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Review: Defending the Pencil Factory, by Adam Marek

By Farhana Khalique

“Daryl is taking too long with the pencil sharpener, and all down the line we are sweating…” So begins Adam Marek’s short story, Defending the Pencil Factory, and so far you might think that it’s about plucky assembly line workers threatening industrial action. Or a group of school children about to take a test, who may or may not have beef with a boy called Daryl. The reality is far more unsettling.

For it soon transpires that they are youngsters, holed up in said factory, besieged by a hoard of monsters. Fortunately, the kids are karate students and have a chance of survival. Unfortunately, their attackers are evil personified, and they just keep on coming…

It’s Marek’s blend of the real and the surreal that provides the tension. Ribbons of pencil shavings, the smell of sandalwood, rivalry between dojo members, and references to places such as “the valley” and “Beagle Farm Rec Centre” convey a sense of the earthy, everyday. In fact, “northern winds” and “where graphite was born” indicate that the location is Borrowdale in Cumbria, the origin of the humble lead pencil. But why is everyone sharpening pencils? Why are they under attack? And why is Daryl such a dick? The questions pile up, and we realise that something is very, very wrong.

I mentioned monsters, and, like some of the best horror films, Marek reveals his beasts in drip-fed glimpses. They are in turns swarming, broken-postured, ravenous, a marbled grey mass. They are also humanoid (one “gets an arm through” a barricade) and utterly savage (swift to “dismantle” their victims, or tear them “like paper”).

Speaking of films, there is a cinematic quality to Marek’s writing, as is conveyed by his imagery and use of pace. The incoming hoard is reminiscent of the swarm of orcs in the mines of Moria or the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings films. Or, the army of yakuza that flood the House of Blue Leaves restaurant in Kill Bill. Or, countless martial arts or war films where the heroes are outnumbered by a gazillion to one. At one point, someone even unleashes a battle cry worthy of comparison with Bruce Lee’s epic scream.

One film in particular is recalled throughout and provides a source of comfort and inspiration to the outnumbered heroes: The Six Fists of Fung To. No, it’s not a Bruce Lee Fist of Fury-style flick, because it (unfortunately) doesn’t exist. However, along with the pencil, it’s a compelling metaphor for the power of ideas and artistic integrity in the face of attack.

Finally, I am new to Marek’s work, but I was immediately hooked by the startling precision of his writing. Like their Sensei’s legendary spinning back kick, the story of these kids and their fight for survival lifts you off your feet and then leaves you somewhere else, wondering what on earth just happened. And, like the best endings, it leaves you wanting more.

Defending the Pencil Factory is published by The Guillemot Factory, a collaboration between Guillemot Press & The Word Factory. Each title has been fully illustrated by Donya Todd. The title can be purchased on the Guillemot Press website here.

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