Thursday 2 March 2023

NOW IT'S DARK by Lynda E. Rucker (Swan River Press 2023)


*Note - I received a review copy of this book signed by the author, Robert Shearman, who contributes an excellent introduction, and artist John Coulthart, whose brooding imagery adorns the cover.

Am I proud to have been one of the first editors to publish Lynda E. Rucker? Yes, very. When her story 'The Last Reel' turned up in my inbox, did I think 'This one, yes, definitely a star in the making'? Well, to be honest, I can't remember. It was a long time ago, and I'm knocking on a bit. But I do remember loving the story and thinking that the author had that combination of originality, love of the genre, and playful energy that distinguishes a fine writer from the merely competent. More stories came, and books, and accolades and awards. I am proud that, in her story notes, Lynda counts me as a friend who helped her get a foot on the ladder's first rung. She's climbed quite a way since then.

And here we are on the third Lynda E. Rucker collection, this time from Swan River Press, and it's undoubtedly as good if not better than the previous two. The first story, 'The Dying Season', appeared in the collection Aickman's Heirs, and it recalls Baffling Bob, not least in its setting. Sylvia, an American in Blighty, finds herself at a grim little holiday village on the coast in the off-season. She's come with her partner to stay in his parent's old cabin. There you have a believable oddity, and more gradually emerge. A couple staying nearby are oddly dressed and arty, but sociable. An unpleasant note pinned on a door is upsetting to Sylvia, but amusing to the others. Eventually, Sylvia snaps and hits the road. What lingers is the sense of a place gone wrong, the weird in the British banal. That said, I think Aickman would have mentioned undersized cakes with lurid icing at some point. 

'The Seance' is very different, yet still recognisably a Lynda E. Rucker story. A chance encounter in rural Georgia forges an unlikely friendship between two girls - one brilliant and artistic, the other more ordinary but still insightful. The latter narrates the tale backwards, beginning with the artist's death as a shut-in, possibly at the very stroke of midnight as this century began. Then it moves on to the intense childhood relationship, followed by the narrator's discovery of her gifted - or cursed - friend's later work. It is not easy to bring art to life on the page, but here it's achieved in a few deft paragraphs. The disturbing paintings were vividly in my head, and an authorial nod to 'Pickman's Model' is spot on. The final scene is a tour de force, both surprising and inevitable. 

The third story “The Other Side” was written for an anthology dedicated to the late Joel Lane. Writers were asked to produce a story based on the author's notes. This tale sprang from a letter between two characters. The story is reminiscent of Lane's treatment of troubled relationships and isolation and its setting in some of the grubby liminal spaces of England. 

'The Secret Woods' was written for a Pan-themed anthology. Lynda returns to the rich seam of childhood in the rural US and rings the changes on a Machenesque notion. A wild girl roams the woods, with Pan and his followers as imaginary friends. Or at least acquaintances and playmates. It's a powerful evocation of strangeness, imagination, and the dangers of belief. A lesser writer would have made a novel of this. Rucker packs so much in without her work ever seeming rushed or cluttered. 

'Knots', original to this collection, is a Gothic tale par excellence. A woman is trapped in a marriage with a rich man called Bastian. (Massive red flag right there.) She plots her escape but somehow never seems able to leave the gilded cage of a big house in the country. Bastian's study yields a secret that recalls many Victorian tales, but this story offers a new twist on an old trope. This one reminded me of Margaret Atwood's short fiction - cool in tone, yet depicting a kind of personal hell. 

Lynda's characters often travel to lesser-known (to Americans and Brits, anyway) places and 'The Vestige' is a good case in point. David, a nice but rather ineffectual American, goes to Moldova to visit his cousin, who is supposedly doing relief work in the republic. He encounters a woman on a train and from that moment everything goes wrong. He loses his passport and money, and when he finally gets to his cousin's address he finds a well-furnished apartment but no hint of the elusive woman. All he finds are the vestiges of the title. Is this a ghostly tale? Certainly it is about a haunted man.

'The Unknown Chambers' concerns a very different journey to a strange place. A student becomes obsessed with an obscure horror writer who resembles Lovecraft and Hodgson of Night Land fame. She visits the long-dead author's house to find it as well-kept as the home of any famous author. But there is something odd about the caretaker and the small Southern town. The story is beautifully constructed, combining the banal and grotesque as layers of fact and fantasy are peeled back. It's one of the best stories about a writer (of any genre) I've ever read.

'So Much Wine', a Christmas story for ST, subverts that somewhat cosy sub-genre with a tale told from a male perspective. In her notes Lynda talks about the male gaze, the way her superficially 'nice' British protagonist blurs the distinction between two women, one of whom he suspects to be a ghost. Anyone who's experienced a boozy, chaotic Yuletide will recognise how easily the whole thing can seem like a surreal horror story anyway. 

'An Element of Blank' takes another conventional theme, returning to the haunted house, and makes it new. Three women who, as teenage friends, infiltrated a weird Southern mansion are compelled to return. Lynda notes that this is a female response to King's It, something that didn't occur to your humble editor at the time. What I liked most about this story when it turned up in my inbox was that it focuses on character and memory, not on the mechanics of black magic. References to the Golden Dawn etc are just there to give credentials to the haunting. The ending is as moving as any I've read, 

The last story, 'The Seventh Wave', was written for Paul Finch's Terror Tales of the Ocean. The story is a prolonged meditation on a woman's involvement with the sea, and a particularly horrific tale it is. But it also touched with beauty, like every story in this book. And, as she does so often, Lynda shows us that sometimes the strangest things lurk beneath banal exteriors. This is a tale of dull, forgettable people whose lives are touched by the most Gothic and numinous phenomena. The ending is one of the best I've read in years. 

So, there it is - an honest review, albeit of a friend's book. For years now, a story from Lynda has been the delight of all sane editors and most of the barmy ones. Long may that state of affairs endure. 

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