The first part of a feature on work by Black Static columnists that originally appeared in #57 of the magazine:-
As well as providing bi-monthly comment and review columns for Black Static, Lynda E. Rucker, Gary Couzens, and Ralph Robert Moore are all excellent writers of fiction, each with a short story collection released recently (the term, as ever, is relative).
Rucker’s ‘Notes from the Borderland’ column began in #34, though back then it was known as ‘Blood Pudding’, and her fiction has been published in the magazine on three previous occasions. YOU’LL KNOW WHEN YOU GET THERE (The Swan River Press hc, 174pp, €30) is her second collection, and as beautifully produced as everything else that has come sailing down the Swan River, with a wonderfully evocative cover illustration that captures perfectly the feel of the stories that appear between its covers. There are nine tales in all, two of them previously unpublished.
After an introduction by Lisa Tuttle, we start with ‘The Receiver of Tales’, and as I’m not proud I’ll simply copy and paste what I said of this story when I first reviewed it in the obsession themed anthology Little Visible Delight – “fiction itself is a very obvious obsession for writerly folk, only here translated into a kind of vampirism, the story’s protagonist needing to hear the tales of others, they in turn conferring a kind of parasitic immortality, but also a terrible burden. It’s a concept fraught with subtext and metaphor, and Rucker wraps it all up in a compelling narrative, one that can simply be read at face value, the story of a woman who is either cursed or blessed with a condition for which there is no cure or resolution.” In ‘Widdershins’ a man stays in a rented out of the way cottage in Ireland to escape the wreckage of his life and marriage, but locals tell him strange tales of a gateway to other realms that lies on his property. Infused with ambiguity, it is a tale in which everything is suggested with the reliability of the narrator a concern, but made all the more chilling for these very reasons. And you can’t help feeling it is the character’s personal problems that are reflected in the greater story arc, that make him prey to outré influences, but also empower him to make a stab at something akin to a redemptive act.
The suicide of Christopher Crane and disappearance of his wife Vivian provide the back story for ‘The House on Cobb Street’, which is told by means of quotations from various sources (a blog, newspaper reports, a book on hauntings) intercut with Vivian’s first person narration so that an overview of sorts is achieved. It’s a strange, shifting tale, one in which a new theory is evinced as to the nature of a haunting and the existence of the central character is called into question. Clever and beautifully written, it is a piece that I believe will resonate and reward more than the one reading, with new aspects revealing themselves at each visitation. Past and future echo each other in ‘Where the Summer Dwells’ as Charlotte guides her friends in a landscape shot through with magic, bringing back memories of what happened on a previous such trip with other friends when she was much younger. It’s a bittersweet tale, strands of sadness woven into the narrative, a realisation of the good things that have been lost and how they will never come round again, of the chances we passed up. Underlying this emotional acuity is a vivid depiction of the landscape, one in which the numinous presents aspects of itself to those with eyes to see.
It would not be unfair I believe to characterise this book as a collection of ghost stories (even the protagonist of the first story is in a very tangible sense haunted), though Rucker consistently takes the idea of the haunted and the haunter off at various tangents. In the next two stories her genre antecedents are on display. A lonely young woman stays in Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast for a pilgrimage to sites of interest to Jamesian aficionados in ‘Who Is This Who Is Coming?’. Initially humorous, with poor Fern beset by the attentions of the overly helpful Mr. Ames, it soon takes a more serious tone, with life not really measuring up to expectation and the discovery of something truly terrible hidden in the wainscoting of the tale. This was probably my favourite of these stories, not least for the reason that it was set close to my own Norfolk stamping ground. The descriptions of scenery and the touches of detail from the MRJ canon help to drive a tale that is both homage and a celebration of its source material, and underlying this is the knowledge that it is Fern’s own nature that makes her vulnerable to spectral entities.
The female protagonist of ‘The Queen in the Yellow Wallpaper’ abandons her own ambitions and life to go with her husband Adam to care for his sister Sarah in an ancient and isolated house that she has christened Carcosa, but in doing so she loses her own grip on reality, giving in to Sarah’s idea of a queen who will come. The references to Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Robert W. Chambers in the title and elsewhere are obvious, but for my money there is more than a touch of Poe’s ‘Usher’ hanging over the proceedings. Madness is central, possibly brought on by the wife subordinating her wishes to those of her husband, and further exacerbated by the creative flourishes of the playwright sister. Women’s work is side-lined, but ultimately doing so will lead to a catastrophic upheaval and reinvention of the existing order seems to be the subtext of the story, though whether this is envisioned on purely personal lines, with madness on the bill of sale, or something of far greater magnitude is left open to conjecture, and the story is all the more powerful for that ambiguity. There’s a similar feel to ‘The Wife’s Lament’. Taken away from her natural environment by husband Ian, who continually absents himself on unnamed work, Penny gives in to paranoia, finding parallels between her imagined situation and that in an Old English folksong. A compelling and beautifully paced tale, it again leaves us with just enough elbow room to wonder if Penny is actually on to something.
Soldier Josie returns from a tour of duty in Iraq in ‘This Time of Day, This Time of Year’, but she is changed, something that is mostly seen by younger sister Ellen, who comes to share Josie’s obsession with the drowned town of Hekate whose ruins lie beneath the surface of a nearby lake. The place becomes a symbol of all that has been lost and the hope for something better, though in reality it is simply a trap for those who are to come, the story capturing the mood and feel of Ellen’s situation, looking after someone she should love but who scares her, and unable to say why. Finally we have ‘The Haunting House’. Young Lucy goes off in search of the house that appears in her dreams, finding a mansion where others would only see ruins. Underlying the narrative is a realisation that this house has actually found her, and that she is in the right place, a place where she will experience the love and need denied to her back in whatever passes for the real world, and of course there is also the possibility that Lucy is hallucinating, all of this just a psychotic episode of some kind. It’s a novel variation on a familiar theme, one that makes the haunted more significant than the haunting. Closing out the collection we have ‘Story Notes’ from the author detailing the genesis of each story. All in all, it’s a great little collection from an author who knows her genre roots but attempts to surpass them instead of simply resting on the shoulders of those who have gone before, and sure to be loved by anyone who appreciates intelligent and well-written spectral stories.
(TO BE CONTINUED)