Filler content with short story collections

Reviews of two short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #62:-


Rebecca Lloyd’s second collection from Tartarus contains SEVEN STRANGE STORIES (Tartarus hc, 245pp, £35), two of them previously published, and confirms the good impression made by its predecessor, Mercy and Other Stories. Leading off is the longest and, in my opinion, the best. Set in the early days of Georgian Britain, ‘The Monster Orgorp’ is the delightfully told tale of Caroline Wilson, who goes to work as a maid for Lady Mallet when she turns sixteen, but Lord Mallet is an inveterate rake and the corridors of Hogsmoor House at night are prowled by a Thing. There’s a feel of the classics about this, that it is a story that could have been written by Wilkie Collins or Horace Walpole, but at the same time it transcends the conventions and clichés that are intrinsic to its success. Lloyd is superb at drawing character, from the depredations and excesses of the nobility to the backbiting and camaraderie of those “below stairs”. She is excellent at conveying the sense of fear that the Thing engenders, mostly because it is unknown, and then giving the monster an almost sympathetic cast when its true nature is revealed. And the plot is a sublime piece of machinery, with Caroline Wilson learning to manipulate and cajole others, as they seek to do the same with her, only to then pull the rug out from under the readers’ feet with a sting in the tail worthy of Roald Dahl. Underlying this are subtexts about the abuse of power – gender based, economic, class – and the lengths to which women are driven to conform to some impossible ideal of feminine beauty, concerns that root the tale very much in the present day, despite its setting. It is a tour de force, and the best thing I have seen from Lloyd’s pen to date.

Haunted houses are very much a recurring theme in these stories. The protagonist of ‘Jack Werrett, the Flood Man’ is a female academic who rents an old house on the edge of a marsh from the Werrett sisters, only to find that she is not as alone as she might wish. It is a rather splendid ghost story, with a compelling evocation of place, unusual and engaging characters, an atmosphere and effects that build to a dazzling crescendo, with Lloyd deftly stage managing the material to delight and enthral the reader. The next story has a Southern Gothic sensibility about it. Yola lives in the Fort House with the feared Daddy Hinds and their four sons, but all her thoughts are focused on missing son Earl, who went away to be with his friend ‘Christy’. Character driven and with a consistent tone of voice, this is a story that touches on human woes, but with a hint of the supernatural, that in turn qualified by the fact that Yola is not necessarily a reliable narrator. With this ambiguity at its core, the story is really about the things that people will endure and why they do so.

We’re back in the Home Counties for ‘The Pantum Burden’, with a young boy tormented by a malevolent spirit, one that manifests in a rather unusual way. In the abstract it all feels slightly silly, but Lloyd’s command of dialogue and character make the scenario plausible, with an end twist that adds yet another frisson of fear to a masterful tale. There’s something of Blithe Spirit about ‘Again’, which is set at a wake, only there seems to be some confusion as to the status of the deceased on the part of the man of the house. A clever black comedy that blurs the lines between madness and the supernatural, humour and horror, culminating in another of the delightful end twists that seem to be a Lloyd speciality, this tale is a pure pleasure to read.

Set in Sicily, ‘Little Black Eyes and Tiny Hands’ catalogues the history of an abandoned villa known locally as the House of Ghosts, once the residence of a black magician, and the working out of a curse on a young man who doesn’t pay appropriate respect to the warnings of his elders. It is a beautifully written story, rich in historic detail and capturing perfectly both the beauty and eeriness of the setting, with characterisation driving much of the action and an original twist in the nature of the curse. Finally we have ‘Where’s the Harm?’ in which two brothers who have come to renovate their parents’ house before putting it on the market fall victim to a strange group of women living in the bordering wood. Lloyd cleverly plays her cards close to her chest, with the unearthliness of the women and their strange idea of marriage slowly revealed and all the more unsettling for the time she takes laying the stage, and at the centre of the story is sibling rivalry, pushing one brother to take that extra step, if only to place clear space between them.

This was a very strong collection, one that adds new ideas to the genre of the weird, while at the same time recognising the debt to all those who have gone before. Lloyd is shaping up to be a major talent, one with a unique vision and compelling style.

If Lloyd’s star is on the rise, then that of Reggie Oliver is already in the ascendant. HOLIDAYS FROM HELL (Tartarus hc, 310pp, £40) is his seventh collection and contains fourteen stories, all but one of which are previously published. After an insightful introduction by Rob Shearman, the collection kicks off with the titular ‘Holiday from Hell’ which I reviewed last issue when it appeared in Oliver retrospective volume The Sea of Blood. To quote myself – “a seaside guest house plays host to a group of old people from a town in Norfolk, but the implication, laid forth with an enviable subtlety on the part of the author, is that the seven guests and their place of origin are somewhat other than what we are initially led to believe. There are lovely touches of detail here, suggestive prose used to put an outré cast on events that might otherwise be merely mundane, with some nightmarish imagery at the story’s climax, and as a lifelong resident of Norfolk I can vouch for the fact that you get some strange folk in certain parts of this county.” It’s a delicious curtain raiser for what follows, a tale in which the reader guesses more than the protagonist, told in a rich, elegant style.

The narrator of ‘The Silken Drum’ rents a cottage to a strange Japanese woman and her son, with the clues gradually building up and a resolution that mirrors the events in an obscure Japanese No drama. The story is a masterful exercise in creating tension and unease through the use of suggestion, with a powerful undercurrent of eroticism, a lust tainted by unnaturalness. In ‘The Green Hour’ Oliver shows an equal dexterity in the execution of tales of detection. An old friend calls on Poe’s creation Auguste Dupin to solicit his help in solving a series of gruesome murders that threaten the success of the Paris Exhibition of 1867, the case involving the composer Rossini and the drink absinthe. The story is an elaborate and clever construction, one that holds the reader’s attention all the way with one plot twist falling hard on the heels of another, and constantly delights with its rich invention and characterisation.

At a crime fiction convention ‘The Perfect Author’ is haunted by one of her characters, who insists on acting in ways she would never allow, the story a beguiling and clever exercise in metafiction, and raising questions about the nature of the interface between fiction and real life, the ways in which they inform each other. Along the way Oliver captures perfectly the feel of a convention and facets of the publishing industry while raising doubts about the culpability of the story’s narrator, an author further down the crime scale whose jealousy may be projecting in the form of the antagonistic Bertha Watkins. A statue of the god Pan at the heart of ‘The Maze at Huntsmere’ is the undoing of a thespian and producer who has been elevated to the status of national treasure, if only in his own mind, and the cause of a second chance at love for the owner of a stately home. The story is told with an almost Wodehousian relish, Oliver gleefully committing his larger than life characters to the page and adding one unsettling detail after another until the plot veers off into the realm of nightmare.

The shortest story in the collection and also the slightest, ‘A Day with the Delusionists’ is in essence a cosy murder mystery set in the world of academia, eminently readable and poking gentle fun at literary affectations, but not a story that is going to linger in the mind long after the final sentence. In ‘Rapture’ Alan is drawn into the circle of an evangelical couple who are making plans for the imminent End of Days. With events taking place at right angles to reality, it’s a strange piece that builds to its wrong footed ending with considerable aplomb, offering us insights into the zealot mind set.

I’ve reviewed the seven remaining stories – ‘Absalom’, ‘The Druid’s Rest’, ‘The Rooms are High’, ‘The Prince of Darkness’, ‘The Book and the Ring’, ‘Trouble at Botathan’, and ‘Love at Second Sight’ – on previous occasions (four of them last issue) and see no point going over old ground here, though I will post details of those reviews to the Case Notes blog at for the convenience of those who missed them first time around. Closing the collection we have an afterword by the author detailing the original appearances and genesis of the stories contained in the book, and Oliver also provides neat and evocative line drawings as illustrations at the start of each story, making this an all-round, very attractive package.

Both books are produced to the high standard we have come to expect from Tartarus, in limited editions of 300 and 500 copies each, and there are eBook editions available for those purchasing on a budget or who have limited shelf space.

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