Full disclosure: I appeared alongside Tom Over in The Bumper Book of British Bizarro, which includes two of the stories reprinted in this collection.
The Comfort Zone and Other Safe Spaces is represented twice on the Splatterpunk Award ballot, as one of its stories – “Phylum” – is up for Best Short Story. So, let us take a look at the rest of the book…
The collection opens with the decidedly quirky “Tunnels”, in which man swallows a heirloom pendant to prevent it from being stolen by muggers. After passing through his digestive system, the once-chipped pendant emerges in immaculate condition; his inspires him to begin experimenting with the effects of his gut on various other heirlooms. Next is “The Wetness”, which opens with a graphic description of a man’s nocturnal emission; as the narative unfolds, we learn that the protagonist is followed seemingly wherever he goes by a mysterious gooey puddle. What begins as a story of bodily-function gross-out turns into a ghost story of love, loss, suspicion, frustration and a very strange fetish.
These first two stories turn out to be a representative introduction to the collection as a whole. Tom Over shows that he is never in a hurry: his tales tend to feature an understated oddness that gradually builds as the narrative unfolds. Often his stories will conclude with a twist that replaces one form of strangeness with another, more striking variety which still occupies the same mundane setting. In “The Portable Hum” a humorous anecdote about the narrator receiving accidental telephone calls from their father takes a darker turn when the protagonist ends up listening in on something inexplicable. “The Happiest Thought”, which has a similar ambience to Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”, depicts a family home that becomes the location of bizarre spatial distortions: a large whirlpool appears in a plugged bathtub; the staircase starts to grow and contract; and new areas open up, so large that members of the family start going missing.
None of the family members in “The Happiest Thought” are given names: they are simply the father, the mother, the son and the daughter. This lends a detached aspect that Over puts to good use throughout the collection. The stories often have the tantalising quality of incomplete anecdotes told by somebody who knows more than they are letting on.
The stories in the collection show a variety of tones and writing styles. One of the more conventional entries is “The Ceaseless Wave”, a slow-burning story in which a submarine crew follow a distress call to a gruesome surprise. Meanwhile, “Physical Media” – about an everyday couple who allow their love-lives to be manipulated by an artificially intelligent television – is deliberately written in a tell-don’t-show style, emphasising that the characters are puppets under the control of the AI. The most experimental piece on the collection is “The Embarrassed Landscape”, about a Kafkaesque trial occurring in a hotel room, which is written in script format (the subtitle identifies it as a play, but really, the camera directions mean that it would only work as a short film).
In “The Vegetarians” Tom Over manages to find an inventive spin on the zombie apocalypse. Here, the infected are nicknamed “veggies” because of their reluctance to eat human flesh, instead using their victims’ innards in macabre games. The main focus of the story is on an everyday couple who try to cling to their way of life in the face of the cataclysm, with twisted results. Over later moves from the zombie apocalypse to its avian equivalent with “A Murmur of Shadows”: the main character is a small boy who puts up with a number of problems including an over-strict stepfather, bullying at nursery school, and a Hitchcockian flock of killer birds whose attacks are described in graphic detail.
Both “The Vegetarians” and “A Murmur of Shadows” include sequences depicting weird graffiti, with the implication that the phenomena depicted in each story was somehow caused by this street art. This turns out to be a plot thread running through the collection, one leading into the title story “The Comfort Zone” which deals specifically with the appearance of weird murals. According to reports, those who read the tagged words out loud become the centres of strange and terrible phenomena: including unexplained explosions and apparitions of curious animals. The story is written from perspective of couple trying to find their sons in the confusion. The collection wraps up with “Millipede Dreams”, a short, surreal story in which a character is pursued through a weird mansion by a younger version of himself.
The Comfort Zone and Other Safe Spaces has its moments of visceral gore, but what truly leaves an impression is the reality-warping strangeness that gradually builds throughout each story.