Book Review: Last Year, When We Were Young, by Andrew McKiernan

An award-winning collection of 16 short stories. Although billed as horror, the author writes in a wide range of voices, finding just the right one for each story.

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Reading this collection was something of a departure for me as I don’t usually read horror stories but I’m very glad I stepped outside my comfort zone. Andrew McKiernan is a writer and illustrator living on the Central NSW coast. He was a magazine Art Director until his wife encouraged him to write his own stories rather than just illustrate others’ work and he was first published in 2007.

This collection of sixteen short stories was a worthy winner of the 2014 Australian Shadows Award for Best Collected Work and includes an afterword by the author with some insights into where McKiernan finds his ideas and how he develops his stories. Although this collection is categorised as ‘horror’, the author does not want to be pigeonholed into any particular genre and this shows in the variety of stories. He writes in a wide range of ‘voices’, finding just the right one for each story.

lastyearwhenwewereyoung200For me, the creepiest is White Lines, White Crosses. The main character is a young man whose teenage angst is exacerbated by being taken away from his friends and busy city life style when his doctor father moves to a country hospital. We see Ryan’s resentment at the move before they even reach their new home when, on the outskirts of town, his father stops to assist at a car accident. While waiting for his father, Ryan sees several white crosses on trees and telegraph poles.  e counts them as they continue the drive into town:

Twenty at least. Each one surrounded by flowers and photos and empty beer cans
like offerings at an altar.

The main entertainment for the boys appears to be racing their souped-up cars and his new friends tell Ryan of a legend that if you drive fast enough on Bundarra Road you can see all those who have died there. Each cross marks the site of a fatal accident and it’s the place the friends come to share a beer and a smoke and to remember the dead, rather than going to their funeral. Like Ryan, I was ‘creeped out’ by the idea of having a drink with and talking to a dead person as if he was there with them. I won’t spoil the ending for you but suffice to say McKiernan maintains the suspense and the chills right to the end of the story.

This is a very clever and at times disturbing collection. It hadn’t really occurred to me that horror stories could also be a vehicle for social commentary such as one finds in The Message and The Desert Song. I particularly enjoyed the stories that do not have a neat resolution and leave one wondering, such as A Prayer for Lazarus and the last in the collection Last year, When We Were Young.

Reviewed by: Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10:  9

Publisher: Satalyte Publishing
Release Date: June 2014
RRP: $22.49 paperback, $4.49 eBook

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