Here’s a review from Black Static #21 of Cate Gardner’s collection Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits.
Cate is good people, by which I mean she comments here occasionally.
I’m not sure, but it might be Cate’s birthday some time this week, and if so then this is a happy coincidence, and also saves me having to buy and send a card, not that I was going to anyway.
I am sure that today is the longest day of the year (google sure, which is the same as the real thing). That too is a reason to celebrate.
Here’s the review:-
With twenty four stories between its covers, Cate Gardner’s STRANGE MEN IN PINSTRIPE SUITS AND OTHER CURIOUS THINGS (Strange Publications paperback, 191pp, $11.99) is a smorgasbord of the surreal with strands of absurdity ripping through its core, each quirky story riffing on an internal logic with echoes of Monty Python at its most bizarre and informed by a delight in language that matches the exuberance of Bradbury at the height of his powers. This is not fiction of the one plus one equals two variety, and if that’s your thing best to move down the bus right now. Not everything makes sense in Gardner’s worlds, but then they are her worlds rather than consensus reality and so different standards, not to mention different laws of physics, may apply. But there is always stuff to enjoy, to mull over and return to again and again, with intriguing concepts and stunningly apt metaphors. Right from the opening story – the one page ‘Dandelion Fluff’ in which a visit by spacemen is witnessed by a plant with aspirations to represent its planet in their specimen bag – we know that we’ve bust out of the cause and effect factory and into some other, magical land of pure story, one in which fairy tales and science fiction, horror and cartoons merge and blur.
The longest story in the book, ‘Chasing Alice out of Wonderland’, was also my favourite, with a world in which zombies exist and some people want to kill them while others protect their rights, but if that makes you think paranormal romance and/or groan, then you couldn’t be more wrong. Gardner’s characters have an innocence versus redneck sensibility that is all their own, the story like Night of the Living Dead crossed with The Wizard of Oz, and chock full of scraps and transformations that enthral with their audacity, and for the chutzpah the author brings to the telling. In particular, the image of a zombie scarecrow writhing on its pole is not soon to be forgotten, but only one of the many delights of this endlessly inventive and in your face story.
An aquatic man seeks a mate in ‘Opheliac’, while Ruby disappears from her own life in ‘Forest of Discarded Hearts’. ‘Burying Sam’ presents a new approach to the matter of death, and in ‘The Sulphurous Clouds of Lucifer Matches’ young Molly avoids the wiles of an arrogant nobleman and outwits three witches in a forest, to score a victory for match girls everywhere. ‘The Scratch of an Old Record’ provides a novel take on the idea of the imaginary friend, while a young woman auditions for the circus in ‘Parasol Dance with the Chalkstripe Man’, and is reunited with her long lost father. ‘Through the Warped Eye of Death’ has a man so upset by the demise of his mother that he wants to paint the whole world black, the story offering the tantalising possibility that it stands as a metaphor for the way in which depression affects our vision of the world, but then jumping off in another (and more literal) direction entirely, with the author casually juggling ideas along the way to a showstopper final line.
Another of my personal favourites, ‘Frog & The Mail Order Bride’ cleverly reverses the logic of the story in which a kissed frog becomes a prince, with a man called Frog kissing his hideous bride, only for her to become far, far worse. In ‘The Moth Brigade’ robot fire fighters neglect their duty to battle dragons and so, in a glorious hybrid of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels with Sheckley’s classic story ‘Watchbird’, they are replaced by robot dragons. The heroine of ‘The Other Side of Nowhere’ wishes to be buried with her beloved in the belief that she will dig the two of them out and into the ‘world below’ where he will be restored to life, and ‘The Man Who Climbed Out of a Suitcase’ turns out to be an alien tourist who ends up as a blue skinned rug on the floor of a judge’s bathroom.
Two characters become the stars of a circus freak show in ‘Manipulating Paper Birds’, with dire consequences for one of them, while ‘Trench Foot’, depending on your point of view, is either an account of a mental patient’s illness or involves the war between the robot swarm and the fairies. One of my favourites, ‘Reflective Curve of a Potion Bottle’ has a cure for the bearded lady, but while the hair may disappear the guilt that put it there is another matter. Last story ‘Empty Box Motel’ (the title refers to a morgue, one of the many instances of wordplay that punctuate this book) marks the passing of a young woman with a chronic condition, who finally finds escape thanks to the help of some pinned butterflies.
There’s an addictive quality to these stories, so that as soon as you finish one you want to rush on to the next. And yes, I’ve probably given away an ending or two, but that doesn’t matter, because the fun is in seeing how Gardner pulls the rug out from under your feet – it’s like the magic show, where you know the beautiful assistant will disappear from the sealed box, and you know that it’s all done with smoke and mirrors, but the performance is everything. Recommended to those who like their fiction unrepentantly offbeat, idiosyncratic and not quite like anything else that is out there.