Friday 19 May 2023

DREAM FOX AND OTHER STRANGE STORIES by Rosalie Parker (Tartarus Press 2023)

NB I received a review copy of this book, and a very fine-looking volume it is.

Some authors are inspired by a particular landscape. The obvious example in the context of weird fiction is Arthur Machen, who often returned to the Welsh hills and valleys. In her new collection Rosalie Parker frequents the moors and dales of Yorkshire. Like Machen, her characters often encounter strange, sometimes mystical phenomena. However, they are seldom confronted with outright horror so much as a sense of unease and confusion shading into dread at times. Nature is not always red in tooth and claw but that's the way to bet. The title story, of a farm girl who finds a fox family more loving than her human kin, is playful but does not shy away from the violent implications of rejecting humanity in one way or another.

Some of these stories lie in the shadow of Covid, though few mention it outright. Here is a face covering, there a lockdown. I used to wonder why the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 produced so little fiction. In fact, it produced a lot of stories that obliquely reference it and the same can be said of Dream Fox. Because a recurring theme here is isolation, the inability to connect, despite the apparent proximity of others. Stress, mental illness, physical decay all feature. And of course there are those walks on the moors, the brief spells of permitted exercise when one can escape from four walls.

Two of these stories - 'The Decision' and 'All Talk' - first appeared in Supernatural Tales, and so of course I hold them in high esteem. 'Beguiled', the first story, is set in Tsarist Latvia (aye, not everything can be about Yorkshire, lad!) where a young lady falls in love with a socially-inferior but handsome chap cataloguing her father's library. Tragedy ensues amid the chilly landscape, with a Gothically satisfying twist ending.

'Aircrew', a tale of commercial pilots, offers a hint of The Twilight Zone and a certain Mr. Shatner's finest hour. Here be gremlins but also 'anti-gremlins' of a sort. 'Madre de Dios' has an old-school Weird Tales vibe with a dash of Conrad but is also bang up to date with its plot of illegal gold mining in the Brazilian rain forest. Monkeys object. It does not end well. 

'Memories' - and this one is set in Yorkshire - is a nice variant of the haunted picture idea. A lonely man finds a discarded photograph album and becomes fixated on the family whose lives are depicted in it. But the album has some odd properties. Eventually, a truly horrific vision is revealed... 'Pebble' is also about family life, of the worst kind, in which a girl is kept as a virtual slave by a despicable clan. The eponymous pebble is her one possession and proves useful in her escape attempt.

'Home Conforts' is a clever take on the idea of the robot servant/companion/lover, with a magic realist touch. Here is no doubletalk about AI or robotics, only a woman taking refuge from the rain in the eponymous store. There she discovers a life-size doll called Nigel, a fabric bloke she would like to take home. Trouble is, Nigel has to work a shift at the local restaurant...

Those, for me, are the outstanding stories, though others will have their favourites. In addition to the 'normal' collection, though, Dream Fox also contains a book within a book. This is Mary Belgrove's Book of Unusual Experiences, a series of vignettes. Each is in the form of an account by an individual who became involved in something peculiar. 

Vignettes are a bit like comedy sketches - even in the most able hands there will be hits and misses. But at their best these short tales are very entertaining, and each one is based on interesting ideas. I particularly liked 'Summer Holiday', with its sudden, inexplicable events during a hike on a foggy day. That final tale, 'The Man in the Park', is a neat little fable about poverty and compassion that I won't spoil by naming its surprise guest. 

So, there we have it - a collection of strange stories that never fail to interest and, considered as a whole, represent a considerable creative achievement.

1 comment:

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