Saturday, 7 June 2014

Shadows and Tall Trees: Issue 6

Is it me, or is much of modern horror obsessed with property values and related topics? In the English-speaking world owning at least one property is considered right and normal, and being unable or unwilling to do so is weird, suspect, a mark of failure. (Yes, I'm generalising, but you know what I mean. Politicians bang this particular drum incessantly.) So perhaps it's not surprising that in the new Canadian anthology, Shadows and Tall Trees, we do find a lot of stories about places to live that are far from homely. Of course, when people do go outdoors they don't have much fun, either. You're damned if you do...

V.H. Leslie's 'The Quiet Room' is an interesting variation on the traditional haunted house story. A father buys a new, somewhat oversized home for himself and his teenage daughter. The two were estranged because of a marital split that left Ava with her late mother, Prue. Now Prue is gone Terry hopes that he can get to know his daughter. But an already problematic relationship is made even more complex by some strange phenomena linked to an urn full Prue's ashes and the old piano upon which Ava has put it. Music has often been used in tales of hauntings, but here it is interwoven with the (to me unfamiliar) myth of Philomel. In a story from an earlier era the ending might simply have involved Terry saving Ava from a baneful influence, but here things are not so clear cut.

In 'Vrangr', by C.M. Muller, we find another familiar horror story scenario, the man who inherits a property from a distant relative he's never met. In this case the house is in the eponymous American township that, ominously, can't be found on the internet. Though at first glance a slight tale it is a pleasure to read, and the conclusion has an elegant symmetry. Sometimes a writer is simply 'on your wavelength'; for me Muller is one such author.

Talking of clues that something is Not Quite Right, Alison Moore's 'Summerside' is a house acquired 'for a paltry sum' by a couple who then find the place too cold to live in. In fact, it seems to be growing colder... They move away but decide to rent out the modern extension, while keeping Summerside proper locked up. The story does not reveal the house's ghost (if that's what is involved) but does offer a salutary lesson in the dangers of renting.

A nice English country home features in 'The Statue' by Myriam Frey. Here, though, it's going into the woods that's the real problem. Frey shows how a skilled writer can take a simple idea and run with it to a satisfyingly fantastical solution. My only quibble is that the story does not, to me, seem especially horrific. I suppose it depends how you feel about trees.

Christopher Harman is pretty good on trees; the apparently tame English countryside is his favourite stamping ground. In 'Apple Pie and Sulphur' we see a Lake District walking holiday from the point of view of Karl, who is somewhat down on his luck and feels his more successful pals are drifting away from him. Harman is the modern master of the tightly-focused viewpoint, offering a very cinematic 'real time' narrative. As in many of his stories, a series of seemingly trivial decisions have dire consequences for poor Karl and the rest.

Altogether more enigmatic is Ray Russell's 'Night Porter'. Marianne - a normal enough young woman - takes a job in a hotel and finds herself involved in odd, perhaps vampiric, shenanigans involving an older woman and a series of hapless young men. Slightly Aickmanesque in tone, the story offers no clear-cut solutions. But the final paragraphs do hint at a rational, if far from reassuring, explanation for Marianne's predicament.

Rob Shearman's 'It Flows from the Mouth' offers a first person narrator with an amoral, perhaps psychopathic, take on life. He resents his best friend's wife, and is bored when asked to become godfather to their son. When the boy is killed our hero is rather pleased. The pivotal scene occurs at a country house with a splendid garden that centres on a bizarre shrine to the dead boy. There's a welcome touch of L.P. Hartley about it all. Like Hartley, Shearman is unsentimental about our darker impulses.

The same can be said for David Surface, whose 'Writings Found in a Red Notebook' is a typically accomplished weird tale. Two people set off across the desert, 'crossing the Badlands on our way Wyoming and the Medicine Bow'. The anonymous writer is keen to demonstrate his manly resourcefulness to his partner, Annie. We know this never bodes well. But the tale that unfolds is far from the usual desert encounter with the kind of menace that a few hundred horror movies have prepared us for. Things go wrong in an average way - they get lost, their car breaks down - but running parallel are stranger incidents, such as the glimpse of a corpse-like figure driving a truck. What the travellers find the desert is at once simple and baffling. This is a remarkable story that lingers in the mind and flavours the imagination.

Another story that impressed me, 'The Space Between', is a joint effort by Ralph Robert Moore and Ray Cluley. It's slightly reminiscent of Edogawa Rampo's 'Watcher in the Attic'. A couple are forced to 'downsize', and move into an apartment with a storage crawlspace. The unemployed husband finds a way to occupy his days when he realises that he can spy on his neighbours. He becomes addicted to vicarious pleasures, only to suffer an apt - and very unpleasant - fate.

These, then, are the supernatural tales that most impressed me this time, but I should stress that each and every story in this volume is at least above average, and most are very good. As Michael Kelly says in his introduction, short stories are the perfect art form. Long may they have a home among the shadows and tall trees.


James Everington said...

I thought this was excellent - almost every story was very very very good, with only a couple being merely very very good. Superb examples of intelligent horror short fiction.

valdemar said...

I agree. I was tempted to try and write in praise of every story, but I lost momentum a bit, and other books are piling up...