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Out Of His Mind by Stephen Gallagher

01/01/2005. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

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pub: PS Publishing. 409 page limited edition book. Delux slipcase hardback: Price: 60.00 (UK), $90.00 (US). ISBN: 1-902-880-97-8. Hardback: Price: 35.00 (UK), $50.00 (US). ISBN: 1-902-880-95-6.

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In his career, Stephen Gallagher's published novels have tended to be placed under the umbrella of either horror or thriller. Much of his work has been done for television which has left him with little time to write shorter fiction. This volume brings together a selection of twenty-two stories and novelettes written between 1985 and 1997. At the end of the volume, a section of 'End Notes' provides insights into the origin of the stories. Some have been written as a result of a request to contribute to an anthology, but the spark of most of them are incidents from his own life.

Gallagher writes very well about children, particularly boys, knowing what motivates them and how the carelessness of youth can lead to unintentional cruelty. Sometimes this cruelty is an incidental to the main thrust of the story as in 'The Jigsaw Girl', where it is the jigsaw itself rather than its owner that is the focus. When pieced together, it appears to show the future. In 'Magpie', though, the cruelty is intentional, both on the part of the boy who bullies the narrator and the narrator who takes the chance for revenge when it is offered. Boys inevitably attempt to go where they are told not to, not accepting the idea that sometimes adults know what they are talking about. In 'O, Virginia' sneaking into the freak show of a travelling fun fair seems natural and only leads to misconceptions.

The curiosity of the boys in 'The Drain' has much more serious consequences. This latter is one of the three novelettes. The greater length gives room for heightened tension as the three boys try to escape from a security guard by crawling along a drain, pursued by something that may or may not be a dog. 'Little Angels' is another story in which the cruelty of children is observantly portrayed. The boys here nastily taunt their patient grandmother during a train ride up a mountain. This story has an understated twist to it and is all the more effective for it.

A story with a twist ending is good when it makes the reader go, 'Yes!', rather than groan. Both 'Modus Operandi' in which the neighbourhood has been plagued with a number of thefts and 'Fancy That' in which a man is searching for a special Christmas present are of the former type. Although 'Poisoned' can also be regarded as a story with a twist, it is also a far more poignant story as it shows sympathetically the problems of being different from others. At the same time, it is another example of the cruelty of children and the unhappy relationship society still has with the disabled. 'The Sluice' also asks us to take another look at the way we treat people with disabilities. Martin is the disabled son of devoted elderly parents but after they reluctantly give him up to a care home he is cruelly rejected by his sister who sees him as an embarrassment.

There are ghost stories here, too. 'Old Red Shoes' is set in a new office built on the site of the first of the Whitechapel murders. Amongst the boxes brought from the old offices, Joanne finds a pair of dusty red suede shoes. When they re-appear after being thrown out, she thinks Raymond is playing her a joke on her. However, something more sinister is involved. 'The Horn' is a chilling story in more ways than one. Three men are stranded in a blizzard in a workman's hut on the motorway. The ghost of the woman buried in the concrete of the bridge under repair is out for revenge. This is a very well crafted story with clues planted from the start which gradually begin to make sense. The atmosphere is intense and nothing is wasted in creating this nightmare, making it one of the best in the volume.

It has competition, though. 'Life Line' is a very modern ghost story. Ryan spends hours talking to a telephone chatline. He believes that one of the people he is talking to is his lost girlfriend. The problem is that she committed suicide some time previously.

Occasionally, there is an incident of pure, gory horror. In 'Driving Force', an accomplished thief is hired to steal a prototype car. It doesn't look particularly out of the ordinary but as he is forced to continue driving due to his rendezvous failing, he begins to realise that the fuel this vehicle uses is not petrol. This story is not for the squeamish.

Gallagher is equally at home setting his stories in the past. 'By The River, Fontainebleau' has a nineteenth century flavour. Two young men with aspirations to be artists are exploring France. Seeking shelter at a rundown farm are faced with a choice. One decides to abandon their journey and head home, the other, smitten by the farmer's daughter, decides to stay. The choice is not just about the immediate future, but also their respective careers. For one, there will be a life of relative normality, for the other a descent into horror. Choices are also at the heart of 'Not Here, Not Now', a short brutal story of a driver suddenly faced with a decision which will cost him or anther person their life.

'In Gethsemane' brings together a number of the themes Gallagher has explored in other stories. It is set in Victorian Britain. Goulston and Kelly seem a strange pairing. One is a magician, performing tricks for his audience, a showman. The other is a medium. Goulston's ambition is to prove that Kelly is a fake. This is a supernatural story but shows the effects that another's jealousy, frustration and ambition can cause.
There are other stories in this collection. They are all worth reading but some have more impact than others. Like other books from this publisher, this is a good looking book with a signed and numbered bookplate bound in. The introduction to the volume is written by Brian Clemens.
Pauline Morgan

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