Filler content from Tartarus

A couple of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #40:-

TWO FROM TARTARUS

Edited by Rosalie Parker, STRANGE TALES VOLUME IV (Tartarus Press hc, 252pp, £35) opens with ‘By Leaf and Thorn’ by Christopher Harman, in which a local newspaper whose new editor has corporate ambitions finds that dropping a nature column is not such a good idea, when it turns out that the crusty old lady who writes it is simply the amanuensis for an elemental spirit, the story offering a collision of corporate values with rural folklore, and the former not coming off too well, the narrative undercut with a subtle, rustic humour that plays well against the more overtly sinister aspects of the plot. ‘The Secret Passage’ is an ingenious and playful piece in which a young man’s desire to design a house and skill at puppetry combine in a way that brings all his dreams to fruition, author Rhys Hughes almost seeming to spin fiction out of thin air and deftly moving from one idea to another, the thread of the narrative like the clew that leads to the centre of the labyrinth the story eventually becomes.

In Rebecca Lloyd’s ‘Gone to the Deep’ a young woman marries an islander to secure his land, but finds that the man who should love her is enthralled by a sea spirit, one that will have him no matter what, the story strange in a manner that brought to mind the work of Aickman, but written with a powerful and distinctive voice, moving to an ending that was as satisfying as it was bittersweet. A visitor to Berlin, fascinated with the city’s fascist past, gets rather more first-hand experience than he cares for in ‘You Promised You Would Walk’ by John Howard, the story touching on those places where the walls between one reality and another are especially thin and showing that the bad things don’t always go away, that change is essentially a matter of perspective.

The protagonist of ‘Forth’ by A.J. McIntosh has decided to live in isolation, but chance encounters with a mysterious woman who may have absconded from a nearby asylum undermine his hermit aspirations, only to eventually lead him into the presence of something outré and terrible, the story catching the reader’s interest with ambiguity, strange details gradually mounting until we are pitched over the edge with a final, telling revelation. Dulcie quite literally bottles up her feelings in V. H. Leslie’s ‘Preservation’, this metaphor made flesh serving as a conduit to the final shattering encounter with her husband, damaged war veteran Niles, though I couldn’t help feeling that the success of the story hinged a little too much on a vital lack of communication between the characters.

In the obliquely surreal ‘The Man Who Wore His Father’s Clothes’ by Andrew Apter a man inherits his father’s suit but wearing it only leads to an awareness of his own lack of depth, that clothes not only maketh the man but in some cases actually become him, the story beguiling, but all a little too abstract for my liking and not quite reaching the resolution it seemed to be steering for. There’s a delightful change of pace courtesy of Angela Slatter with ‘The Badger Bride’, a medieval tale in which a gifted restorer of old books is given a text on magic to work at, finding love and redemption in an unusual twist of the plot, the story beautifully written and characterised, with evil given a repellent face and the peace of the natural world offered as counterpoint to human malice.

Career criminal Roderick tries to get to the root of his deceased mother’s obsession with Greek mythology by visiting the country in ‘The Amber Komboloi’ by Matt Leyshon, but a supernatural experience, which remains compellingly vague, only gives him momentary pause in his headlong flight to self-destruction, the story rich in atmosphere and ending with a note of despair at human nature. A journalist visits Mumbai ‘For a Last Spark of the Divine’ in Mark Francis’ story, but while there’s a satisfactory build up and strong sense of place, ultimately the story felt to me like too much atmosphere and not enough substance. Similar comments could apply to ‘The Recovery’ by H.V. Chao, in which a writer staying at a small hotel becomes fascinated by the cries of sexual pleasure from the room next door, the story as a whole feeling too oblique and off centre to satisfy.

‘Drowning in Air’ by Andrew Hook involves a visit to a Japanese island where the people carry gas masks with them all the time owing to the threat of the local volcano, but underlying this is a stealth parable on the plasticity of identity, as one character becomes another, slipping effortlessly into the life of the protagonist, the anonymity of gas masks conferring a certain freedom. Jason A. Wyckoff delivers one of the best stories in the anthology with ‘The Homunculus in the Curio’, the dialogue between a magical creature and the dying man who has “befriended” him a pure pleasure to read, but at the end there is a coda that is much darker, noting how magic has all but disappeared from our world, the fairies and their kin all banished in the face of human disbelief, so that the story is rich in both charm and existential despair.

Echoing Asimov’s classic story ‘The Dead Past’, the bittersweet ‘Time’ by Richard Hill packs a powerful punch, with the marketing of time travel bringing results that were not anticipated by its inventors, including a world in which we are haunted by our future selves, the story touching on the media driven need for spectacle and ending on a truly sombre note. The final story comes from the pen of John Gaskin, and tells of a collector who purchases ‘The Memento Mori’ only to find that it, and he, is cursed, with a form of spectral vengeance playing out. It’s not the most original idea in the book, but Gaskin writes a lively and entertaining story, one in which some nice effects and a few surprises are neatly wrapped up. Taken as a whole the contents of this anthology more than justify the editor’s claim that “the strange tale is alive and well”.

As well as publishing ‘Gone to the Deep’ in Strange Tales IV, Tartarus have included it along with seventeen more tales, ten of them appearing in print for the first time, in Rebecca Lloyd’s collection MERCY AND OTHER STORIES (Tartarus Press hc, 220pp, £35).

Title story ‘Mercy’ is the shortest in the collection, a first person narration by a man whose devotion to his deceased wife is demonstrated in an unusual manner, the whole thing told in a very matter of fact tone, the protagonist genuinely puzzled that others can’t empathise, and with a rich vein of black humour. Characters apparently talking at cross purposes, along with scenes where we can only guess at the context, are common traits in Lloyd’s fiction, devices she uses to wrong foot the reader before the gleeful reveal. Both are at work in ‘The Careless Hour’, where we expect the worst from Michael’s conversation with his female visitor, as overheard by neighbour Whitey, but the truth is even more strange, with the revelation at the end of this delightful story bringing a wry smile to this curmudgeonly reviewer’s face.

Less successful, but still worthwhile, ‘The Stone’ has a metal detector throw up an interesting artefact, and when Martin brings it home a presence appears to follow, but the truth, in this story of obsession and failure to compromise, is that the only thing to haunt him is the absence of his estranged wife. In ‘Salsa’ a woman reconnects with the great love of her life through the internet, but as the story progresses and the moment for them to meet in the flesh approaches, we realise that she is staying at some sort of halfway house and there is a terrible incident in her past, making us wonder how this revitalised love affair will actually play out and fear the worst, with everything here put down to suggestion and hints, and the anonymity of internet exchanges given sinister weight, as we realise the man could also be concocting lies.

Rich in ambiguity, ‘The Meat Freezer’ has protagonist Gary fighting his impulses, even though it means a young boy is left in an abandoned freezer, though there is also the possibility that Gary is the one who placed him there, with everything up for grabs in this compelling character study of a confused/depraved mind set. Two sisters who had their deceased parents cremated against their wishes are haunted by malevolent spirits in the atmospheric and evocative ‘Dust’, with its compelling picture of warped personalities, larger than life and in death twice as ugly, only there is also the possibility that it could simply be guilt that haunts these siblings.

Artist Martin’s sanity and relationship with his girlfriend are both under threat, from his domineering mother and from the stain on the wall of the cottage they have moved into in ‘What Comes?’, the story a marvellous exercise in exploiting rural legends melded with a character study of fraught family relationships. While written with every bit as much verve and skill as the other stories, ‘Momentum’ was the only one that didn’t agree with me, the narrative meandering aimlessly as Peter practises atrocities on the Stationmaster in his toy train set. It was the one piece where I felt ambiguity worked against it, that the purpose and point of the story always lay just a little too far out of reach, beyond explication.

A man saves the lives of women about to throw themselves off the cliff at a fabled suicide spot in ‘Lucky Cat’, the story told from the perspective of his lover, who is feeling neglected and unwisely tries to win back his attention through her own hapless jump, the story rich in emotion and culminating with a savage sense of irony. One of the undoubted highlights of the collection, ‘The Bath’ presents us with the story of an unusual relationship, with a man who thinks his wife is a dolphin, and a wife who pretends that this is so to please, the whole thing playing out from the viewpoint of a neighbour who wishes to help, but can’t quite get a handle on who is fooling who, the prose a delight and a wealth of ideas set like gemstones in the text, as these strange mental aberrations lead to an expected but still wonderfully apt conclusion. Nowt strange as folk they say, and this story demonstrates the truth of that cliché in the least clichéd manner imaginable.

Black humour rules in the next story, as two men are inexplicably terrified by ‘The Gathering’, one explaining his fear to a psychiatrist, with the story an elaborate, extended joke, and the final twist leaving you uncertain whether to laugh or feel fearful. A hopeless dreamer lures his protesting wife, along with their loving daughter, to live on the rubbish tip that is ‘Maynard’s Mountain’ with the promise of searching for a winning lottery ticket, the characters larger than life, almost archetypal in their way, and the absurdity of the situation made wonderfully plausible, a hymn to the things that people will endure for love and money, as if Tom Stoppard had decided to write a comedy of manners in the style of Beckett.

Lloyd sells us another dummy with ‘The Lover’, the tale of Alan whose paramour is revealed to be a performing bear in a travelling circus, and after the relationship ends he goes in search of a wild mate, the story written with tongue firmly in cheek and an undercurrent of madness, while the insular life of circus folk is convincingly portrayed on the page. In ‘All That Follows’ a doctor accused of sexual harassment by a patient who has become obsessed with him, tries to make a new life for himself in a distant village, but even though he is the aggrieved party people cannot quite bring themselves to trust him, the story gradually building a fine head of steam to end on a delicious note of ambiguity.

Finally we have The Reunion’, another tale of an unusual family, told from the viewpoint of the daughter who bears witness to her argumentative parents leaving the confines of draughty Shuttered House and setting up home on a canal boat, only things don’t really work out for them, the story shot through with compelling atmosphere, vivid dialogue and memorable characters, ending the collection on a veritable tour de force. Lloyd is a new writer to me, but one I am delighted to have made the acquaintance of, and in publishing this collection Tartarus provide yet further proof that the strange tale is in a robust state of health.

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