope that the author will continue to persevere in this endeavour – often the most unrewarding of endeavours – so that we might get as good or better a collection than The Last Days of Kali Yuga from him in the future.