Review: ‘Tiny Deaths’ by Robert Shearman

Anyone who knows me or has been following my increasingly sparse writings here in The Pit knows that I am a colossal Doctor Who fan, but may not know that my favorite writer in the history of the franchise is Rob Shearman. While most recognize his name as being the writer of the 2005 episode “Dalek”, that was neither the first, nor the last, contribution he made to Doctor Who.

In the years leading up to “Dalek”, Shearman had written several audio dramas and Short Trips produced and published by Big Finish Productions, most notably The Holy Terror (November 2000), The Chimes of Midnight (February 2002), Jubilee (January 2003) (which would serve as the basis for what would become “Dalek”), and Scherzo (December 2003). In the years following his inaugural TV Doctor Who story, he continued to contribute to the franchise through short stories which were published in collections alongside other short stories from various authors, such as The Frozen Wastes from 2008’s The Story of Martha.

What drew and continues to draw me toward Shearman’s work on Who is not just the high praises sung for him by fans (especially Stuart Hardy), but his ability to revel in absurdity without alienating the listener or reader. Instead, by finding a way to convey mundanity amongst the absurdist tropes he employs, not only is Shearman able to keep his stories grounded but also inject humor into a situation which should not be in any way funny. The Chimes of Midnight, especially, is a stellar example of this; whenever one of the servants in the house dies, no matter the amount of obvious evidence which points to them being murdered, the rest of the staff make incredulous leaps of logic to come to the false conclusion that it was a suicide. Drowned in the sink despite standing up? Suicide. Stuffed to the gills with your own plum pudding? Suicide. Tire marks over the torso while inside the house? Clearly, they brought the Chrysler (or Bentley) into the house, ran themselves over, brought the car back outside, then returned to the house where they promptly expired.

So when I learned of his multiple short story anthologies, I was curious. Working within the boundaries of an established universe such as Doctor Who, despite its infinite potential for stories, can be rather confining due to the nature of its main character, i.e. the Doctor. What does Shearman’s work outside of Who bring to the table that he could not do with a Time Lord and a TARDIS?

If Tiny Deaths is anything to go by, the answer is “plenty”. Despite these stories being short, Shearman does not waste a single word on a single page in his conveyance of various aspects of mortality, death, and humanity’s relationship with them. Just as well, the dark subject matter and themes pervading every story did not induce apathy as I kept reading. The tone varies between each story, and in some cases during a story, between uncertain, comedic, melancholic, shocking, and just down right depressing. And yet, at the end of it all, I felt strangely uplifted despite having just read about a little boy who desperately wanted to see his mother again despite knowing deep down that she was never coming back from wherever it is she went.

Of the fourteen stories collected, the stand-outs to me are “Mortal Coil”, the introductory story, which explores how the world would change if everyone on Earth knew exactly when and how they would die; “Ashes to Ashes”, which shows the grieving process from the perspective of a deceased child who is reincarnated as her mother’s ashtray; “Damned If You Don’t”, which sees a man who was sentenced to Hell having to be roommates with Hitler’s dog, and its ending had induced in me a state of…well, immeasurable internal conflict bordering on what I can only describe as existential dread; “So Proud”, the mere premise of which dives so deep into the realm of ridiculousness that I had to stifle hyena-like laughter while my classmates finished taking a test; and “Tiny Deaths” itself, which offers an intriguingly profound perspective on the compassion and love for humanity exhibited by Jesus Christ. Even if you’re not a religious person (I certainly know I’m not), it’s a fascinating read, despite how deeply it often finds itself steeped in the heretical as well as apocryphal.

The one story which did not gel well with me, however, at least initially, was “Perfect”, the second one in the collection. On my first read through of it, it felt unfocused because of its ending, where the little girl a couple had been grieving the loss of during her birthday suddenly got a job at the restaurant she was left at after suddenly aging up to seventeen years old. But upon reexamining this single story, I realized that she is more of a metaphysical representation of grief brought on by the loss of a loved one. She changes based on someone’s grief over someone they have lost, hence the age up when the waiter asked if she was old enough to work. It is subtle, but the prose suggests that, much like how he had found a wife despite not intending to, he had also had a child with her some time ago despite not wanting children. People grieve in different ways, but people still grieve.

If I could point out any sort of flaw with these stories collectively it would be its sentence structure. The way Shearman writes is akin to having a casual conversation with a friend down at the pub, which on one hand makes for an engaging read. On the other hand, there are numerous long sentences which are actually smaller phrases and statements haphazardly strung together with commas in order to emulate genuine human speech in a casual setting. Most of the time, it does work, but when these sentences become paragraphs with the only period being at the end, I found myself rereading a bit in order to digest such statements or slowing down and pacing my reading so that I could try and digest the various parts of the sentence into individual statements.

Despite some its shortcomings, Tiny Deaths is a marvelously dark, funny, uncomfortable, insightful, and satirical anthology which I can not recommend enough, regardless of one’s taste in literature. Shearman’s prose may take some getting used to, but doing so likely will not take much time. It is a light read at about 212 pages, but the impact some of these stories have will stick around long after closing the cover.

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