Saturday, 1 October 2011

Shadows & Tall Trees

Issue 2 of this excellent annual Canadian magazine is selling out rapidly. S&TT is dedicated to 'quiet, literary horror fiction'. The second issue demonstrates that the category is a very broad and interesting one. Excluding the easy cop-out of visceral cruelty requires an author to use their imagination. The result is a very diverse range of stories. Editor Michael Kelly is to be congratulated on attracting such an eclectic group of contributors.

Thus the first story, Richard Harland's 'At the Top of the Stairs', might almost be a gritty realist account of a family in crisis. Two children are left in an apartment at the top of a grim tenement building while mother goes out to work. Father has departed in troubling circumstances. When mother is out a man climbs the stairs and knocks on the door. Will be gain admittance? As with all such stories told from the perspective of children, there is something nightmarish about the timeless simplicity of the tale.

'Back Among the Shy Trees' by Steve Rasnic Tem is even more disturbing. Again, a kind of grubby realism prevails as a man called Tyler returns to his childhood home. This is rural horror, with the careful accumulation of detail suggesting that protagonist Tyler suffered something more than an unhappy childhood. The story earns its final shocks, and is slightly Lovecraftian in theme if not tone. Tyler's father belonged to a strange clan, and we eventually realise that his approach to child rearing was more than a little unorthodox. The power of memory, and memory's deceit, are arguably the most horrific ingredients here.

'Memento Mori' by Sunny Moraine is different again, with a magic realist (or is the narrator bonkers?) approach. Someone finds a skull on a beach. It's their own. Does this mean they are confronted with their mortality, or do they just have a really interesting talking point? It's a nicely-crafted story, but not quite my cup of tea. 'Voices Carry' by Eric Schaller also takes a surreal route. Two couples argue about infidelity and their words are transformed into stinging insects. As a metaphor for the irrational desire people feel to make a bad situation worse it works well enough.

'The Candle' by Ian Rogers is altogether more traditional, at least at first. A couple getting ready for bed argue over who should go downstairs and put out the candle that may have been left burning. Any number of early 20th century stories began in much the same way. What Rogers does is transform a slightly uneasy domestic situation into something darker - in both senses of the term - as Tom goes in search of Peggy, and finds her. Or finds someone.

From darkness to sunlight, with British author Alison J. Littlewood. 'The Pool' is another example of what might be termed 'relationship horror'. The newly-single Joan stays with her brother's family, and awkwardness ensues. But is Joan's sense of dislocation solely responsible for a nightmare about her beloved nephew Harry? One can interpret the pool in this story in any number of clever ways, but in the end it remains a powerful image in an above-average tale of the horrors that loneliness and confusion can inflict on the innocent.

Last but not least is 'The Devil's Music', by Louis Marvick. Here is the traditional ghostly tale, alive and well in the 21st century, and certainly not apologising for its splendid roll-call of traditional ingredients. An ancient, mysterious artefact? Check. Eccentric academics who 'go to far'? Check. A genuinely interesting idea founded on some obscure scholarship? Oh yes. It's a cracking good read, and a reminder that literary horror has deep roots.

As well as the stories, this issue contains some pity film reviews by Tom Goldstein, and Adam Golaski's trenchant critique of a new 'quiet horror' anthology.


Michael Kelly said...


Thanks kindly for the thoughtful critique. Very gratified to know you enjoyed the issue.

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