Reviews of two short story collections that originally appeared in Black Static #62:-
TWO SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS WITH A DIFFERENCE
As the title might imply, EXPLORING DARK SHORT FICTION #1: A PRIMER TO STEVE RASNIC TEM (Dark Moon Books pb, 214pp, $13.95) is the first volume in a series turning a spotlight on the work of some of the most accomplished practitioners in the field of dark short fiction, with books on Kaaron Warren scheduled for March 2018 and Nisi Shawl in summer 2018. Each title will follow the same format as this volume, with the same contributors (except for the author, of course).
EDSF#1 opens with an introduction by series editor Eric J. Guignard in which he details his own experience of Steve Rasnic Tem’s fiction and response to the writer’s work, both emotional and intellectual. Following that we get a two page biography of the writer, and at the end of the book there is a comprehensive sixty seven page bibliography of Tem’s work, for the benefit of those who want to be Tem completists and need to know what they still have to track down. There is an essay on Tem’s importance to the genre by academic Michael Arnzen, PhD, who also provides critical commentary on each of the stories presented. From Tem himself, on the non-fiction side of things we have an interview conducted by editor Guignard and an essay evocatively titled ‘The Subject Matter of Horror’. All of this is fascinating and worthwhile, presenting an insightful look at the working methods and underlying concerns of one of the foremost exponents of the short story form (and I don’t mean just within the horror genre, though that is a given). Complementing the text are some striking black and white illustrations by artist Michelle Prebich, who captures perfectly the feel of Tem’s work, with its sense of both the particular and the archetypal, appealing to both intellect and the emotions.
Wonderful as all this ancillary material is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fiction’s the thing, wherein we catch the heart of the reader. There are six stories in all, each representing a different period/aspect of Tem’s career, and ranging in time from 1981’s ‘The Giveaway’ through to published for the first time ever ‘Whatever You Want’. We open with ‘Hungry’, the story of a child who can eat anything and the place he makes for himself in the world, Tem filling the text with hints and suggestions of how this came to be, but always too canny to provide any real explanation, forcing the reader to accept events on their own terms. Along the way in this touching story of what it feels like to be different, we have a subtext or two concerning prejudice and family dynamics, the narrative culminating in an end that reeks of the oedipal.
There’s an elegiac feel to ‘The Last Moments Before Bed’, which gives us the final waking thoughts of a widower, a man grieving the loss of his wife and pondering on the state of the world, with the suggestion that perhaps he too is about to pass away and the “bed” referenced in the title is the grave. It’s an impressionistic piece that seems to subtlely blur the line between reality and dream, existing in a heightened alpha state and effortlessly soliciting the reader’s identification with the emotions of the character. Bram Stoker Award winning story ‘In These Final Days of Sales’ reads like Miller’s Death of a Salesman given a modern spin and surreal twists, with the profession of salesman afforded many of the trappings of a cult. Underlying Emil’s comi-tragic account of events in his life is an abiding sense of the worthlessness and futility of all that he is doing, an awareness of time wasted in pursuit of totally unrealistic and unattainable goals, so that ultimately it is capitalism itself that sits firmly in the author’s sights, translated into a new mode of horror, one that borders on the existential. ‘The Giveaway’ has a feminist subtext, but for its launch pad takes the literal mindedness of a child. Six year old Marsha fears that she will be abandoned if she doesn’t do as her daddy wants, and this simple fear is used to identify some of the social control mechanisms inherent in the patriarchy. Stripped to the essentials and given its underlying themes, this barbed story could easily pass muster as a flash fiction treatment of The Stepford Wives.
The last two stories are the most overtly horrific, though still stamped with Tem’s defining quality of subtleness. The ‘Rat Catcher’ is an unnerving figure, with an agenda of his own that disturbs the children who fall within his reach, but the truth behind the man’s activities is even more bizarrely off kilter. Filled with unsettling imagery and a sense of the natural world gone wrong, this story is one of the highlights of the collection, but at the same time it is a story that chides us for the easy judgements we make, the conclusions we leap to. Finally we have festive tale ‘Whatever You Want’, which reads rather like the antithesis to first story ‘Hungry’, with a harassed mother getting her unspoken wish granted. Grim and unsettling, it’s a story rich in detail, portraying a rundown shopping mall and elaborating on the perils of consumer culture, while at the same time touching on archetypal and atavistic fears, the parent’s dread of losing a child. It’s a magnificent end to the fiction component of this impressive little volume, a publication that bodes well for the future of this series from Dark Moon Books.
While he may never receive the critical acclaim of a Tem or Warren, Scottish author William Meikle is a writer who knows how to spin a yarn and his work is never less than entertaining. Meikle’s latest collection THE GHOST CLUB (Crystal Lake Publishing pb, 189pp, £11.28) is subtitled “Newly Found Tales of Victorian Terror”. The overarching conceit here is that Henry James, Bram Stoker, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle founded a literary dining club, with leading writers of the day invited to attend their evenings, the price of admission a story with a supernatural element. Thus empowered chameleon man Meikle can produce pastiches of some of the greatest writers of the Victorian era. While familiar with most of these venerable authors, and very familiar with one or two of them, especially H. Rider Haggard (local author, and my father got first editions of many of his books which I read as a child – wish I’d kept them, as would have made a marvellous pension fund), I don’t feel qualified to estimate how close to the mark Meikle’s writing is when it comes to matters of style, so shall restrict myself to saying how much fun the stories are.
The opening tale is credited to Robert Louis Stevenson who in ‘Wee Davie Makes a Friend’ tells of a sick child forming an unnatural attachment to a wooden soldier. It’s a sentimental piece that blurs the line between imagination and the supernatural, while celebrating their ability to take us out of ourselves and bring respite of a kind from suffering. ‘The High Bungalow’ by Rudyard Kipling is set in the Raj and tells of a British officer and Mason’s encounter with the numinous, Meikle bringing the milieu to vivid life on the page and injecting his narrative with a sense of something greater than the things of which we mere mortals are aware. In Leo Tolstoy’s story ‘The Immortal Memory’ a British sea captain attempts to curry favour with the Russian Empress by indulging her love of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Eminently readable, it is nonetheless rather predictable in the way that things play out, though no less engaging for that.
‘The House of the Dead’ by Bram Stoker is another tale that runs along predictable lines, as a man tries to rescue his grieving friend from the clutches of a spirit medium. It’s elevated and made a bit more interesting by some extra bits of invention, touching on the idea of places where the veil between the worlds grows thin and addressing the matter of those who die while with child. There’s a wry, joking quality to Mark Twain’s ‘Once a Jackass’ with its tale of riverboat gamblers and revenge from beyond the grave, the story holding the interest from first word to last and ending with a delicious twist. This was definitely one of the better tales in the collection, with some novel refinements to the haunting at its core. As you’d expect there is a scientific bent to the tale by Herbert George Wells, ‘Farside’, in which experiments with a magic lantern and colour lead to encroachments by an otherworldly entity. With echoes of Lovecraft, it builds slowly and assuredly to a climactic moment of confrontation with the unknown, the whole underwritten by a patina of scientific lingo.
Sentimentality is at the heart of ‘To the Manor Born’ by Margaret Oliphant in which a housemaid is able to provide some consolation to her master through her psychic ability. It is a gentle ghost story, one in which there is no real sense of threat, with peace sought by both the living and the dead. Conversely, there’s a delicious sense of comedy and strains of irony underlying Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Angry Ghost’ as young Tom is led by personal experience to dispute his Aunt Agatha’s assertion that there are no such things as ghosts. Almost Wodehousian in approach, the story is a delightful example of a know it all getting her much deserved comeuppance, with some choice moments of humour along the way to its finale. Henry Rider Haggard’s story is set in Africa, a tale of treasure hunters who find far more than they bargained for at ‘The Black Ziggurat’, the story capturing the Boy’s Own Adventure feel of Haggard’s work mixed with the mysticism latent in books such as She, the whole engaging and entertaining to the very end.
‘Born of Ether’ by Helena P. Blavatsky tells of Alexi’s search for spiritual enlightenment and freedom, and the unusual manner in which his fondest hopes find realisation. The story wasn’t entirely to my liking, perhaps because I’m not a big fan of the spiritual quest subgenre, and the whole had a feel of preaching to it, as if the writer was more interested in teaching us spiritual values than entertaining (which may, of course, be intentional and bang on target for Blavatsky). We have haunted chess pieces courtesy of Henry James’ ‘The Scrimshaw Set’, the story gripping in its development, with some nice touches of characterisation in the figure of a spirit medium, while the biggest surprise lies in the nature of the ghost as revealed at the end of the narrative. A railway functionary is snowbound ‘At the Molenzki Junction’ in Anton Checkov’s story, his life saved by an otherworldly spirit that commands the wolves. The bleakness of winter and lure of alcoholism are both captured strongly in this carefully paced tale, one where setting and atmosphere transcend plot.
Jules Verne takes us ‘To the Moon and Beyond’, but at the centre of the story is the fear of what may have come back with the lunar explorers and their desire to put things right. While the science here feels playfully out of kilter, the underlying mood of excitement at exploration leading to a sense of despair instead of exhilaration is powerfully conveyed. Finally we have a contribution from Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Curious Affair on the Embankment’ in which Inspector Lestrade’s search for a missing woman leads him into a conflict with ancient evil, the story as clever as it is far-fetched, a variation on the deal with the devil trope, with some nice touches of characterisation and detail along the way to the “happy” ending. It rounds out a collection of stories that was thoroughly entertaining, presenting a series of clever and canny exercises in style and subject matter by an inventive and accomplished writer.