A Review of No One Will Come Back For Us by Premee Mohamed
Reviewed by Katie McIvor
I was beyond excited to discover I’d inadvertently set myself up to review one of my favourite short stories of all time, so I’m just going to dive straight in: ‘The General’s Turn’, by Premee Mohamend, is, hands down, one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. It’s got everything. A mysterious game whose rules are unclear but deadly. An ambitious setting, with a clockface that serves as a stage, gigantic, moving gears, and masked “players” who dance from gear to gear while a city burns outside. A defiant young hero/victim, Stremwynn. High stakes: if Stremwynn loses, he’ll be either crushed between the gears or publicly executed. And, best of all, an insane narrator/villain, Vessough, whose role is to taunt Stremwynn while running down the clock. As the game progresses, Vessough undergoes a change of heart, which initially seems prompted by boredom or caprice. But as the story draws to its conclusion, and Death herself makes an appearance, we start to suspect there is more to Vessough’s minor act of rebellion than he admits even to himself.
Against the backdrop of this vast, endless war, after all, what does one life really matter? “A man reaches into another man and lifts out a heart, and at the end of his life his atrocities are scribbled onto his hands for anyone to read.”
I could probably stop there, but if that’s not enough to convince you to read Premee Mohamed’s debut short story collection, then please, continue on! These stories are dark, concerned with systems of belief and sacrifice, with the forces both real and unseen that shape and shatter our lives. Death as a character appears a few more times, along with a variety of other folk-horror-esque ancient gods of the land and sea. The real strength of the collection lies in how Mohamed connects these ideas to modern-day issues. In ‘The Evaluator’, for instance, a town suffocating under the burden of industrial pollution starts losing children to some supernatural power in the woods, which may be an envoy of “the furious dark ancient unknowable gods that have always lived here,” or may be something much worse.
The old gods theme lends itself equally well to space-exploration science fiction in ‘Fortunata’, an action-adventure thriller that is genuinely, deeply terrifying, and that more than lives up to the Alien series listed as its inspiration in the Story Notes. In the deliciously frightening ‘For Each of These Miseries’, Mohamed takes us below the sea, where a wartime “deep-stealth submersible program” has led to the creation of a resupply station on the ocean floor. This fortress-like structure just so happens to be in an oceanic “black hole”, a place of multiple unexplained shipwrecks and disappearances dating back centuries. It also happens to be surrounded by mysterious rock formations that look strangely like buildings. Mohamed does a very nice line in visceral, creeping dread (“We heard it screaming before it arrived”), but never fails to deliver on the scare itself. This collection is packed with big, cinematic stories and sinister, introspective, family-based horror alike. The title story was the only one that I found a little underwhelming, although, given that it’s apparently a Lovecraft retelling, it could be that it just went over my head. (Great title, though.)
The connective threads of gods, war, and death tie this book together far more tightly than most short story collections. The close thematic unity creates the impression that we’re glimpsing a much larger story through a series of small windows, with the wider world in which they’re set lurking just out of sight in the distance, like a half-visible eldritch horror. Even better, the stories are ordered and paced in such a way that the tension builds relentlessly throughout the collection. The “small gods” who accept offerings of saucers of milk are gradually supplanted by other, older, much more frightening beings, who force their human victims into ever more distressing situations and choices.
If that all sounds a bit too dark and scary, I should mention there’s also an enormous amount of humour in this collection. One of my particular favourites, ‘Instructions’, takes the form of a World War II pamphlet, advising soldiers on how to identify and neutralize enemies who on the face of it are Nazi soldiers, but who may also be something… else. The riotous ‘At the Hand of Every Beast’ follows a cathedral on the rampage (yes, you read that right) across rural France, in a delightful take on ‘gothic’ horror which is every bit as funny as it is dark. Premee Mohamed’s distinctive prose moves easily between genres, bridging science fiction, fantasy, and horror with a unique voice and a consistently subversive approach. I can’t recommend this collection highly enough.
No One Will Come Back For Us is available to pre-order from Undertow Publications.
Katie McIvor grew up in Scotland and studied at the University of Cambridge. She now lives in England and works at a language library, where she is surrounded by books and films in over 200 languages.
When not struggling to alphabetise Japanese textbooks, she likes to go on long walks with her husband and two dogs.
Her short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Three-Lobed Burning Eye, The Antihumanist, the Nashville Review, and the anthology Mother: Tales of Love and Terror, from Weird Little Worlds Press.
Katie can be found on Twitter @_McKatie_
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