The trouble with a lot of short stories is that a lot of them just peter off, with nothing actually happening. There are some in this collection which do just that, but in the Introduction Nicholas Royale explains that he, too, was looking for some kind of resolution, i.e. a shift in perspective for the characters, by the end of each story. While Science Fiction and horror provides ‘punchlines’ more reliably, I found a lot of these stories hovered somewhere inbetween. There’s ALMOST a resolution to most of these, but because of the length and the genre, interesting ideas tend to vaporise into ambiguity and raise more questions than they answer. But most of these stories are very well written and this collection is at least worth a try. A lot of them do become quite surreal, even if they don’t all admit they’re really science fiction or a similar genre. Basically, they’re just stories, and some of their worlds are a bit off-kilter, which is always interesting to read.
Here are my thoughts on each short story, as I remember them. These brief summary reviews will contain spoilers depending on how satisfying the endings were:
WARNING BRIEF SPOILERS
Flora by David Rose
Slightly detached feel about this one. Interesting idea, about a man who helps a mysterious woman with her plant research by letting her into his extensive library. There’s something odd about her, but we never really learn what or who the chap she hangs around with is. When she vanishes, leaving nothing but defaced books behind, there’s just a sense of emptiness and a great deal left unexplained. The thrust seems to be that it’s bloody rude to deface library books, which is very true but annoying for a story with hints of something truly strange going on. A bit disappointing but very well written.
Winter Break by Hilary Mantel
Great story. At first appears to be about a childless couple’s unhappy journey to an unwelcoming, snow-smothered mountain holiday. Actually about them being in denial about what their driver to the resort has actually hit – and it’s not a baby goat. I liked this because of the sense of foreboding and the actual fury you feel when you realise the characters are actively avoiding getting involved in what they know is something more serious.
Emergency Exit by Lee Rourke
Sort of pointless until you go ‘oh, shi….’ . This sneakily insinuates ‘you’, the reader, into the text, and describes ‘you’ escaping an office through the titular ‘Emergency Exit’ and meeting a strange man on the stairs and climbing down the fire escape until you can only continue to go down, and down, and….well, I’m assuming it’s about a descent into Hell. Right? Was that what it was all about? Good for its sense of doom, but again lots left unsaid here.
Love Silk Food by Leone Ross
A great piece about a middle aged, Afro-Caribbean woman who is resigned to her husband cheating on her with ‘Excitement girls’ who are younger and flashier than her. She makes an unexpected connection on the London Underground and comes to a sort of peace within herself. I liked this, certainly not something I’d have sought out if it wasn’t in the collection, but I liked the insight and the woman’s attitude, and felt happier for having read it, although it’s hard to say exactly why. I think a character’s quiet self-acceptance is an good way to finish a story, though.
Feather Girls by Claire Massey
Certainly one of the more surreal, pseudo-science-fiction or fantasy stories in the collection. Matter-of-factly talks about men capturing the ‘feather women’ as their brides, while mixing up the mundane and the fantastic with slightly obscure construction. It riffs on the old legends of Kelpies and other fantastic beings whose animal skins get stolen by men seeking power over them. All interesting, and could also be an allegory, which is less fun. I would like to have seen this fleshed out, although it’s verging on the dreaded ‘magical realism’ here.
Foreigner by Christopher Burns
The downbeat story of an ex-soldier and his ex-wife quietly dealing with emotional fallout after the death of their beloved son, who was also a soldier. This was well told and very atmospheric, and the clashes of opinion over whether it is ever right to fight, the cost and brutal morality of war, is dealt with brilliantly in this initially tiny setting and short space of time. Very interesting, liked this a lot.
Dinner of the Dead Alumni by Adam Marek
First of all, as someone who lived in Cambridge for a year recently I LOVED the description on the town here. Set during one of the busiest weeks, this story follows a quest by a very tall man to find the one person on the planet who could, when they touch, orgasm instantaneously. Also, there are ghosts. It shouldn’t work, but there’s such a bustling yet deadpan humour about the whole tale that I couldn’t help enjoying it immensely. Very funny, with a dirty yet ultimately fitting payoff. Also, kind of glad I didn’t run into this chap whilst living in Cambridge!
The Swimmer by S J Butler
A woman takes a skinny dip in a river on a baking hot afternoon, and becomes obsessed with how it feels. I loved the moody setting, and the drifting feel of the river and the oppressive sense of heat is made palpable. She becomes drawn by a swan on the river, and I’m not sure if it survives or not in the end, or if she gets swept away and never returns, but I liked this story despite or perhaps actually because of the ambiguity.
So Much Time in a Life by Heather Leach
Didn’t really warm to this one at all, although I could understand the structure of the story and it seemed to be taking place inside a warped mother’s mind. Did she kill one of her children? Well written and moody but not really clear what happened, at least not to me.
Staff Development by Alan Beard
A man on the cusp of retirement, or redundancy, seeks to get some control back, whilst struggling to come to terms with the drug habit and enabling git of a husband his daughter has hooked up with. Not a lot seems to happen, I would have liked a bit more confrontation but that doesn’t seem to fit the character drawn here, who was very well realised but a bit too hopeless to root for.
The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan
Another story bordering on real science fiction. Hearts can be bought to help the owner to love the person they’re with, and heartbeats attuned to please the listener. A heart can literally be broken. It’s basically a story about restarting someone’s capacity to love, and how a real love can supercede the technology in place to fake it. Nicely odd, I liked this story which borders on Bradbury.
No Angel by Bernie McGill
Another sort of fantasy ghost story sort of story. It’s not clear how common being able to see dead relatives is in this particular universe, but the narrator doesn’t seem altogether surprised that her dead father pops up while she’s in the shower, and then again at different moments of her life. The other great tragedies in her life are revealed, and it’s suddenly made clear this is about the troubles in Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s. It does feel like it was all delusion at the end, but I liked the journey getting there, and the growing potential threat and the significant sense of change and perhaps a release, too.
Slut’s Hair by John Burnside
Brilliantly written account of a woman struggling to cope with an abusive partner. You WISH she could get away from this monster, who has invaded every part of her mind and even pulls out her rotten tooth so she won’t ‘make a face’ all the time. The tooth-pulling trauma seems to spur a moment of inner strength, and she doesn’t really escape her situation here. I do feel that her subsequent hallucination – although it could be a strange reality reaching out to her – of an odd, terrified little blue mouse is perhaps a sign of hope, symbolising a part of her the bastard hasn’t yet destroyed, and I loved the weirdness amid the horrible, unbearable home situation. A fantastic, strange and beautifully told story.
Comma by Hilary Mantel
This one reminds me strongly of ‘Eraser Head’, the surreal David Lynch film. There’s an odd baby, dysfunctional housing estates, and a childhood friendship that fails to stand the test of time. It’s really about families and friendships, and if this was written as a science fiction story a great deal more would have been made of the strange entity the two girls encounter. I’d have liked to know more. Instead, the story tilts back toward the friendship without really dealing with the strangest bit.
Moving Day by Robert Edric
This one reminds me a bit of ‘The Machine Stops’ by E M Forster, and an alternate version of the world in ‘The Road by Cormic McCarthy. Here, uptight bureaucracy comes banging on the door of a man living underground in a vast unused complex of buildings. Even the flies can’t exist in an outside world which is so polluted that the mountains have entirely disappeared from sight. The man remembers the tops of mountains and the names of clouds, and while not a great deal happens here, and it’s a little slow, it’s a good take on possible-future dystopia.
Tristram and Isolde by Michéle Roberts
OK, after the first page I thought the twist would show the narrator was a dog or something, except for the part where they brush their hair! Turns out, it was about a very dodgy relationship ‘Tristan’ has with an underage child. So this was ultimately creepy, very thought-provoking, and contained beautiful references to nature and the nature of love itself.
Looted by Dai Vaughan
Really liked this tale about a soldier who rescues a grubby painting from a war-ravaged house, only to discover it’s something remarkable. I appreciated the choice of artist it turns out to be, too, as Bocklin is one of my favourite painter. It ends wistfully, and not a great deal happens, but I liked this short story very much.
When the Door Closed, It Was Dark by Alison Moore
The penultimate story in the collection is a nightmarish story of an Au Pair who goes abroad to an undefined country to take care of a baby. The mother has vanished, and the grandmother doesn’t like her, and soon it becomes increasingly terrifying as the Au Pair loses control of everything, including her passport, and while there is a climax of sorts, her fate remains annoyingly unclear.
Epiphany by Salley Vickers
In this final story a young man reunites his estranged father with his dying mother. One of those stories where much is left unsaid, so it borders on banal, and it seems to be eclipsed by the broad nightmare of the story preceding it. Still a decent character study and a muted end to a strong short story collection.