As a reviewer, it is always challenging knowing how to judge an anthology. Do you rate it by its strongest stories or its weakest? The best approach for me is trying to find the words to express how they made me feel and if any of the writing lingered with me in the days after the final page.
Million Story City is a strange book. It contains short stories, comic strips, musical journalism, and film scripts by the writer and filmmaker Marcus Preece. It would have been easy for it to feel disjointed and confused with such a variety of formats. It never did, though.
In parts, this is down to the way Preece writes. He has an unfussy style that is exceptionally readable. It is also partly due to the recurring themes of perception and memory that form the basis of many of the stories. I would be curious to find out why he choose to tell some of the stories in the format that he did. Unfortunately, due to his passing away, this is impossible.
Coming to the stories themselves, there are some corkers here. The best pieces were the scripts. It is the format that I felt he was at his most comfortable, where he flowed best. Preece has a knack for writing authentic-sounding dialogue and a brilliant ability to pace his stories in his screenplays. The feature-length Everybody’s Happy Nowadays about how one man struggles to cope with how quickly Britain has moved on from the turbulent Thatcher years and how frail memories can devastate one’s self-perception is the jewel in the anthology. It is a terrific screenplay with endearing characters and a snarky punk sense of humour running all the way through it. His adaptation of Diary of a Madman is disturbing and haunting also features tight dialogue and pacing. There is a seam of humour running through all the pieces, even the darker ones.
Of the short stories, The Legend of the Lonesome Cowboy stands out. This, along with Everybody’s Happy Nowadays, are the pieces that settled in my head after I had finished the book. Without wanting to give too much away, there are many parallels between the two stories. The most striking of which to me was how both explored the idea of being able to go home again. The Bad Witch of Bentway was rollicking fun too.
There are weaker pieces in the anthology. Swiftnick creaked along, and I saw the twist coming a mile off. Also, I did not care for his music journalism or his correspondence. I don’t read a lot of poetry, so I am not the best person to judge. Still, my impression is that it was a mixed bag mostly focused on immigration and its politics. Nice enough, but it’s not really my jam.
The comics were delightful. Paul Humphrey’s has nice expressive line work, and the black and white illustrations are quirky. There is much of Preece’s humour in the comics, and like with his other writing, he is not afraid to go to some strange places. The early comics were swamped with too much text, but this got much better as they went on. Mostly they were amusing looks at class and being an outsider. Citizen Kanine and The Immigrant were the picks of the bunch. It is a shame that they did not do more work together as I got a sense they were developing into a really good comic team towards the end.
Overall I am glad to have discovered Preece’s writing. This is not a book I would have chosen to read, but I am glad I did. One of the highest compliments I can pay is that Preece made me think about how I write a bit. His style is confident, unhurried and unconceited. There are a few techniques, such as his economy with words and ideas around identity, that I am going to nick for my own stories. This is a collection of smart, strange, and eclectic stories told by an accomplished writer with a superb ear for dialogue and creating engaging characters. Very, very much worth your time.