Review of another Tartarus Press title that originally appeared in Black Static #49:-
Edited by Rosalie Parker, STRANGE TALES V (Tartarus Press hc, 267pp, £35) opens with ‘The Investigation of Innocence’ by Charles Wilkinson, which is set in a future time when people’s internet searches are closely monitored and only those who appear innocent are granted full access. In attempting to regain the access they once had a couple fall foul of the vengeance of one of the founders of the Institute behind the state. This is an extremely clever story, one that hints at much more than is conveyed, giving us a closely plotted revenge piece in the foreground, but with a subtext that hints at the impossibility of “breeding” politicians and administrators who are beyond corruption and showing how noble ambitions can so easily be twisted out of true. In ‘Julie’ by L. S. Johnson a woman’s dreams of a better life are torn to shreds when the man of position she hopes to marry betrays her into whoredom, and then she discovers that the philosopher Rousseau has stolen her identity for his book on love, but there are harsher truths to endure, all of which she overcomes by accepting the help of a “black magic woman”. Set in the eighteenth century this is a clever tale of shifting perspectives, one that touches on how we can become trapped in the dreams and fantasies of other people, with rage as the only path back to something resembling truth and fidelity.
Steve Rasnic Tem’s ‘The Grave House’ gives us a series of snapshots taken from the life of spinster Annie, all of them focused on the family burial plot which she is responsible for, and combining to create a portrait of a life of love and fear, the piece quietly effective at conveying sadness and a sense of loss, but also that the things and people we lose remain somehow a part of us. Andrew Hook’s weird and surreal tale ‘A Life in Plastic’ sees Oki try to get closer to his estranged daughter by transforming himself into a shop window mannequin, the story an obliquely slanted account of parental love and need, the desperation and misunderstandings that drive some to acts of sympathetic magic. The protagonist of ‘Bardo Thodol Backup File’ by Jacurutu: 23 learns of an order of monks who have developed techniques to allow consciousness to exist beyond death, but the happiness he seeks eludes him in a story that is full of fascinating ideas and concepts, one in which the lines between science fiction and reality blur to the extent that we can no longer guess where the division falls.
John Howard’s ‘More Than India’ is a subtle tale of obsession and, in a way, a haunting, as a young man is lured into the society of an older one by a shared interest in the river Thames, but back of it all is murder and a curdling sense of grief, the story elliptically told and with a keen edge of emotion that holds the reader spellbound. Told from the viewpoint of a young boy employed at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, ‘You-Go-Back’ tells of how Barnum planned to exhibit a demon and the misery that ensued thereby. But Elise Forier Edie’s absorbing and beautifully told story has far more to offer the reader, being a rite of passage for its young hero, teaching him about the nature of evil and what the world is really like, turning from an entertaining fantasy piece into an elegy for the innocence lost. ‘Stranger Must Go’ by Douglas Penick relates the life of a tramp and mystic, the narrative conveyed with something akin to a rambling quality on the surface, but given an appeal and charm that is perhaps mostly down to the sheer aimlessness of it all.
There’s a lovely whimsical quality to Paul Bradley’s offering, ‘Beatrice Faraway’s Christmas Tale’ in which a lonely old woman yearning for adventure steals the gnomes of Storytown, but then seeks to appease their owners by throwing a party and giving her money to the town. It’s a delightful tale in which author Bradley doesn’t use a wrong word, written with a child’s sense of wonder and an appreciation of the true nature of magic in this world of ours. Two young people move into an apartment once occupied by David Rix’s artist heroine Feather in ‘Henge’, discovering that her influence lingers in the patterns painted on the walls and the vision of reality that they convey, the story celebrating art and the ephemeral, holding the attention all the way with its depiction of an off kilter aesthetic. An actor gets too wrapped up in his role in ‘Yes, I knew the Venusian Commodore’ by Mark Valentine, but there’s an underlying sense of wonder, the possibility that maybe he was right to believe in aliens, or at least that in doing so he made the world a more interesting place, one with the potential for the marvellous.
Yarrow Paisley’s tale is of ‘Mary Alice in the Mirror’, imprisoned by the magician Norbert and coercing the children of the new owners of his house to help her escape, the story fantastical and with an element of enchantment, a tale that celebrates an impossible love, even as it casts a dubious eye over the future it entails. A man kills a white wolf and brings it to be stuffed in ‘The Taxidermist’s Tale’ by Tara Isabella Burton, but the real thrust of the story lies in its carefully painted word picture of a changing world, a harsher world, one in which the taxidermist increasingly feels himself to be out of place, with a symbolic ending in which he seeks once again the magic that should be attached to his profession, the creation of life of a particular and highly unusual kind. Andrew Apter’s story ‘The Man Who Loved Flies’ is a strange, almost Poesque piece on a man who believes that flies want him to kill people, each step in his descent into madness and errant pathology painstakingly chronicled, presenting a picture of an unsettled mind that is equally fascinating and disturbing.
Melissa is confronted by her dead mother’s collection of ‘Purses’ in Nathan Alling Long’s story and this is the catalyst for change in her own life, bringing her to a fuller understanding of who she is and what she wishes to be. It’s an alluring story, one in which unimportant things become emblematic of the chains we use to ensnare our dreams and the key to unlocking our potential. A young man with mental health issues is trapped in ‘Look for the Place Where the Ivy Rises’ by Tom Johnstone, the story leaving room to conjecture as to whether what takes places is genuinely supernatural or simply a mental health issue. And last of all we have ‘McBirdy’ by David McGroarty in which two young boys fall under the influence of teachers with an interest in the occult, with disturbing consequences in later life. It is a story in which the outré elements barely impinge and yet are central to the story, one in which nothing supernatural takes place and yet the whole is imbued with a sense of the weird.