I was excited about this collection because, while I've enjoyed all of Hill's previous ghost stories, I've always felt they're consistently spread a lI was excited about this collection because, while I've enjoyed all of Hill's previous ghost stories, I've always felt they're consistently spread a little thin. Hill's plots feel more suited to the brevity of a short story, but they are usually padded out to novella length, something that has often served to highlight the weaknesses in otherwise wonderfully creepy tales – and, ironically, also tends to leave them feeling incomplete. The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories is a small book containing four tales, with settings ranging from Hill's usual Victorian gloom to a modern-day office.
The Travelling Bag We're on familiar ground here: in a London gentlemen's club, fog shrouding the streets outside, one man tells a story to another. The storyteller is a 'psychic private investigator', and his story is the response to his friend's question: 'Tell me, what would you say has been your most – shall we say "intriguing" case, Gilbert?' It's about a medical scientist who seeks revenge on the protégé who stole his ideas. There is a nice build-up to the denouement, and an effective sense of lingering dread.
There was, however, something about the continuity of this story I really didn't get. I am fully prepared to accept that I misunderstood it, and would appreciate someone explaining it to me if that's the case! (view spoiler)[I didn't understand how Gilbert knew Craig was responsible for Webb's death – that is to say, I didn't understand how he could have told Part One of the story. Part Two seemed to make it quite clear that although he understood the nature of the murder, he never discovered the culprit. It's also clear he is meant to be telling Part One (rather than it just being included as exposition) because there's an interlude during which it is mentioned that he and Tom have to go home for the night before the rest of the tale is told. Did I miss something? (hide spoiler)]
Boy Twenty-One Begins very strongly, as a (former?) teacher reads a news article about a stately home, Cloten Hall, being destroyed by fire. This leads her to reminisce about one of her students, Toby. She remembers him as an 'unhappy boy' with a troubled home life; he struggles to make friends, until the arrival of the mysterious new boy, Andreas. The two become inseparable, forming a friendship so intense it worries their teachers. Then Andreas disappears.
Given that it's a ghostly story, you can probably guess where it goes from there. That the story is bookended by the points of view of the teacher, Mrs Mills, and the now-adult Toby gives it a smidgen more intrigue than it might otherwise possess. Nevertheless, it is a slight tale, and rather predictable, which isn't to say that it's bad, but it was my least favourite of the four.
Alice Baker A group of office workers have been putting up with their 'cramped, dingy' conditions for a long time, promised change that never comes and modernity that never materialises. When a new girl named Alice Baker arrives, the narrator thinks she seems nice, if antisocial; one of her colleagues seems to think differently, although she refuses to explain why. But then the narrator has her own odd encounter with Alice. And when the team are at last moved to the brand new offices of lore, the strange events surrounding their enigmatic co-worker don't cease.
This story is the jewel of the collection. It's brilliant. Everything from the shabby buildings to the camaraderie of a small office to the feeling of experiencing something inexplicable, then justifying and rationalising it to yourself to the point that you barely believe it happened, is just wonderfully done. The narrator isn't named and yet she is the most believable character in the book – as eerie as the tale is, it also feels authentic, exactly as an ordinary person would tell a story about something weird happening to them.
The Front Room Inspired by a sermon (or rather an 'address') given by their pastor, Norman and Belinda vow to help those less fortunate than themselves. Since charity begins at home, they agree to take in Solange, Norman's belligerent stepmother, with whom he has always had a fraught relationship. She's installed in the front room, which is refurbished to form a self-contained flat; however, she wastes no time insinuating herself into the household, interfering, terrorising the couple's three children, and Belinda moves from anger to disgust and finally fear at her behaviour. How will it all end? More to the point, will the end really mean the end?
Of all the stories in The Travelling Bag, this feels the least typical. Had I not known, I wouldn't have guessed it was written by Hill, and it reminded me most of several entries from the Nightjar Press series of one-story chapbooks. Like 'Alice Baker', there is an ordinariness about it: the modest suburban house, the family dinners. And, as with 'Alice Baker', the realism of these details makes its eventual shift towards the uncanny even more disquieting.
Above all, the tales collected here showcase a mastery of atmospheric detail. The appeal of traditional ghost stories is a contradiction – comfort and unease at the same time – and among contemporary writers in the genre, I find Hill's work to be virtually unsurpassed in embodying this. I look forward to more next year, and for many Halloweens to come.
This new collection of E. Nesbit's Horror Stories starts – whether to get them out of the way, or to lower the reader's expectations, I'm not sure – wThis new collection of E. Nesbit's Horror Stories starts – whether to get them out of the way, or to lower the reader's expectations, I'm not sure – with three of the worst: 'Hurst of Hurstcote', 'The Ebony Frame', and 'Man-Size in Marble'. Each is narrated by a male character, none of whom really convince, and the stories also have a tedious focus on relationships and love. They certainly don't live up to the title, or the lurid cover; they might just as easily be described as romantic stories.
Then comes the fourth story, 'The Violet Car'. The difference in quality between the first three and this one is enormous, and it is a perfect combination of gloomy atmosphere, mystery and terror. There's more of the romance stuff in 'John Charrington's Wedding', but here, the characterisation of the narrator feels more assured and knowing – making for some amusing moments of pomposity – and the twist is pleasingly ghoulish. 'The Five Senses', about a scientist who invents a sense-magnifying drug, is one of the few of these stories to have a genuinely frightening premise. In 'The Head', a caddish journalist unwisely convinces a reclusive sculptor to create a life-size version of his masterpiece, a depiction of the fire that killed his wife; this is perhaps the nastiest of the tales and, not coincidentally, it is also the most entertaining.
The collection is uneven, though, and if these are the best of Nesbit's horror stories, I can't help but think there can't be much to choose from. 'The Shadow' would be a neat, spooky little tale, but it's hampered by bizarre narrative decisions (it vacillates between first person plural and singular, and two separate characters are referred to as 'the youngest of us' and 'the youngest of all'; it was only at the end I realised they weren't the same person.) The stories towards the end of the book don't offer anything particularly imaginative, and they are quite repetitive too: an introductory passage from 'The Three Drugs' is reproduced almost word-for-word in 'To the Adventurous'.
Naomi Alderman's foreword frames Nesbit's horror stories as a reflection of darker aspects of her life: 'her own biography includes an adulterous husband who got one of her dearest friends pregnant. She knew about anger, hatred and sexual jealousy... [in these] stories she lets the knowledge out that she held back so carefully in her work for children.' Seen in this light, some features of the stories – Nesbit's portrayal of men as fickle, superficial creatures, obsessed with physical beauty but consumed by hate towards women once their attraction fades; her apparent fixation with the idea of doomed love – become more interesting. And there is something inherently intriguing in the idea of a beloved children's author also writing morbid tales of horror, though of course it isn't without precedent.
Some of the stories here are enjoyable enough, with 'The Violet Car' and 'The Head' standing out as the best. The rest rarely get close to what makes a good horror story, and knowing the author's possible motivation in writing around some of these themes doesn't make them any better to read. It's not too difficult to see why they aren't widely known or read nowadays. But ghost stories are weirdly personal, I think: there's no other genre I read in which I so frequently find myself out of step with what both critics and other readers find to be effective, atmospheric, frightening, memorable. While most of these Horror Stories didn't work for me, they may well work for you.
Internet reads, 2 of 2: a very fun online story in which a zombie epidemic is charted through two internet-based mediums: the Facebook posts of a womaInternet reads, 2 of 2: a very fun online story in which a zombie epidemic is charted through two internet-based mediums: the Facebook posts of a woman who may be infected, and the emails of a group of Facebook executives debating the introduction of a feature allowing users to tag their friends as zombies. As soon as I read the beginning, I had to read all of it immediately. I loved it and I wish it'd been longer. Found via Karen's review....more
Just a short story, but an atmospheric, powerful one. The first-person POV of a small-town observer is used brilliantly to tell the tale of a mysterioJust a short story, but an atmospheric, powerful one. The first-person POV of a small-town observer is used brilliantly to tell the tale of a mysterious newcomer who has a penchant for painting oddly realistic animals. The creepiness is kept to a minimum, which makes the climax all the more effective. I'm marking Michael Marshall Smith down as a writer whose short stories I'd like to investigate further....more
Set in a near-future America which appears to have become one big dilapidated theme park, the bizarre stories (and novella) of CivilWarLand in Bad DecSet in a near-future America which appears to have become one big dilapidated theme park, the bizarre stories (and novella) of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline are by turns funny, disturbing and moving. Saunders' characters are invariably weird, eccentric, even occasionally horrifying, yet they end up feeling more human than the majority of fictional characters. It's also satisfying to find I can now detect Saunders' influence in the work of so many other writers I admire - to name a few: Lindsay Hunter's short stories, Kaaron Warren's novel Slights, and recent favourite You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman.
My favourites from this collection were the title story and 'The 400-Pound CEO', and I also found the insightful author's note - which is really another story, albeit an autobiographical one about the creation of this book - to be just as enjoyable to read as the stories themselves.
If only I could stop hoping. If only I could say to my heart: Give up. There's always opera. There's angel-food cake and neighborhood children caroling, and the look of autumn leaves on a wet roof. But no. My heart's some kind of idiotic fishing bobber.
I believe he [God] takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us. He gives us a need for love, and no way to get any. He gives us a desire to be liked, and personal attributes that make us utterly un-likable. Having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the difference between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health....more
Before I start this review, a confession. I'm not all that familiar with Shirley Jackson's stories. I've read her most famous short story, 'The Lottery', and the chilling novella We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but that's the extent of my knowledge. So the fact that this particular installment of curious tales from Curious Tales is based on her body of work was always going to be a little bit lost on me. I'm sure there are many Jackson references throughout these five stories that I've completely failed to recognise. With that out of the way: I was always going to read this book, no matter the inspiration; I've been waiting for it since last year's Poor Souls' Light, and hope these collections of unsettling stories will keep coming long enough to become an annual pre-Christmas tradition.
Congregation of Innocents opens with Emma Jane Unsworth's contribution, 'The Festival' - one I was particularly looking forward to, as I loved her story in Poor Souls' Light. April is on a train, en route to a festival, feeling not quite as enthusiastic as she should. 'She could be at home now, listening to the radio, festering. Lovely.' Some rowdy teenagers are getting on her nerves, and things get worse when a 'long, thin man' sits down opposite her. The atmosphere between them, which has a weird, unwanted sexual pitch, reaches a crescendo with two disturbing moments, but the story is left open. It could be that nothing here is macabre at all, but on the other hand... This left an impression that had me re-reading it, though of course I wanted more. (Before the year's out, I really have to get round to reading Unsworth's Animals, like I've been meaning to for well over a year.)
Richard Hirst's 'Do You Know How To Waltz?' starts like an inverted version of 'The Festival', in which we see things from the viewpoint of the strange interloper, while the innocent subject of his plainly malign interest remains ignorant. The narrator targets a woman newly arrived in New York, lost, drawn to the bright lure of a department store. There's a disconcerting opening, in which we're unaware of the narrator's apparently omniscient presence until he suddenly appears, and tells us so - 'this is where I come in' - after a few pages. How does he know so much about the woman? How much of what he says is true? His motives may be unclear, but his intentions become horribly obvious as he guides his victim, and the reader, towards an oppressive fate.
The next story is told in a different format: 'The Brood of Desire', by Ian Williams, is a graphic tale. There's something both funny and horrifying about Williams' illustrations of a child afflicted by a condition causing 'friable horns' to grow out of his face. As with the others - but more emphatically here - what's left unsaid is far more important than what the narrator chooses to reveal, as we're left to wonder exactly what's meant by lines like 'my present circumstances, as you know, make that an impossibility' and 'my parents, of course, are not around'. Am I imagining echoes of We Have Always Lived in the Castle here? The final, full-page panel is both beautifully done, creating an image that's intensely eerie and haunting (I'd quite like a print of it, actually...)
Jenn Ashworth is next up, with 'The Women's Union of Relief', in which I can finally say for certain I recognise something of Jackson's influence - it owes a debt to 'The Lottery'. The shabby black box from 'The Lottery' even puts in an appearance, as a group of women in a small American town gather to decide what is to be done about the dwindling cash, and consequently the dwindling reputation, of their locale. Naturally, the solution they decide upon is a diabolical one, though Ashworth's narrative swerves around it until the very end, performing a clever feint that almost convinces you the women are benevolent after all.
Finally, there's 'Desert Stories' by Tom Fletcher. This is also set in a small American town, a sunburned one on the edge of a desert: 'this is a dying town, but there are those of us who have still got to live in it'; the few residents maintain unhappy friendships because 'if nobody came calling, then nobody would know when it was time to bury you.' The narrator, Arlene, receives one such call from Megan, who runs the local motel. There's history between the two women, and that's partly what's explored in the gripping, uncanny conversation the two proceed to have. 'Desert Stories' is the high point of this collection - Fletcher handles atmosphere and tension masterfully, creating such a clear vision of this town that it feels like he surely must have created a whole book's worth of backstory to go with it.
'Desert Stories' and 'The Brood of Desire' stood out as the highlights, but none of these stories were disappointing. This time, they truly are 'curious tales' - not ghost stories - and that gives them greater scope to move into the surreal, the inexplicable, and indeed the horror of ordinary human cruelty. Whether that's Shirley Jackson's influence or not, it makes for a stronger collection than Poor Souls' Light; Congregation of Innocents is more even and consistent. Here's to many more Curious Tales....more
I've read Chris Priestley's 'Tales of Terror' series in a strange order which has meant I've come to this, the first one published, last. I also likedI've read Chris Priestley's 'Tales of Terror' series in a strange order which has meant I've come to this, the first one published, last. I also liked it the most. The formula used in the other volumes, with a central narrative tying all the other tales together, is at its best here. Naive young Edgar goes to visit his ancient Uncle Montague to listen to his macabre stories, each of which seems to be linked to an object in the room where they sit. Though he feigns bravado, Edgar grows increasingly frightened by his uncle's apparent conviction that all the tales are true, and then it's time for him to go home - if he can make it past the silent children lurking in the woods...
Priestley's stories are suitable for kids, but wonderfully readable for adults too. He has a real way with atmosphere and is fantastic at creating the kind of creepy, spooky, misty ambience essential for a classic ghost story to work. The stories aren't predictable, either: you never know whether their young heroes and heroines will escape evil or meet a grisly end. This was a great read to usher in autumn....more
The Grownup is a short story. A very short story. It originally appeared in Rogues, an anthology edited by George R.R. Martin, in 2014; it's obviously being republished now, separately, because of Flynn's fame - and just in time for Halloween! That doesn't mean there isn't anything to enjoy here - and, I mean, I wanted to read it - but I question the decision to publish it as its own volume. With three pages of praise for Flynn's novels at the front, you're 9% into the ebook before you even get to the beginning.
But what a beginning it is: I didn't stop giving hand jobs because I wasn't good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.
Our narrator is nameless; a con woman turned sex worker turned con woman again - she's now posing as a 'psychological intuitive', pretending she can read people's auras and psychically heal their problems. It's easy money, until she meets Susan Burke. Susan opens her appointment by saying, 'my life is falling apart'. Since this is Flynn's approximation of gothic horror, Susan turns out to live in a gloomy mansion, Carterhook Manor - 'all elaborate, carved stonework' and 'long, baleful windows' - and there's something not quite right about her stepson, Miles... The narrator agrees to go to Susan's house (for a decent fee, of course) because she's 'trying to move into the domestic aura-cleansing business', but she gets more than she bargained for with Miles.
The first quarter of The Grownup is Flynn's oeuvre compacted. Seedy settings. A generous dash of sex. A not-like-the-other-girls female narrator with a fucked-up childhood and a sardonic, knowing voice. A main character who balances right in the middle of the likeable-unlikeable divide: she's smart-mouthed, incisive and funny on the one hand; arrogant, smug and judgemental on the other. Are you supposed to be on her side? Hate her guts? Who's the bad guy? Will you see the next twist coming? And the one after that?
I won't give away the exact nature of what happens in the rest of the tale, but I don't think any existing fans of Flynn will be surprised to learn that it's darkly funny, with a couple of big reveals. It's a good little story, but I think Flynn's style works best when she has room to really put down roots for her characters and flesh them out in full grotesque detail. Her characters are her great strength, and a short story like this one - a horror story, an homage to the classics and all their cliches, that by its very nature has to be plot-driven - doesn't showcase them properly. The Grownup needs to be at least three times longer than it is to accommodate everything it tries to squash in: the fascinating protagonist and her history, Susan and her family and their history, the background of Carterhook Manor, the 'horror' itself, and all the gothic tropes the story tries to honour or satirise or whatever. That first quarter is strong, as is the ending, which - like all the direct references to books and book clubs and defining oneself with terms like 'bookworm' - feels like a sly wink at the reader from Flynn, a little bit of a pisstake. But everything between those two points - especially the climax - seems rushed.
The original title of the story, 'What Do You Do?', is a much more appropriate name for it than 'The Grownup', but I suppose it wouldn't have looked quite as snappily Gone Girlish on the cover. At various points within the story, the narrator imagines a future scene in which she's asked that question - how she will answer, how she'll look when she's saying it. I'd sit by a fire and nibble on Brie and say, I'm a small business owner, an entrepreneur, if you will. (Not for nothing did the repeated phrase bring to mind Patrick Bateman answering 'I'm into, oh, murders and executions mainly.')
At the end, another 8% of the ebook is an extract from Dark Places. I've got to admit I'm quite glad I received a review copy of this; it's so slight, I can't quite convince myself it's worth paying for. That, then, is the main reason this is getting a middling score from me. It'd definitely be interesting to read a proper collection of short stories from Flynn....more
I bought a copy of this on eBay - it's long out of print - after loving Dan Jacobson's first two books, The Trap and A Dance in the Sun, when I read tI bought a copy of this on eBay - it's long out of print - after loving Dan Jacobson's first two books, The Trap and A Dance in the Sun, when I read them in April. Through the Wilderness is more of a mixed bag: many of the stories don't have the visceral beauty of those novellas, and some of the shorter ones are more forgettable. Jacobson is always at his best when portraying the South African veld, its dusty plains spreading on forever and the sun beating down on whitewashed iron buildings. The stories set in England always seem to lack something, to have a feeling of being drab and hemmed in - maybe that's just the contrast in landscapes, maybe it's a reflection of the author's own feelings, maybe it's deliberate.
I didn't make notes on every story in this collection, but these were my favourites: A Day in the Country: A family are drawn into a violent confrontation while driving back from a day out. Only nine pages long, but full of tension. Beggar My Neighbour: A young boy from a rich white family starts giving food to a pair of street children, imagining himself their saviour, and is perturbed when their reaction fails to conform to his fantasy. The idea of doing something ostensibly noble and/to help others (or wanting to be perceived as helping others) for what are in fact selfish and vain reasons is portrayed so incisively here, and feels just as (if not more) timely today. Fresh Fields: Dreaming of literary success in London, a writer goes in search of his hero, but finds the great man disillusioned and lacking inspiration. The Pretenders: One of the longest stories in the book, in which a film is being made about an American who attempted to establish the 'State of Diamondia' during the South African diamond rush. The cast of characters includes a delusional, ambitious wannabe who aspires to be a famous actor, along with a very old man claiming to be the legendary American himself. This story has a lot going on but it all feels beautifully contained, and the characters are particularly strong. Through the Wilderness: Another of the longest, this is also the most similar in tone to The Trap and A Dance in the Sun. A farmer's son, reluctant to take on the duties involved in looking after the family farm while his father is in hospital, is introduced to a persistent Israelite preacher. Perfectly communicating both the oppressiveness and the vast openness of the veld, the story revisits the themes of Jacobson's first novels, especially in the helplessness the narrator feels in confronting cultural differences and his own ingrained racism.
--- My father had bought the farm after one of the wettest years we could remember in Lyndhurst; he had come to it at the end of summer, when the slopes of the veld were covered in grass that was knee-high, green at the stems, and beginning to go to a silvery-blue seed at the tips. Clouds moved across the sky; and the light, when it fell to the earth, seemed to be taken in by the grass and subdued there. The veld was wide and so gentle one could hardly understand why it should have been empty of people. - The Game
[Michael] was not unhappy in his loneliness. He was used to it, in the first place; and then, because he was lonely, he was all the better able to indulge himself in his own fantasies... It was not long before the two African children, who were now accosting him regularly, appeared in some of his games, for their weakness, poverty, and dependence gave Michael ample scope to display in fantasy his kindness, generosity, courage and decisiveness. - Beggar My Neighbour
In England there was a tradition, after all, of high thinking and bleak living; their own poverty could appear to them almost glamorous. - Trial and Error
... He was proud that what he was feeling had come as a surprise to him; that it had sprung entirely from within himself, insread of having been tainted by words in books and magazines, laid down for him in patterns set by others. In comparison with what he felt as a father it seemed to him that so much else in his marriage and work was mere imitation, a mere groping towards states of mind and feeling he wished to have because he had read or been told they were desirable. - Trial and Error
My father's life had been a ceaseless, unknowing, unswerving trek towards these hideous days and hours; they were the summation of his life as well as its undoing. He had moved through time as through a landscape, distracted by a thousand moods, experiences, possessions, achievements, memories, but always, unfalteringly, in one direction only, in this direction. And as with him, so with everyone else who lived, or had ever lived, or ever would. - Through the Wilderness
... The sun was low in the west, red, growing larger; around it were gathering the clouds that invariably appeared in the western corner of the horizon at that hour, after even the most cloudless days. Those clouds, together with the dust that was always in the air, the flat openness of the country, and the strength of the sun, all combined to produce the most spectacular sunsets, day after day: immense, silent, rapid combustions that flared violently into colour and darkened simultaneously. It always seemed suddenly that you became aware the colours had been consumed and only the darkness remained. - Through the Wilderness
I remember how consoling I found the emptiness of the countryside around me, its width, its indifference, its hard materiality. It was there, it would last. That was something to be grateful for, I felt then, not resentful of, as I had always been in the past. - Through the Wilderness
--- List/order of stories: 1. The Box 2. A Day in the Country 3. The Zulu and the Zeide 4. The Little Pet 5. The Game 6. A Way of Life 7. Beggar My Neighbour 8. Fresh Fields 9. The Example of Lipi Lippmann 10. An Apprenticeship 11. Trial and Error 12. The Pretenders 13. Another Day 14. Sonia 15. Through the Wilderness 16. Led Astray...more
If the name of this classic short story isn't familiar, the premise may be - it's about a legal copyist, the Bartleby of the title, who starts to refuIf the name of this classic short story isn't familiar, the premise may be - it's about a legal copyist, the Bartleby of the title, who starts to refuse work with the immortal words 'I would prefer not to'. I'm glad to be acquainted with the story, but I wouldn't say it's required reading....more
Important facts about this book: 1. These are those kind of stories that are really scenes, slices of characters' lives. Don't expect them to have endiImportant facts about this book: 1. These are those kind of stories that are really scenes, slices of characters' lives. Don't expect them to have endings. (It's not just a stylistic quirk that the subtitle is 'And Other People' instead of 'And Other Stories'. These are sketches of individuals first and foremost.) 2. This is mainly a book about sex and dogs. But not in a weird way. 3. I was impressed with how real (almost) all of these characters felt to me, but something about the stories consistently left me a little cold.
How Am I Supposed To Talk To You? A girl goes to visit her mother in Mexico, armed with a suitcase of Victoria's Secret underwear which the two of them will sell on the beach - 'she said the kids there wanted this underwear more than marijuana'. A good opener for the book, this story sets the tone; it's simple, clean in its prose, careful in its detail, and anticlimactic.
Weekend With Beth, Kelly, Muscle, and Pammy A guy called Jason spends a weekend in New York with his sister and a friend (the other two names in the title - Muscle and Pammy - are different names for the same dog). Along the way he ruminates on his relationship with Beth, his ex-flatmate and one-time lover, who seems to both attract and disgust him. This was my least favourite story of the collection - I didn't find Jason's voice convincing at all; I couldn't believe he was a guy (as opposed to a guy written by a woman, I mean). Thankfully, none of the other stories turned out to be narrated by male characters.
Mike Anonymous In contrast, I loved this one, and I think of all the stories, this was the most original and interesting. The narrator works in a sexual health clinic, and Mike Anonymous is an incomprehensible patient she has to deal with. Fresh and funny and sad.
I Will Crawl To Raleigh If I Have To (I like the fact that some of these story titles sound like emo song titles.) This one's about a girl who's planning to break up with her boyfriend; in fact, she's desperate to break up with him, but her plans are derailed by a family holiday. The American-middle-class-family-vacation stuff was a turn-off, but I loved the narrator's account of her relationship, a great example of the sad/funny balance that Holmes seems to do really well.
Desert Hearts A young woman moves to San Francisco with her boyfriend, who's starting a lucrative role in a law firm. She's got a law degree too, but doesn't want to work in law, partly to spite her father. So she gets a sales job in a sex shop. This was another one of the best, and most comic - the narrator's lies spiral out of control after she pretends to be a lesbian in order to get hired, then has to keep justifying her faux-sexuality to a suspicious colleague.
Pearl and the Swiss Guy Fall In Love An unnamed narrator starts dating a man known only as 'the Swiss guy'. Pearl is her dog, a pit bull who hates men until the Swiss guy comes along. It's only when the narrator lets the Swiss guy move into her apartment, supposedly on a temporary basis, that she realises she doesn't actually like him (while Pearl grows to like him instead). This was fine, but kind of depressing.
New Girls A (pre-teen, young teen?) girl moves from America to Germany with her family. Her story is structured according to a chronological list of the girls she becomes friends - or enemies - with in her new hometown. A good evocation of what it's like to live in an unfamiliar country while young, though the various characters are too briefly described to make a proper impression.
My Humans Given the number of times dogs appear in this book, it isn't really surprising to find one of the stories is narrated by a dog. This charts the disintegration of a relationship - that of the owners - through the eyes of said dog, Princess. I thought this was going to work badly at first, but I liked the way the owners' affection towards the dog was developed. Towards the end, the story becomes more reliant on dialogue, which actually improves it. Quite cleverly done.
Jerks I couldn't remember a thing about this when I came to write this review. Which maybe says a lot. Having skimmed it again, it seems to me that it typifies the book - another one about a postgrad student who moves somewhere (in this case back home with her dad) after a breakup; a character who's broke but has rich parents. The story is about her interest in photography and her experiences with babysitting a troublesome little boy.
Barbara the Slut The blurb says this story follows the title character as she overcomes her high school's toxic slut-shaming culture, which is a buzzwordy way to describe it, but also not actually what happens. The story is set up with this idea that Barbara only sleeps with every boy one time, that this is because she once slept with the same boy more than once and 'it made him dishonest' - but there's no real examination of why Barbara thinks like this, how a girl would come to such a conclusion by the age of sixteen. Which is fine, the story doesn't have to explain that, but because it doesn't, Barbara reads too much like a teen written by an adult, with an adult's hindsight, a too-mature self-possession about sex and the transactional nature of high school relationships. By making her perfect in every other way (she's a fitness-obsessed, straight-A student who wins a place at Princeton while also caring for her autistic brother) the story also felt like it was hitting me over the head with the idea that she couldn't really be a 'slut' because she was objectively a 'good person' - which surely undermines its supposed message. Wouldn't this have been a more interesting and daring story if Barbara's sex life had been the only thing that defined her, and/or had distracted/taken away from other things in her life? If the reader had been challenged to sympathise with her despite that? As it was, the story actually had the opposite impact, as I found the character smug and annoying, and wasn't inclined to sympathise with her individually. (This story annoyed me, can you tell?) In short, I wasn't convinced by anything about the character or scenario at all.
What I really felt this collection needed was greater diversity. All of the stories are written in first person; they're all about young or young-ish people trying to find their way in the world; they're all about American characters from similar backgrounds; they're all set in America in the present day (except 'New Girls', which depicts an American protagonist in Germany, and appears to take place in the late 90s). Even the dog-centric story has much the same tone and focus as the others.
Despite my rant about the final story, I think it's clear from her sharp-eyed prose and the clever humour in stories like 'Mike Anonymous' and 'Desert Hearts' that Holmes is a talent to watch. This book, overall, simply fell a little short of my expectations....more
(Incidentally, I read this entirely on trains.) This short story, verging on novella length, is an odd mixture that doesn't fully work, and I have to(Incidentally, I read this entirely on trains.) This short story, verging on novella length, is an odd mixture that doesn't fully work, and I have to agree with other reviewers that the translation doesn't seem to be very good, with awkward phrases and idioms that have either been translated incorrectly or just don't make sense in English. There's an awkwardness in the themes, too: the idea of sentient trains running 'off the tracks' is, at points, so silly that it's difficult to believe this is supposed to be a story for adults - but Rupert's brain damage wouldn't exactly fit very well into a story for kids. Despite all of this, however, I found something about the story gripping, effective and atmospheric enough that I enjoyed it. Karen's review brought this to my attention, and I agree with her that while parts of it might feel like a bit of a drag, it's worth reading. ...more
Two perfectly formed, heartbreaking short stories from Wharton. In 'Mrs. Manstey's View', an ageing woman is driven to extreme measures to preserve onTwo perfectly formed, heartbreaking short stories from Wharton. In 'Mrs. Manstey's View', an ageing woman is driven to extreme measures to preserve one of her only pleasures: the garden view she enjoys from her room. 'The Reckoning' exposes the machinations at the heart of a relationship, as a wife comes to regret an agreement made with her husband years ago. Having also loved Wharton's ghost stories, I really must read more by her....more
When I started the first story, 'The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon', I thought I knew what I was getting. The protagonist, Robbie, begins by reminiscing about his first job, as a security guard at a museum of aviation, and remembering a particular gallery in which a projection of a disembodied head was the main attraction. But the narrative quickly moves away from the obvious creepy angle here and instead weaves a detailed and character-driven tale around Robbie and two of his ex-colleagues; it's certainly uncanny, but evasive about exactly how. The characters – like most of the characters in most of the stories collected here – are middle-aged, not inclined to fantastical speculation, and many of the most effective moments are touching rather than unnerving. 'The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon' is unusually lengthy for the first story in an anthology, almost a novella in itself, and it sets the tone for a collection in which the 'strange' is often not what you expect it to be, and the longest stories are the most rewarding and surprising.
'Winter's Wife' is told by a boy whose neighbour, the eccentric Winter, suddenly brings home an inscrutable young Icelandic woman as his wife. Winter meets her on the internet, and our narrator thinks she looks like Björk – it's these humanising touches that make Hand's stories so effective; we identify ourselves in the backdrops, if not the mysterious cloud of hummingbirds in the forest, or the character with an apparent ability to bend nature to her will. 'Uncle Lou' spends so much time establishing the relationship between the main characters, a woman and her flamboyant uncle, that the ending has powerful emotional clout, despite taking a real turn for the fantastic. The brief 'Cruel Up North' is memorable chiefly because it doesn't explain its mysteries – what, for example, might the 'lava fields' be?
There are missteps – or, at least, some stories are weaker than others. 'Hungerford Bridge' – a short scene in which an old friend introduces the narrator to a fantastic creature – feels too thin against the richness of many of the other tales; 'The Far Shore' contains some beautiful moments but goes in a predictable direction, the opposite of the clever feints performed by the strongest stories here; and 'The Return of the Fire Witch' is an oddity, the one slice of high fantasy among a set of what might otherwise, per the subtitle, be termed 'strange stories' in the Robert Aickman sense.
But the jewel in Errantry's crown is 'Near Zennor', a flawless work of art that has to be one of the best short stories (strange or otherwise) I've ever read. It starts with a discovery: Jeffrey, a 'noted architect', is organising clutter belonging to his late wife, Anthea, when he finds a tin containing a bundle of letters and a cheap locket. The letters are in Anthea's hand, all returned to sender; when he investigates the recipient, Robert Bennington, he discovers the man was a children's author later vilified as a paedophile. Disturbed by references to a meeting between Anthea and Robert, and tortured by the idea that she could have been a victim of abuse she never told him about, he journeys to her native England to meet with one of her childhood friends. There, he hears a story that will lead him on a journey through the places of Anthea's past; to Padwithiel farm, near Zennor, and to Bennington's abandoned home.
Everything about 'Near Zennor' is absolutely pitch-perfect. The Cornish landscape is lovingly described; there is a true sense of reverence, and an awareness of the power – and menace – of nature runs throughout the whole story. The revelations about Bennington's crimes and reminders of his pariah status mean there's also an underlying current of real horror that has nothing to do with unexplained phenomena. Hand captures the force of a disquieting experience endured in childhood, how the memory can magnify it, give it the status of a legend. Jeffrey's ordeal at Golovenna Farm induces pure terror without resorting to anything as prosaic as an explanation. And there is a final twist that is shocking, and almost grimly funny, but not histrionic. All in all, it achieves the strange, wonderful duality of feeling perfect and complete but also leaving you wanting more, and more, and more, and it feels so real that I was tempted to google Bennington's Sun Battles books and the Cliff Cottage B&B. (This short interview with Hand gives some fascinating context – not just the fact that she deliberately set out to write an Aickmanesque story (an aim at which, in my opinion, she has absolutely succeeded) but that the three girls' peculiar adventure was, in fact, based on an inexplicable childhood memory of her own.)
'Near Zennor' is the second story in the book, and after finishing it, I had to take a break – to absorb its greatness, and because I was so sure nothing else could even begin to live up to it, I wasn't sure I wanted to read on. It's one of those stories that's so good, it's worth buying the whole book for it alone. Errantry is a strong, unpredictable collection of stories, but 'Near Zennor' is a masterpiece....more
This collection of short stories from Donal Ryan is similar to his novel, The Spinning Heart, which could also have been read as a series of short stoThis collection of short stories from Donal Ryan is similar to his novel, The Spinning Heart, which could also have been read as a series of short stories - with each chapter told from the perspective of a different character - albeit one with a unifying theme and plot to tie everything together. Again, there is extensive use of first person (in fact I don't think there's a single story that doesn't use it), present tense, and, of course, Irish dialect. I have to say I preferred this format in The Spinning Heart; the stories are effective individually, but over the course of twenty tales, they begin to blend into one, especially as so many of the narrators have similar voices. A Slanting of the Sun also has rather too many occurrences of salt-of-the-earth characters suddenly coming out with lyrical, poetic, unavoidably literary descriptions - the sort of thing that doesn't seem incongruous in a single story, but starts to become noticeable when it happens again and again.
I really enjoy Ryan's writing, and the things I disliked here were mostly matters of repetition. I think I would have given any and all of these stories higher ratings had I read them in isolation. Nevertheless, I felt lukewarm towards A Slanting of the Sun and was rather glad to come to the end of it.
Favourites: 'The Passion' - just out of prison, a man forms an unexpected relationship with the mother of the girl he killed. 'Tommy and Moon' - a writer reflects on his friendship with an elderly neighbour. 'Trouble' - a girl experiences her first taste of prejudice when her beloved father starts a fight at a scrapyard. 'Long Puck' - a Catholic priest in Syria organises hurling matches to help bridge local divides. 'Losers Weepers' - a group of neighbours search for a woman's missing engagement ring. 'Grace' - a refugee tells the story of how she came to Ireland. 'Crouch End Introductions' - similar to the above, but the narrator is an Irish woman who's trying to make a living in London.
I received an advance review copy of A Slanting of the Sun from the publisher through Edelweiss....more
Completely addictive - and what a fantastic return to form after the lacklustre Expo 58. I read this at breakneck speed, barely able to tear myself away from it. It tells interconnected stories that revolve around two women, Rachel and Alison, childhood friends whose lives go in very different directions after what might be a life-changing encounter with the 'Mad Bird Woman' when they're both ten years old. It's also a very loose sequel to Coe's What a Carve Up! and makes numerous callbacks to that novel (but you don't need to have read What a Carve Up! to enjoy it). Political/social commentary mingles with satire, mystery and a touch of horror. My favourite section was 'The Crystal Garden', which tells of a man's obsessive search for a magical film he watched as a boy. The ingredients all add up to a book so incredibly enjoyable that I fell into a genuine state of despair upon finishing it.
More detailed review to follow (closer to the publication date)....more
David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks may have been a disappointment for numerous reasons, a three-star book that really, if I was being completely honest, should have been two (as I've occasionally done, I gave it extra credit, so to speak, because of my affection for the author's other work), but that didn't stop me from being excited about Slade House. A (sort of) ghost story centred on one mysterious house was always going to be irresistible to me. Early reviews have compared it to classic ghost stories and horror movies, and it's often been referred to as 'a haunted house story'. That isn't quite the case, as anyone familiar with the premise of The Bone Clocks' more fantastical segments will likely guess, but Slade House certainly has the spirit (no pun intended) and suspense of one.
Why am I mentioning The Bone Clocks anyway? Well: published hot on the heels of its predecessor, Slade House is a short novel with significant links to the world of The Bone Clocks; though it's been established that all Mitchell's novels are linked, this is arguably a follow-up rather than a wholly new story. (It's also partly based on a tale Mitchell originally 'published' in a series of tweets.) That said, you might initially wonder where exactly the similarities lie. This begins as a story about Nathan, a teenage boy who, with his mother, visits the eponymous house. It's hidden down Slade Alley, grey and narrow and and permanently rainy, and is accessed through a small iron door. What lies beyond this unprepossessing door is incongruous: a grand house, a beautiful, verdant garden, and a charming aristocratic host, Lady Norah Grayer.
In what's become regarded as typical Mitchell style, the book doesn't stick with Nathan, but tells a number of short stories in different voices and different time periods, though they all have the same basic premise and structure: someone comes to visit Slade House and finds something they desire behind that door - something that's (needless to say) not what it seems. There are nuances of characterisation here that were (weirdly) absent from the much longer Bone Clocks: loveable but exasperating Nathan and his understandably agitated mother; swaggering copper Gordon, with an unexpected heart of gold; Sally - lovely, tragic Sally. The first two in particular are clever feats of subverted expectation: starting off as cliched character types, they turn out to be so much more fine-spun than that. Meanwhile, our villains are the ruthless Grayer twins - they're undoubtedly sinister and satisfyingly nasty, but there's an element of comedy in their bickering that smacks of sitcom banter. That prevents the repeating doomed scenario on which the plot hinges from making the whole thing too depressing, even though really, there's quite a lot of tragedy in this book, something that's particularly keenly felt because the characters are so well defined.
Much shorter and tighter than The Bone Clocks, Slade House lacks the flabbiness of its predecessor; but towards the end, its links with the world of Bone Clocks become clearer, its fantasy element ramps up, and much of one chapter is devoted to belatedly explaining the Grayers' backstory. This is where it lost me a little. I know lots of people love the self-referential thing in Mitchell's books, but I'm finding it increasingly gimmicky; straining to recognise references or remember where you heard a name before can sometimes be detrimental to enjoyment, and gets a bit tiresome when repeated. And as much as I thought Bone Clocks was overlong, as much as I literally just said it was good that this was shorter, there were some other things I'd prefer to have been expanded and examined, instead of a rerun of all the Atemporal/orison/pyroblast stuff. (view spoiler)[For example, what was with the reappearing runner - was he trapped in time or just an 'echo'? Didn't his presence suggest the whole thing was a dream each time? And why did the Grayers willingly give away so much information to their prey, anyway? (This was explained, but I felt sure there was more to it.) And I wanted so much to know that what happened between Sally and Todd wasn't all a result of the Grayers manipulating her mind - although maybe it's better I don't have an answer for that. (hide spoiler)] I felt slightly deflated by the ending, though as with lots of enjoyable books, that might just have been because I wanted it to go on and on and on.
The thing is that even with its flaws, I'd read this again, and I want to buy a physical copy. I loved the idea, the mystery of Slade House; the setup of each character's approach of the place; I ache to know more about some of them, maybe all of them; and the atmosphere of the whole book has really stuck with me. I think it benefits from the fact that it's definitively a horror story, and a great example of one. The late October publication date is perfect, not only because it coincides with events in the story, but because this is one of those ideal winter books, with its crawling sense of horror and rain-soaked, freezing settings. And it made me want to revisit The Bone Clocks, too. Who'd have thought?
(NB: you can read this as a standalone novel. But there's a chance you may be a little confused by some of the explanation that's thrown at the reader at the end. If you're not already madly keen to read Bone Clocks, I wouldn't really recommend it, especially if you haven't read anything by Mitchell before; Ghostwritten is a better place to start, or Cloud Atlas.)
--- Lines to remember - not confirmed, as they're from the ARC (and most work better in context, but anyway):
My question falls down a deep well with no bottom, and I forget what I've forgotten.
The Valium's throbbing in my fingertips now, and the sunlight's a harpist.
A slit of light opens its eye and becomes a long flame. Cold bright star white.
The curtains were drawn, but the house sort of glowed like vanilla fudge in the evening light.
I smell lavender and smoke and I get that off-road feeling you get when anything's possible.
Her voice before was woolen, now it's a rusty jackknife.
Slade Alley cuts through black shadow before turning sharp under a feeble lamp that pulses dim beige.
I can't, won't, mustn't, don't.
True, I only properly started talking with Todd half an hour ago, but every undying love was only half an hour young, once.
Grief's an amputation, but hope's incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I read Rebecca Makkai's second novel, The Hundred Year House, last year and was really impressed. This collection of short stories has only confirmed my faith in her talent: although it's slightly patchy, some of them are spectacular.
I'll start with 'The November Story', because I thought it was absolutely perfect. It's about a woman who's working on the production team of a reality TV show, something a bit like Big Brother except all the contestants are artists. (It's called Starving Artist.) She's instructed to fabricate a relationship between two of the participants, with the aim of manipulating them into actually, really, falling in love; at the same time she's floundering in her own relationship with her girlfriend, a maddeningly lazy and indecisive presence who's 'making a list of the pros and cons of our relationship', and with whom she can no longer find anything to talk about except her work. Almost every sentence of this story is brilliant, and everything in it works wonderfully. Christine's work on the show, her relationships with her colleagues, the little snippets of her career history; the tiny vignettes of her home life with Beth, their stilted conversations, talking at cross purposes, deciding to ignore each other or feeling like they are. I've read it a couple of times since I finished the book and have a feeling I will keep returning to it forever. 'The November Story' is everything a short story should be.
In 'Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart', the titular character is a handsome, brilliant actor who one day 'freezes' on stage and instantaneously loses all his acting ability, confidence and belief in himself. The narrator is a friend who sees Peter as his first love: 'I never actually loved him, but still, listen, believe me, there's another kind of first love.' He invites Peter to read at an event he's holding, to celebrate a project in which writers have created short works to complement paintings and sculptures in a local museum. It's hardly difficult to predict that this won't end well, given the title of the story, but there are still so many surprises in it, so many unexpected details. This is perhaps the greatest strength of Makkai's stories and the thing that binds them together, since the plots and styles of each are so different from one another. 'Cross' - a cellist finds her driveway marred by a plastic cross, which grows to become a plastic shrine, commemorating the death of a teenage girl in a road accident; she battles to get it removed, while trying to balance her disgust about it with the grief of the girl's family; meanwhile she starts a new relationship with an old friend, and forms a quartet with him and two young musicians - also benefits from this perfect use of detail. Another couple of favourites were 'Good Saint Anthony Come Around' (too much going on to describe quickly, but it's basically about the relationship between two artists) and 'The Museum of the Dearly Departed' (a woman finds out her fiancé was having an affair with his ex-wife, a person she'd never known about, when the two of them are killed in a gas leak at the latter's apartment building).
As the above shows, it's incredibly difficult to summarise any of the stories in Music for Wartime in a single sentence, since there's always more than one thing going on. They cross into so many genres that the collection is constantly surprising and fresh. 'The Miracle Years of Little Fork' is full of scenes straight out of a quirky historical novel: a travelling circus becomes stuck in a Arkansas town after one of their elephants dies there; the town is then besieged by drought, flood and wind in turn, while a young reverend tries to hold his 'flock' together. 'The Briefcase' is one of those Kafkaesque political allegories, with a nameless political prisoner escaping and assuming the identity of a professor whose briefcase and clothes he steals. 'Couple of Lovers on a Red Background' - perhaps the most-talked-about story from this collection, at least from what I've seen so far, no doubt because its premise is so ridiculous in isolation - is a comic fantasy about a woman who finds Johann Sebastian Bach living in her piano, and goes on to start a sexual relationship with him because she wants to be pregnant with the child of a genius.
The weakest link for me was Makkai's use of what seem to be personal anecdotes to bridge the gaps between the stories proper. 'Other Brands of Poison', 'Acolyte', and 'A Bird in the House' all fit into this category. They are presented as true stories that have gained the status of legends within Makkai's family (indeed, each is subtitled as a Legend), and read like notes from the author - a device that interrupts the flow of the longer stories and rather disturbs the magic. I'm sure they'd be great as part of an autobiographical collection, but here they just feel like they don't belong.
Some of the shortest stories here are comparatively weak, too. 'Everything We Know About the Bomber', for example, feels like the product of an assignment you might be set in a creative writing class, and comes off as amateurish when compared to the superior pieces. (Actually it just really kept making me think about that notorious Amanda Palmer poem.) And 'Suspension: April 20, 1984' I found uncharacteristically hard to follow. But maybe these are more personal quibbles than actual problems: I've said before that I always struggle with really short stories, and most of what gets called flash fiction; I find it hard to get anything out of them, and maybe one day I will mature enough as a reader to start appreciating them, but this wasn't the book to change my mind.
If the 7 micro-stories had been trimmed from this collection, and it was just made up of the 10 longer stories, the fully formed and rounded ones, I'd probably have given it five stars. Honestly, I'm tempted to give it full marks simply because of how much I adored 'The November Story'. I gained so much inspiration from it; it would have been worth reading the whole book just for that. Needless to say, I'll be eagerly awaiting/scouring the internet for more of Makkai's short fiction in future....more
The famous short story 'The Yellow Wall-Paper' I've read before: of my own accord a while ago, and again more recently as part of a course I was studyThe famous short story 'The Yellow Wall-Paper' I've read before: of my own accord a while ago, and again more recently as part of a course I was studying. Reading it again when I bought this volume - part of the Penguin Little Black Classics series - made me see things in it that I'd missed the first time and even the second. Not doing a close reading of it was actually beneficial, and I got more of a sense of the gothic elements and satire contained within it.
This edition also contains two more short stories by Gilman. 'The Rocking-Chair' is more of a straightforward ghost story than the psychological horror of 'The Yellow Wall-Paper', although it has a little bit of that, with a strong focus on a sinister object that also gives the story its name. While it doesn't feel anywhere near as significant as the more famous story, I really enjoyed it. 'Old Water' is a comedy which I liked less, but it has a very strong ending. ...more
Reading Russian literature is a bit like listening to certain bands - now and again I do it for the first time in ages and wonder why I bother with anReading Russian literature is a bit like listening to certain bands - now and again I do it for the first time in ages and wonder why I bother with anything else. This short story is fantastic, a perfect recreation of its narrator's crazed, despairing state of mind. He's a pawnbroker (this little parallel with Crime & Punishment perhaps being one of the reasons why the story was chosen for a Little Black Classic edition), who quickly courts and marries a gullible girl, the meek one of the title, only then revealing the shame in his past. Obviously, it all ends in tragedy. The character's voice is wonderfully spot-on, drawing the reader irrevocably into his anguish. ...more