Backstories by Simon Van der Velde

Review by Kate Horsley

“Dreamers, singers, heroes and killers, they can dazzle with their beauty or their talent or their unmitigated evil, yet inside themselves they are as frail and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them? Can you unravel the truth? These are people you know, but not as you know them. Peel back the mask and see.”  (Back cover copy, Backstories)

In Backstories, Simon Van der Velde’s debut collection of short stories, lost voices travel to us from the past in ways that are sometimes jarring, sometimes hauntingly familiar and always entertaining and surprising. In the pages of this stylishly written collection, you will discover forgotten moments and hear revealing confidences.

In ‘Tonight’s the Night’, the glimpse we get of the hidden lives of murderers, whispered to us by the desperate young girl who will be their next victim, is shocking in its casual intimacy. The title is borrowed from the Rod Stewart song of that name, the romantic implications of which work as a cruelly ironic counterpoint to this vignette’s murderous tension:

“…the radio comes on, that Rod Stewart song, Tonight’s the Night. I half expect them to turn it off, but they don’t. He even hums along. It’s perfect, like tonight really is the night. There’s just the rumble of the engine and the rain on the windows, and Rod’s raspy voice… 

I’m practically asleep when the car stops. 

We’re outside this row of houses. Could be anywhere. The radio’s off. No one speaks. There’s a stale smell, like cheesy crisps. I get this sudden fear…” (‘Tonight’s the Night’)

The suspense here is generated not only by our mounting fears for the narrator, but by the growing suspicion that we know the true identity of the nice, middle-aged couple so keen to offer the narrator a bed for the night. This deftly told tale hurtles to a sucker-punch twist of an ending that is the characteristic of all of Van der Velde’s Backstories

In ‘The Big Attraction’, we encounter a conflicted murderer entangled in one of the world’s most notorious folie à deux. From the opening sentences, suspense is expertly created. In this case, though, it is not the character’s innocence, but her guilt, which makes us fear for her.

“The knock comes, three separate sounds echoing down through my stomach. I stop where I stand with one foot on the kitchen lino and the other in the lobby. My hand clutches the fake pearls at my throat. They’ve come for me. I know it before the door opens. I know it from the terror and the guilt, and the relief.” (‘The Big Attraction’)

Part of the twist in this story is the way in which Van der Velde makes a killer confide in us with as much vulnerability as a victim. 

Simon Van der Velde
Simon Van der Velde

In other stories, we encounter famous figures who are less obviously murderers or victims, but guilt and fear still cast shadows over their lives and the stories are still just as much tales of suspense.  In ‘Like Magic’, we meet a young star, fragile and lost in anxious wonder over the spectacle of alluring femininity that seems so far out of reach:

“She watches Kitty walk away up the hill, blonde hair swaying, ass swinging in that thin summer dress. Could I be like that, Jeanie wonders, and not give a damn. Make people look at me and want me. Make them crash their cars. Make them listen to what I say and still stick around?” (‘Like Magic’)

We have our suspicions about who she is and who she might be and they are only confirmed in the story’s parting shot. A similar story about nascent celebrity, ‘The Guitar’, gives us a pre-fame singer. Like the heroine of the previous tale, he is the victim of his peers’ mockery and contempt, an outcast as surely as the victims and killers of other stories:

“There were still the daily tortures, but now he existed in another world. Better than rifles or the dark waters of the Hudson, music was where he found his escape. 

He loved that scratchy rock ‘n’ roll that was big in the city back then, and like all kids, he started with imitation. Those upbeat fantasies of the perfect girl lifted his mood, but this guy had deeper, heavier truths to lay down. So he strummed his guitar and he whispered; what it was to feel small and weary, alone on the street when darkness comes. He imagined a rescuer laying himself down over those churning waters, like that bridge on the Hudson.”  (‘The Guitar’)

Listen to ‘The Guitar

Each of these characters explodes onto the page, their voice and their mannerisms so keenly observed that they seem to talk to the reader directly through the medium of the book. As I read this taut collection, I felt each one burn vividly into life and pull me inexorably through to twists that were, by turns, shocking, brutal and humorous. Simon Van der Velde writes with energy and verve and Backstories is highly recommended.