Shadows & Tall Trees 5 is the latest edition of the literary horror journal from Michael Kelly’s Undertow Books.It so happens that it’s the last time it will appear in this particular incarnation, as from here on in, the stories will be published as a yearly trade paperback. That’s a shame in one respect given that the publication will be less frequent but, given that it’s quality – not quantity – that really counts, it’s not that big a hardship as the stories Michael collects are consistently of the highest quality.
Issue 5 which, like issue 3 has glorious cover art from Eric Lacombe, maintains that high standard of quality with aplomb, containing eight wonderful stories and, in a development I’m very happy to see, a non-fiction essay on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper by V.H. Leslie whose Senbazuru was one of the highlights of Issue 4.
The fiction gets off to a cracking start with Gary Fry’s New Wave, a story of startling imagery and dark secrets that perfectly balances reason and logic against supernatural terror to create the right amount of ambiguity in a haunting tale with a killer last line.
Casting Ammonites by Claire Massey is the shortest story in the collection but was another of my favourites, its short length actually a bonus in that I read it and then re-read it pretty much straight away, trying to interpret what this labyrinthine, enigmatic tale was all about. I’m still not sure I have, but therein lies its true pleasure.
Next up is A Cavern of Redbrick by Richard Gavin which was the highlight of the issue for me for its wonderful writing and the way it subtly, by suggestion and implication, uncovers a dark secret from the past.
The narrative voice in D.P. Watt’s Laudate Dominum was a little too didactic for my taste although a necessary device given the story’s protagonist whilst Moonstruck by Karen Tidbeck provides a heady mix of lunacy – in its most literal sense – and menstrual angst in an (almost) apocalyptic fable.
Ray Cluley has fun with a horror cliché – the hiker wandering into a lonely pub and hearing the locals telling scary stories – and I did too reading Whispers in the Mist, a story that plays with the reader’s expectations right up until the very end.
The Other Boy by Daniel Mills is another beautifully written ghost story where childhood tragedy haunts the present day and Widdershins by Lynda E. Rucker completes the collection with a story that uses another classic horror trope of the newcomer/outsider uncovering dark secrets, doing so in a most effective way.
Michael Kelly has once again demonstrated his unerring skill in selecting stories of the highest quality for Shadows & Tall Trees, stories that stimulate both intellect and emotion. Issue 5 may mark a farewell to the current format but I’m confident that the high standards already achieved will be maintained in the new annual collection. The new volumes are promised to be “bigger and better” – I can’t wait to find out.