This will be a space for occasional reviews, but I should say now that my mother always told me “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. As that’s not really a rule I can apply to my fiction, these will be reviews of things I liked and recommend (why waste my time talking about those I don’t?). So if it’s here, that’s already a good sign.
The Thing on the Shore, by Tom Fletcher
I’ll start with a confession – I avoided this book for a while. The guy was getting a lot of praise along the lines of ‘best new writer in the field’ or ‘most promising voice in horror for a generation’, stuff like that. Yeah, that’s a good thing, I know, but I’d just read a couple of books by someone else described the same way and I’d found his books repetitive in description and clichéd in content. I won’t say who that was because this isn’t a place for writer-bashing (as it says in the intro to this page, if you can’t say something nice, etc, plus each to their own and all that) but I mention it because it made me wary of Mr Fletcher.
I also avoided The Thing on the Shore because the guy’s so young. I mean, twenty-seven or something when this one came out and it’s his second novel. I don’t mean to say that I thought he’d be too young to write well, just that I knew I’d be jealous as hell if he could. I’m thirty six. I don’t have a first novel yet, let alone a second.
But avoiding this book was no one’s loss but my own. When I did finally get around to it I devoured the thing in two days (the thing as in the book, not the thing that’s on the shore, that would be gross). I’m a sucker for a seaside story, but it wasn’t just that. It has a great opening (don’t read the blurb if you want the full effect) which establishes character and setting quickly while providing an essential hook to keep you reading. Keep reading and you meet a few more characters, get a few more hooks, and you’re doomed to lose a weekend. In a good way. A very good way.
Fletcher’s good at making you sympathise with these characters. The opening does that pretty quickly for a couple of them, but stick the rest in a call centre and instantly you care for pretty much all of the poor buggers. You don’t need to have had an awful dead-end job to feel what these characters do, but most of us have and we know exactly what it is to dread going in, to hate Mondays, to resent the sacrifices a crap job demands and the restrictions it forces upon your identity. It’s no wonder many of the characters are gamers, an aspect of the novel that provides more than simply an understandable escapism for the characters. It highlights the story’s main conceit, the idea that places exist beyond (and within) our own reality, places we create, places we retreat to, and places we’d rather not know about. The call centre is a big part of this; it’s more than simply a setting in the same way the computer game references are more than just character details.
The Thing on the Shore does, for me, exactly what a horror book should, which is to build a sense of dread rather splatter its pages with blood and other fluids. It has its gross moments, but they’re integral to this dread. I did not want to go into Arthur’s bathroom. I did not want to be there when Harry raided the fridge for a snack. I sure as hell didn’t want to be on that beach with Bony and that thing in the middle of the night. But most of all I did not want to go to that fucking mind-numbing spirit-crushing call centre (to paraphrase Ewan McGregor from Trainspotting). What I did want was to kick the shit out of Artemis, or at least tell him to go fuck himself, because Fletcher gives us a convincing all-too-believable, bad guy here. What I did want was to find out what the hell was going on and spend some time with characters I liked. What I did want was to read and read and read.
I came to this book in the middle of reading New Cthulhu edited by Paula Guran (which is great, by the way, and when I’m done is likely to end up here on the recommendations page) so I read The Thing on the Shore with Lovecraft’s Old Ones in mind, but with Fletcher’s attention to other dimensions, a strange City, and weird things coming out of the sea, I don’t think I was too influenced by my other reading material. It’s all right there, beneath the surface so to speak, for you to find or hide from. Either way, I whole-heatedly recommend you go looking for The Thing on the Shore. You’ll end up thinking Fletcher’s the next big thing in horror.
And he was only twenty-seven. Bastard.
St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
This book came out a couple of years ago and plenty of good things have already been said about it by lots and lots of people. Russell’s been listed for, and won, some awards, too, but I didn’t know any of this when I picked up St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. I just liked the cover. But now that I’ve read it I want to spend a paragraph or two on the stories.
Frankly, they’re brilliant. Karen Russell has been likened to Angela Carter, and it’s easy to see why, with the title story in particular sharing a similarity or two with work in The Bloody Chamber. For me, though, whilst Russell’s writing is as assured and as lyrical as Carter’s, it’s more subtle. Whereas others might dig a shallow grave for their message and cover it with a smattering of beautiful lines, any message Russell has for the reader is expertly contained within the story, a part of its shape rather than something bulging out from behind a thin veil of poetic prose. There’s a fairy tale quality to many of the stories, with an acceptance of the strange and wonderful typical of magical realism, but in no story did it feel contrived or forced. The fantastical element is simply another aspect of the story Russell chooses to tell, one of a number of ingredients she uses to talk about childhood, growing up, getting old…you know, real life stuff.
The stories are quirky, bizarre, fanciful – I mean, look at some of the titles: ‘Lady Yeti and the Palace of Artificial Snows’; ‘Ava Wrestles the Alligator’; ‘Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers’ – but they’re solid stories with nothing flippant or irreverent about them. ‘Haunting Olivia’ (my favourite, if I absolutely had to pick one) is a depth charge of emotional punch, detailing how two brothers look for their dead sister using ‘diabolical goggles’. ‘Out to Sea’ details the desperate measures a group of elderly houseboat owners will go to for friendship. It focuses on an amputee whose ‘body is haunted’ by more than a ghost limb and draws a convincing picture of a lonely man when other writers would have succumbed to caricature. ‘The City of Shells’ tells of a girl’s curious desires and she looks for satisfaction in some strange places.
In many reviews, this winding up bit would be where I pick out a few flaws to suggest a balanced opinion before then reiterating the collection’s strengths, but the truth is I didn’t find any. I suppose I could if I really looked, nobody’s perfect and all that, but what would be the point? Besides, this isn’t a real review, it’s just me recommending a book. I had a great time with every story here, and enjoyed the way Russell told them (whilst simultaneously envying her skill). But enough from me – I’m off to look for more of her stuff…
Kissing Carrion by Gemma Files
I’ve recommended Files before, and I would have done it again for ‘The Jacaranda Smile’ if I wasn’t so slow at updating this page, but I’ve started her collection Kissing Carrion and it’s brilliant. Her stories are dark sharp things that sting going in and leave the reader with scars worth keeping secret so others will suffer the same pleasure, which is why I won’t do a run down of each one. And anyway, I’m only half way in myself. But I know already you should read it if you haven’t yet. If you have, read it again.
The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough
Beautiful work, and well deserving of its British Fantasy Award. To say I enjoyed this seems a bit wrong, considering the content, so I’ll say I experienced it and that I’m very glad I did. This is stunning in its emotional intimacy (and intensity), and the fine detail of such a family portrait is exquisite, albeit exquisitely heartbreaking – which means I can’t recommend it whole heartedly, but I would if I could. I recommend it with the pieces I have left.
each thing i show you is a piece of my death
Read it immediately. Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer have created a monster here that is well worth your time. This one genuinely frightened me. I could go on about it, and I could compare it to other texts, but I don’t want to ruin a single thing. Go find it and read it now.
Shadows & Tall Trees (Issue 1, Autumn 2010)
Edited by Michael Kelly
Featuring stories by Geordie Flantz, Adam Golaski, Sandra Kasturi, Joel Lane, Nicholas Royle, Simon Strantzas, and reviews by Michael Kelly.
I was a bit late off the mark getting this (according to the front sheet, I’ve bought number 92 of a batch of 125) so if you’re reading this there’s a good chance you’ve already missed out, but do try to get a copy, just in case.
First off, it’s a beautiful little book. Slim, stylish, with an evocative black and white cover photograph by Mitat Seferi, it’s a joy to hold and look at. Okay, alright, don’t judge a book by its cover and all that, but with so much genre fiction available online it really is a pleasure to read something so tidy, something you can be proud to have on your bookshelf. Signed, too, by Kelly and Strantzas. As for the stories themselves, I’ll try not to give too much away, but I’m not very good with secrets so consider this a spoiler alert.
The first story is Joel Lane’s ‘Crow’s Nest’. It’s not without humour, but mostly this is a story of collapse, a bleak journey in which every step Kevin takes has him lose something else, or realise he lost it some time ago. There are ghosts here, but it seems Kevin has carried them with him for some time and though he tries to leave them behind, the reader can suppose he’ll only find them again when he gets to wherever he’s going. Kevin wants to “scatter the pieces of home over the slope, then go down there and put them back together again” but seems ill equipped to do so. Thankfully Lane’s more than able to piece together such fragments so we get a seamless narrative in which one man deteriorates in ways we can all recognise, sometimes with sympathy, sometimes not. It’s a great opening to the collection and one that sets expectations high for the rest of the journal.
Adam Golaski has promised to send a “one-of-a-kind personalised postcard” to everyone purchasing a copy of Shadows & Tall Trees. I haven’t received mine yet, but his story ‘Stone Head’ makes up for that so I’ll let him off. It’s the story Michael Kelly recommends people read for a flavour of the journal before submitting work of their own. In that case, it seems he wants stories that are conceptually bizarre, surreal in the execution, without foregoing narrative cohesion for the sake of weirdness. Golaski has the reader wondering with every page turned where on earth the story can be heading, yet manages to deliver an ending that satisfies. So strange is the story (a twelve foot jellyfish falls from the sky!) that I feared an ‘it was all a dream’ conclusion but I need not have worried. Indeed, there’s a strange feeling of having been shown a truth, something we should have known all along, or at least suspected. It’s like hearing someone you thought paranoid say ‘See, told you’. Kafkaesque is used too much in reviewing genre fiction so I won’t use it. But it is.
Despite its brevity, Sandra Kasturi manages to pack an awful lot into her story, ‘The Coming of Ghosts’. Like the containers her ghosts are meant to inhabit, this is a beautiful story and it holds something of far more substance than the ghosts themselves. It’s about what we relinquish and what we hold onto, for though the mother may have been willing to give up her ghost, spit it into a bottle of green and gold, her daughters seem less able or willing to part with theirs. Kasturi offers something original here, and though I was a little wary of a story quoting Jodi Picoult in its epigraph, I found the tale that followed wonderfully convincing with some excellent descriptions of each spirit’s occupation of its host. With a focus on female characters across two generations it seems Kasturi wants to raise issues about gender, but there’s a suitable sense of ambiguity to the entire piece that allows a different reading, an ambiguity that is carried right through to the final line, forcing the reader to do more than simply sit back and enjoy. My favourite type of fiction.
So far, my only experience of Simon Strantzas has been via Stephen Jones’s Best New Horror anthologies (the last three consecutive editions at least, probably others) but that should tell you already the kind of quality to expect from ‘Everything Floats’. Like other stories here, this is one that uses ambiguity to offer a tale that can be considered supernatural or psychological, though perhaps it is more accurately described as occupying the space existing between both. A young couple starting a family purchase a lovely house for a bargain price, at which point alarm bells should be ringing for any reader familiar with the genre, and sure enough it’s a place where something’s not quite right. Here things don’t so much go bump in the night as pad quietly through the corridors, opening and closing doors in the periphery. I felt it could have been trimmed a little, but living in this house was enjoyable enough that I didn’t care too much about that. The ending does not come as a surprise, but I don’t think it’s meant to – Strantzas seems to play with our expectations so that you spend most of the story hoping it won’t end in the only way it really can, one that settles heavily in the heart.
There’s more Simon Strantzas following the story with a review of his Cold to the Touch collection. It’s a succinct piece, Michael Kelly providing an overview and brief assessment of each tale without skimping on the reasons for his opinions, and many of the titles will be familiar to those who read genre anthologies – taken with Kelly’s views, that’s a good recommendation.
Ah, ‘The Ghost Days of Melody Brown’ by Geordie Williams Flantz. This one is my favourite of the six. I’d not heard of Flantz until this, but I’ll be keeping an eye out from now on, and actively seeking some more of his work. There’s a deceptive simplicity to the voice of this piece, and I’m reminded of something I heard about writing (I say ‘reminded’ but that’s only part right as I can’t remember who said it) which went along the lines of ‘a good writer makes it look easy’. Flantz makes it look easy, conjuring a sense of place with a precise and economic use of language, whilst his characters seem to erupt whole from the page with only a few lines of description. You read this aching, thanks to Flantz’s depiction of Melody and her ordeal, yet it’s an ache I know I’ll return to as this certainly deserves a second reading.
As well as six great stories, Shadows & Tall Trees offers a brief selection of film reviews, written by the editor, Michael Kelly. I’ve always been an ‘each to their own’ kind of guy when it comes to reviews (and the irony of that statement in the body of a review does not escape me) but I do enjoy reading them. If I’m told something’s good, I’ll give it a go. If I’m told it’s bad, I still might. For me, a good review is about the tone of voice. It needs to be one I can relate to, one that offers an opinion and supports it with suitable reasons without forcing an expertise that borders on pomposity. That’s why I liked these. I agreed with some (Moon is a great film) and disagreed with others (Paranormal Activity wasn’t that bad) but most of all I liked how each was presented as friendly personal advice without any other agenda. My only quibble would be its placement among the stories, rather than at the end. But that’s probably because Kelly wants us to finish with Nicholas Royle.
He likes his birds, does Royle, and if you haven’t read ‘The Obscure Bird’ than I urge you to do so as soon as you can. I believe there’s a collection of bird-themed weirdness coming somewhere down the line as well, which I’m sure I’ll get. The bird story here is ‘The Blue Notebooks’ but really the focus is on a character whose degenerating eyesight warns of an unreliable (or at least shifting) narrative perspective. So when I say focus, I guess that’s a pun. It plays with ideas of identity and reflections and loss, so references to Jorge Luis Borges within the tale are apt. Our view of what’s happening blurs as much as the protagonist’s view of the world around him and reaching the ending is like getting the focus on a pair of binoculars just right only to suddenly slip. The blurriness of this story, the constant stepping outside of things to look back in, is well controlled by Royle. I felt like I’d just woken up and had to wonder what I’d been dreaming about, which makes ‘The Blue Notebooks’ a very satisfying conclusion to the collection as a whole.
So there you go, Shadows & Tall Trees. A weird dream. I didn’t realise I’d write quite so much so here’s the short version: I really enjoyed it. You should get hold of a copy, or get in line for the next issue.