Extracts from "Shooting Stars" - from "State of the Nation."
" They say we’re living in an age of Celebrity. Celebrity with a capital “C”, because it’s important, not just “celebrity” as in “being known”, but “Celebrity”, because that’s really the thing to strive for. Who cares about the chap who cures cancer or feeds Africa or brings peace to the Middle East? All that matters now is getting your smug face on the telly, filling up the column inches with your non-activities and non-achievements. And I suppose in a way I’ve colluded with this, writing about the celebrities when they’re dead and buried, outlining the travails of their lives, their highs, their lows. It used to be that I’d write obituaries about real people; people who deserved to have their lives celebrated. The kind of chap who at 21 had already earned a Victoria Cross for single-handedly storming a Nazi gun emplacement, before rowing the Atlantic at 23, becoming CEO of ICI by 25, then raising a handful of children and acting as a senior consultant to the likes of Wilson and Nixon in his twilight years. Yes, in those days “Celebrity” didn’t really exist. There were stars of course, but they had real glamour, and were few and far between - Monroe, Garbo, Bogie. Yes, those were the days. I remember as a younger man, reading about Buddy Holly’s dying. Ten lines it got. Ten lines. On page seven. Now, the fact that Jodie Marsh can get out of a taxi without any knickers on is front page news. Still, who can blame all the youngsters and slack-jaws for worshipping Celebrity. It pays, after all, and pays well. Look at Dale Winton’s townhouse, for example. Three stories of marble, polished oak and Feng-Shuied designer interiors in the centre of Belgravia, and this the fruits of the labours of a man with no discernible talent, save that of looking uncomfortable on millions of television screens. And of course, he let me straight in. I looked the part, blue overalls, a blue baseball cap with “Sunbeds of Knightsbridge” embroidered on it. And of course, despite decades of writing incisive summations of people’s lives and work for The Telegraph, he didn’t recognise me. After all, I’m not a Celebrity. I’m not on the telly. So he let me in, and left me to my own devices. I had worried that I’d have to be particularly stealthy, but he just showed me the room and left me to it. I couldn’t believe how easy he was to fool; he swallowed my story of his sunbed needing a service hook line and sinker. After all, what does he know about real things, important things? What does he need to know? Probably too consumed with discussions with his PR people, his agents and the latest viewing figures. So I went to work, and took my time about it. The latex gloves made it a bit more difficult, but it didn’t take long for me to remove the plastic base, and get to the workings of the sunbed itself. You see, all sunbeds have a timer mechanism on them. Normally around twenty minutes, but Winton had one of the new super-powerful ones with a six minute timer. All it took was a quick snip snip, and half the job was done. Once turned on, the sunbed could only be turned off by pulling the plug out of the socket, something which was impossible from the bed itself. Which brought me onto the second part of the operation, and the most problematic. I’d toyed with the idea of bunging up the hinges with plastic padding or silicon, but he would’ve noticed that as soon as he tried to shut it. Finally I settled on taking the hood off the bed, then filing two slots into both of the hinges. He’d be able to close the lid okay, but once it was fully closed the two bits of filed metal would catch on each other and the hinges would be locked, and he’d be stuck there, slowly frying under the never-ending UV light. I suppose these deaths are a bit melodramatic, but perhaps that’s just the writer in me coming out. But whatever, in thirty minutes I was done, the idiot paid me, and I was on the coach to Brighton within the hour, his obituary already half-written in my head. Winton kicked the bucket that night, by which time I’d been booked into my hotel room for several hours. The obituary was already on my laptop, and by the time Marcus had tracked me down to commission it, I had the, “My God, that’s awful. Who could do such a thing?” act down pat. But that’s one of the sad truths about celebrity. I was making more money writing about these microcephalic nobodies than I was writing about true heroes, people who made a difference, who actually did something. Because there wasn’t just the obituary itself. Oh no, for some reason these people merited multi-page feature pull-out sections, with colour photos. So I did those too, and was now making a pretty penny. More than enough to buy a new car, anyway, although I had been waiting until I could sell my old one before I did that, something I couldn’t do until the heat had died down. I’d cleaned the blood and bits of torn cloth and tissue from the radiator and bumper, but what with everything they can do with forensic science nowadays, I didn’t want to take the risk of taking it to a garage. And I suppose in some ways I’d formed a sentimental attachment to the thing. After all, it marked the beginning in my change of luck; it was responsible for the upswing in my mood and fortunes."
" Yet despite the successes of my new hobby, the iniquities of the world continued. A writer of my genius can write a novel in only a matter of weeks, yet my latest opus was rejected by every publisher I submitted it to. One even had a brief letter attached, a first for me. Hoping that it offered constructive criticism, I read it quickly and was disgusted to find that the talentless illiterate who had written it had had the temerity to tell me to stop submitting my “rubbish” to them. Once my rage had subsided I re-read the manuscript for the first time since I had finished writing it, and was amazed that it wasn’t really up to my usual standard. I had to conclude that my true talent was for killing, and that my writing was actually interfering with this vocation. So then, I put all my creative juices into my new occupation and my reign of terror hit a Golden Age, as the number of immolations, explosions, vomit-chokings and anorexia-related deaths boomed across the Capital. But now, as I sit here, I can see where I went wrong. With my full creative genius focused upon this one end, my assassinations had become increasingly complex, if not downright preposterous, and that was to prove to be my downfall. I had managed to wangle a ticket to the launch party of Jordan’s new book, from one of the sniffing, red-eyed hacks who worked on the paper’s Showbiz pages. It was held at some outrageously overpriced watering-hole in the West End, and despite wearing my best suit from Saville Row and waving my VIP ticket at the gorillas on the door, they deliberately barred my entrance to the club for almost an hour. Meanwhile so-called celebrity chefs, ex-Big Brother contestants and a stream of mediocrities from the nation’s soap operas streamed past. Finally, they deigned to let me in, as they had had their power game and the importance of my ticket could be ignored no longer. However, as you can imagine my blood was boiling at this point, and every smug fake-tanned face that walked past me was like something from those old cartoons where the starving character would see their friend as a walking hot dog or chicken leg. One had a noose wrapped tightly around his neck: another a drugged orange shoved into her ever-yapping maw. One had overdosed on pharmaceutical grade Viagra, his tool tent-poling out of his trousers like an angry purple truncheon, and another had died from fright after an overdose of LSD and Angel Dust meant that the very sight of the public that they had spent so many years blindly courting led to an intense bout of paranoia and a fatal anxiety attack. But then I was roused from my reverie by the sight of my target. Jordan was sitting at a table surrounded by an entourage of sycophants, while beyond this circle a large group of stupid-looking young men ogled her ridiculously inflated breasts and nudged their friends with stupid leers spread across their faces. I fingered the metal pineapple in my pocket, an item of military hardware which had proven ridiculously easy to obtain, once you know which Eastend boozers to go to, and which Paddy’s throat to lubricate. I moved behind Jordan’s table, and even I was impressed by the voluminous size of her jugs. Yet they made my job easier. Inside my pocket I eased the pin from the grenade. Yes, soon she would get her wish. Soon her tits would get so big they would literally explode across the room. And her complaint of everyone wanting a piece of her would prove to be painfully true. I moved closer to her, eyeing the bosom that would envelop my gift to her, and then suddenly, swiftly, I lobbed the grenade down her cleavage, then pushed my way through the throng towards the exit. But one of her companions, probably some media-whore who wanted to prove himself to her, came after me and rugby tackled me to the ground. I fought back desperately, still only a few yards away from her. I could see her groping around her cleavage where the grenade had slipped down. But as I kicked and screamed and struggled to shift her idiot friend off me, I slowly realised that it was taking its sweet old time to go off. The seconds stretched on and on and painfully on, and it was then that I realised that I’d been ripped off. Of course, as it transpired I hadn’t been. The Police would have let me off, if that was the case. Just some harmless old eccentric lobbing toys around. No, that bastard bog-trotter hadn’t ripped me off. It was a grenade alright. Just a dud one. And because of that the Police had gotten me, bang to rights. And I confess, as I waited to stand trial, I did rue my own ingeniousness. Why hadn’t I just gone around shooting them? A bullet in the back of the head would have been so swift, so final. Why did I have to act like some kind of Bond villain? I mean, a grenade in her cleavage? What was I thinking?"
"Burr's stories are hard to categorize, as they're not strictly horror or fantasy per se. However, all are imbued with a dark flood of macabre images that continue to disturb and haunt long after reading. The stories carry a core psychological reality (even the more surreal), layered with pathos and fatalism wrapped in punkish sensibilities. Each narrative in Ugly Stories feels like a complete and nuanced world inhabited by isolated souls walking a dark, lonely road.As difficult and uncomfortable as it is to see ourselves sometimes in the darker aspects and recesses of art and literature, we are somehow compelled to stare into that abyss. Burr's collection just happens to make it all worth the pain."
Read this review in full at THE HARROW.Garvan Giltinan, The Harrow
"This is a collection of short stories that steadfastly refuses to be shoehorned into any genre niche, though those who enjoy horror will assuredly find much of what they like within its pages. If you pinned me down and asked for a writer James Burr is similar to, my answer would be Russell Hoban, though even that may be stretching a point, with perhaps a hint of the early Vonnegut. These stories are not ugly, though they often touch on aspects of life that are, and you don't need to have model girl/boy looks to read them, just an open mind and a willingness to embrace a young writer whose work is that little bit off the wall, but refreshingly so."Peter Tennant, Peter Tennant's Case Notes, BLACK STATIC.
Burr is not merely a "new" voice, he is a fresh voice – a different and disturbing voice - and one deserving of your attention. His work is not easily categorized, which may, or may not, be a good thing. There are certainly horrific elements to Mr. Burr's fiction, but also what can be more readily described as "dark fantasy" and even, perhaps "Bizarro" fiction. .....There is also a dry, sardonic, and often satirical humor running through much of the stories in the book. The stories in this collection worked, for me, because they were not merely "different," but because they truly were disturbing to me, as a reader, and many of the stories stayed with me long after I'd finished reading it. Be forewarned - these stories ....... require, perhaps, a bit more effort on the part of a reader; but those looking for something a bit different and challenging, will be handsomely rewarded. This book is highly recommended.
Read this review in full at HorrorworldNorm Rubenstein, HORRORWORLD
"Ugly Stories for Beautiful People feels like a book in its own little world. I don't mean to suggest that its stories never joined the party – a glance at the list of previous publication credits will reveal that they did – but there is a certain sense that this book stands to one side, that it's doing its own thing, as it were. The collection begins and ends with a story called BobandJane and its postscript, about a couple who are so very much in love (Burr's prose conveys this superbly) that, yes, they don't perceive reality as it is – and, at the very end, their bubble may just be starting to burst. Not just a neat story, it serves as a summation of the whole book, a book which covers a range of human emotion, precarious relationships and equally precarious realities (and there may not be much difference between the two); and whose intriguing constituent parts form a complete, intriguing entity."
"This reviewer has read countless collections of fiction, in many genres, many eras. That being said, Ugly Stories has got to be one of the oddest. That could be a negative, yet in this case, Burr's strong imagination and plaintive, yet very effective prose manages to pull it off. Odd, unique, very cool, and extremely readable, this collection is recommended for anyone looking for something different - or for one of us who isn't one of the beautiful people!"
Read this review in full at Hellnotes.David Simms, HELLNOTES
"It's always a pleasure to find an anthology that's well written and unique and that strikes a chord long after turning the final page. Ugly Stories For Beautiful People is just such a collection.These loosely linked stories begin with Bob and Jane, A Fable in Two Distinct Parts, about a couple whose adoration for each other is all-consuming. Foetal Attraction is deftly narrated by a pregnancy kit that wants nothing more than to deliver the happy news of impending motherhood to its rather unsavory owner. In The Dada Relationship Police, a man discovers that a shadowy group seems to know every aspect of his life and his relationships. In The Byronic Man, a man must decide how far he'll go to make himself attractive to the opposite sex. Burr takes a satirical look at what could happen when humans' proclivity for pretentiousness suddenly runs amok in It. And in the "postscript" story, Bob and Jane make a final disconcerting discovery…From the darkly twisted, to humorous to stories filled with illuminating social commentary, Burr's innovative speculative fiction is an insightful, and sometimes disturbing exploration of the human psyche. Read Ugly Stories For Beautiful People in its entirety for its full effect -- James Burr's work exemplifies what a well crafted short story is all about." Rating -- 3 out of 3 books
"Burr brings to life an almost zoological variety of characters, a sweeping menagerie of insipid drug dens, high art soirees, faltering romances, madness, and the ever-present reggae. Burr convincingly weaves together the various societal strata of London and Barcelona from beggar to bureaucrat, acid-head to activist, and brings them to life to co-exist side by side in the same heartbroken, disillusioned universe.Ultimately, Burr's view alternates between the sentimental bitterness of failed romance and a sweeping image of modern life in all its sickness and beauty. Burr's writing, like his characters and his world, fluctuates from the simple to the complex, from the vulgar to the sublime. It is as if Burr cannot decide whether he wants to indict society or glamorize it.And because that's the point, Ugly Stories for Beautiful People is worth a read."
These stories offer a wry sideways look at modern life and culture, twisting and turning the quirks of everyday life into something recognisable and yet entirely odd - like a caricature, perhaps. There are common themes: is what we call reality really real? How can our own minds fool us? Can simple statements and thoughts help use see the true reality from within our mindless everyday haze? There is also an obsession with relationships - and specifically what happens when they come to an end.....Ugly Stories for Beautiful People is a good collection of entertaining speculative fiction, which I would recommend without reservation. "
The most interesting thing about James Burr's stories, in my mind, is the use he makes of urban fantasy. In Burr's stories, the mundane creates the fantastical. When a real-life issue is loaded enough, when the mundane pressure grows and grows, then reality will twist and expand, and the impossible will occur. What Burr really pulls off well, then, is resonance. His stories are powerful because they are about pain, conflict, and emotions, and he tries to pick the ones that will be so powerful the reader will believe they are strong enough to warp reality. The impossible happens because the characters desperately want it to—and so Burr grants their wish. The bleak, depressing nature of these stories shows us full well how much confidence Burr places in humanity's desperate desires."
Ziv Wities, THE FIX
"Burr's short stories defy categorization. The stories vary in length and range in type from a tale told from the point of view of a pregnancy stick to the story of two people who are so in love with each other that they literally become one. The format of the book is also unusual. It has no table of contents, and the stories just sort of flow into each other. If there is a theme to the collection, it is about how the characters' perceptions prevent them from seeing the reality around them. Burr is a talented storyteller with an impressive imagination. His stories will be appreciated by readers of horror, bizarro fiction, and those who just like good writing. Recommended."
"The majority of the book is brilliantly written, with the basis for many of the stories involving relationships between wives/husbands, boyfriends/girlfriends, people/drugs, that range from the perverse (BOBANDJANE) to the bittersweet (Ménage Á Beaucoup). My personal favourite is probably ‘Life Is What You Make It’, involving as it does a woman dealing with grief in such a bizarre way that she’s fundamentally altered the structure of reality. [...] It might not be too bold to say the world needs more writers with fresh and weird ideas, and James Burr falls firmly into that camp."
"This collection could just as easily have been called Ugly Stories For Unsettling Contented People, for to enter the world of James Burr is to step into a region where reality is fluid and to be happy, or at least settled, is to be in incomplete possession of the facts. Once you enter, reality fractures in surprising and innocuous places. It was the shortest tales which for me had the greatest impact -- the delusions and, ultimately, kindness revealed in Mutton Pie; the pace and linguistic inventiveness of The Byronic Man; and best of all from this collection, It, which is a gem of a story, at once hilarious and horrific, a story which leaves you envying the author its premise while admiring the perfect balance with which that premise is developed. The best test of such a collection is the success with which the author inveigles you into their world. In this case, I finished the book in the food court of a shopping mall, put it down, looked around me, and waited for the cracks to show. "