This trio of beauties originally appeared in Black Static #27:-
CATE GARDNER: THREE THINGS
Cate Gardner doesn’t write like anybody else. In a field where individuality is at a premium and having a unique voice is valued above all else, she is a true original, a writer whose work brings to mind the imagery of Magritte as distorted by the aesthetic of Tim Burton, but with a playfulness and humanity that is all her own.
Gardner is a genre of one, and while that genre might not be horror, there are plenty of places where the two collide, shared agendas and a common visual language.
Exhibit One: NOWHERE HALL (Spectral Press chapbook, 25pp, £3.50) is already sold out, but if you keep your eyes open I’m sure you’ll see the story around somewhere sooner or later. It’s a novelette which, no matter how you cut it, is a ghost story, but also a ghost story quite like no other, a Cate Gardner ghost story.
Let go by his firm, Ron Spence is on the verge of stepping into a traffic laden road, but instead his attention is drawn by a boarded up hotel, The Vestibule. He enters, and as he explores its corridors and rooms the hotel flickers in and out of existence, both ruin and art deco showplace at the same time, to the point that we are unsure if Ron is a ghost in an abandoned building or a flesh and blood human being in some spectral hotel, and circumstances could even be the other way around. He is threatened by inchoate, shadowy figures and the staff try to make him leave, but at the same time he learns things about his own past and that of others, coming to a greater understanding of what is required of him, why he has been granted this revelatory experience. His work colleague Felicity Baxter’s father killed himself in this hotel, and when she comes with the intention of following in his footsteps Ron is able to divert her, or perhaps he only joins her – Gardner leaves the end open, ambiguous.
It’s almost a stream of consciousness ghost story, if there can be such a thing, with events bleeding into each other and surreal imagery (e.g. Death as a man with an umbrella), not a word wasted and imagery laden with meaning, so that you almost instantly want to read the work again and pick up on all the things you missed first time around, and then again after that, with the assurance that there will always be something new waiting to be discovered. The identity of haunter and haunted becomes an irrelevance as we peer behind the veil and regard a subtext that seems to imply we can save others, even if we can’t rescue our own selves. It is a tale that is as unique as it is eminently readable, the ghost story as something strangely beautiful and beautifully strange.
Exhibit Two: BARBED WIRE HEARTS (Delirium hardback/e-Book, 85pp, $25/$4.94) is a novella, originally released as a limited edition hardback, and now also available in e-format. It wasn’t the best novella that I read in 2011, but it was the finest out of those I read that were actually published in the year.
Rejected by Stacey and humiliated by her friend, teenager Eddie wanders out of Monksend and into a forest that wasn’t there before, where he meets the demonic Irwin Ghoate, who collects human hearts. Eddie is sent back into the real world to spread a plague of spiders who wrap silk round their victims’ hearts, preserving them for Ghoate. The only person who can save the town is Stacey’s sister Rose, who died in a road accident but has come back as a zombie. However Rose has problems of her own, pursued by the monstrous Seth, who eats hearts and thinks that he is in love with her. Just to complicate matters further, there’s a ghost hanging round, that of Melissa who drove the car that knocked down Rose.
I mentioned Tim Burton before, and this is just the sort of crazy, surreal horror story that would translate into a Burton film, with Johnny Depp as Eddie and Helena Bonham Carter as Rose. There’s a similar fusion of the monstrous and the miraculous, the two melding and throwing light onto each other, with sparkling dialogue and larger than life characters thrown into the mix at no extra charge. As the title implies, it’s about hearts – those whose hearts are smashed and broken, those whose hearts are taken, and those who give them freely. Rose is able to save them all because she is prepared to give up her heart to break the spell, while for Eddie the thing is to move past the keenly felt agonies of unrequited love and learn to value his own heart, to feel the same forgiveness and unconditional love for himself that he offers to others.
And in the figure of Ghoate and his sometime minion Seth, Gardner gives us a compelling evocation of evil, creatures who can sound perfectly reasonable even as they excuse the unpardonable and embrace atrocities of the worst kind.
Barbed Wire Hearts is a writer working at the limit of her ability and invention, an enchanting fable of modern relationships, with zombies and flesh eating cannibals all thrown into the mix, plus a touch of the wry humour that seems to be Gardner’s special stock in trade.
Exhibit Three: THEATRE OF CURIOUS ACTS (Hadley Rille Books hard/paperback, 179pp, $24/$12) is the longest of these three works, technically still a novella but a short novel in all but name, and it is the most ambitious.
While serving as a soldier in the trenches during the Great War, Daniel Cole has a strange encounter with a man called Corolina, who grants him a vision of the possible future. Returned home in 1918, Daniel and four others from the trenches find that they are fated to represent humanity in a conflict that could mean the end of the world. A visit to the Theatre of Curious Acts leads into some other dimension where they must confront the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse, and somehow divert them from their intended path of destruction. But nothing is quite what it seems in Gardner’s world, and the ending has an ouroboros quality to it.
There are many things to commend this book, not least the ceaseless invention, as Gardner takes her characters from the grimly realised hell of the Great War trenches through into another dimension, one where there are dragons and phantom armies fighting battles that can never be truly won, culminating in the final section where worlds overlap and pirate ships bristling with guns sail into the modern world bringing the End of Days in their wake, the two versions of reality bleeding into each other, as if ghosts have been superimposed on the modern world. On nearly every page there is something new, something to delight with the audacity of its conception and the way in which, no matter how fantastic it may seem, Gardner effortlessly slots it into her grand design. And make no mistake, despite the often pot and frying pan nature of the adventures and experiences inflicted on Daniel Cole and his companions, this is a cunningly structured story, one where every detail takes us closer to the ordained end, and things that seemed without purpose loom ever more significantly in the pattern that is slowly emerging.
Characterisation is another strong point, with Daniel Cole as the quintessential decent human being, always trying to do what is right and harm no-one in the process, and it speaks volumes that such an ordinary individual is chosen to champion mankind. Each of his fellow veterans is similarly well realised, with the caddish Swan Ecklund standing out from the others, a Flashman for the new millennium. Gardner gives us Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse, each of them manifesting as an archetypal agent of destruction, but with a human side, so that while they are capable of mass slaughter in the performance of their allotted (and much longed for) task, they are also up for flirting with the men in uniform and perhaps even falling in love.
This is an End of Days not quite like any other, one filled with miracle and wonder certainly, but also a very human drama, a story underpinned with compassion and, as with Gardner’s other works, a focus on what is truly of value. While they provide a pretext for the story, ultimately the cosmic wheels within wheels are as unimportant here as the sterile ideologies that drive empires and cause wars to be fought. It’s the people who matter, more than the principles and the politics, more than philosophy and first causes, Or, as Daniel Cole puts it – ‘He had fought for the children in Morden Street School, for the destitute in the poorhouse, for the local bakers, butchers, fishmongers, for his mother and for his father, for his brother.’