Undertow Books. It's the third issue of an occasional series of publications and, having read this one, I'm disappointed at having missed the first two. It's beautifully produced, a lot of thought and care has been put into the publication, crowned by an amazing cover by Eric Lacombe.
The collection opens with The Elephant Girl by Nina Allan. It's the story of Brigid, a teacher, who has a new pupil, Jeanie Henderson, in her class - the Elephant Girl of the title. First impressions of the girl are not good - "what an ugly child" - with immediate comparisons made to the bad fairy turning up uninvited at the christening of Sleeping Beauty. I liked this story very much, and it's a strong opener for the book. Brigid is pregnant, a cause for celebration but also for anxiety - she has already had two miscarriages. The story's strength is that it plays on these anxieties - and the mood changes associated with the hormonal imbalances brought about by pregnancy - to create an ambiguity as to whether Brigid's perceptions of Jeanie as some kind of bad omen are as a result of physiology or whether there really is something "strange" about the girl, the latter option reinforced by the reaction of the other children in the class to her. This ambiguity is maintained right to the very last sentence of the story and is all the more effective for that. It's an unsettling, thought-provoking tale.
L'Anneau de Verre is by Don Tumasonis and is a pastiche of an 18th Century account of events occurring in a town during the French Revolution. It's often the case that my heart sinks when I read stories which have been written "in the style of..." as they're often a case of style over substance, the author showing off how clever they are but then forgetting about any attempts at plot or characterisation. The worst examples are where the author goes so far over the top with recreating a style that the story becomes unreadable and ridiculous. Thankfully, that isn't the case here. It has to be said here are some fairly convoluted sentences in here but I found them entertaining, rather than irritating, to read. There are supernatural overtones and grisly ends and even a bit of social commentary. It's cleverly written and has both style and substance.
The Quickening is by Andrew Hook, a writer whose stories I've very much enjoyed in the past. This one is no exception to that, the story of Benedict, a man who sees the world around him changing in subtly disturbing ways (figures standing still, watching him, people around him beginning to limp...) Like Nina Allan's story there's a hefty dose of ambiguity here - there are references to blood tests for Benedict which may or may not be negative - and the writing creates uncertainty as to whether the events happening are real or simply manifestations of a deteriorating mind. It's a disturbing tale, and has an open ending that effectively adds to the atmosphere that Andrew has brilliantly created.
Night Fishing is by Ray Cluley and is one of the best short stories I have ever read. Not just horror short stories, any kind of short story. Its construction is perfect, the writing superb and it handles the (big) themes it deals with marvellously. I had goosebumps when I finished reading Night Fishing I was so moved by it. I'ts a story about love and loss, it's a story about guilt. To write a story about suicide which includes supernatural elements and not come across as trite or somehow make light of what is a deeply serious issue is no mean feat but Ray has managed it here. (And a lot better than the film he references, which I've also seen and thought did a massive dis-service to the subject). It's an outstanding piece of writing and an example of what great writing can do.
Kill All Monsters is next up and is by Gary McMahon. My first thoughts on seeing the title were of naff Japanese films with men in monster suits stomping around model cities but this story is about as far away from that as you can imagine. A man, woman and child - throughout the story they remain un-named - arrive at a motorway service station for food and rest. There are obvious tensions between the couple and these are implied rather than overtly stated by some wonderful writing from the King of Bleak. The reasons for those tensions are revealed ultimately - and they're terrifying. The strained relationship is built around fear - those of the man which lead him to... well, nothing good and those of the woman, in fear of her husband but too afraid to leave, too afraid to try and stop what he's doing. It's a horrifying character study and another brilliant story from the prolific Mr McMahon.
The Sick Mannes Salve is by George Berguno and is probably the most traditional horror story in the collection. It's a good story which I enjoyed but I think it suffers from comparison with the other much stronger stories in the book. It rolls out a few cliches, an eccentric relative dies, an inheritance is due, bizarre conditions apply to said inheritance... The denouement isn't too much of a surprise (although I'm still not sure why the condition wasn't fulfilled - there's no explanation and the story seems a little rushed towards the end) and ends with a character uttering a sentence with an exclamation mark at the end of it - which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't...
None So Blind is by Stephen Bacon and is another classy piece of writing from a writer destined for great things. It's a cleverly written piece that has perceptions changing the further you progress through the story. What begins as - on the face of it - a gentle, Brief Encounter type romantic set-up soon begins to transform into something much darker as more and more is revealed about the two protagonists. It's a subtle piece, reflecting the understated nature of Stephen's writing, something I enjoy and find to be a massive strength of his. You will probably work out what's going on before the end of the story but that doesn't matter, it's not written as a "twist in the tail" piece and it's to Stephen's eternal credit that he doesn't try to do this or confirm your thoughts, simply letting the story run its course, ending on a melancholic note that perfectly mirrors the overall mood of the story.
Field Notes From The End Of The World is the last piece of fiction in the book and is by Kirsty Logan. The title's similar to Werner Herzog's brilliant documentary Encounters At The End Of The World and the story shares an arctic location (and a disappearing penguin) with the film. The title's both literal and metaphorical of course, the story - or rather string of diary entries - charting the decline into madness - and probably murder - of a polar researcher. Telling the story through diary entries works well enough as a device, putting a new(ish) spin on an oft-told story but I guess that's the story's weakness, it's kinda all been done before.
Shadows & Tall Trees is a really strong collection of stories, a high quality product with high quality writing. I thoroughly recommend it and look forward to Issue 4.
Thanks very much for the gracious and thoughtful review. Very pleased you liked the issue.