Monday, 14 July 2014

Shadows & Tall Trees 2014

Shadows & Tall Trees 2014 is the sixth volume to bear that name and is an anthology of literary “strange and weird tales” edited by Michael Kelly and published by Undertow Books. It’s a new format for the journal, having moved from bi-annual to annual publication and, as a result, contains more stories – seventeen in fact. There’s a worry that this increase in the number of stories might somehow result in a decrease in quality but this fear has proven to be without foundation, Kelly’s eye for good writing remains undiminished and this is an outstanding collection of stories, ranging from very good to truly excellent, it’s all grade A stuff.
This grading certainly applies to the second story, Michael Wehunt’s Onanon which tells of Adam’s uncovering of a family secret although I’m sorely tempted to say that B+ would be the perfect grade for it, it’s certainly a story that creates a buzz.
(Those of you who regularly read this page - you know who you are, both of you - may have spotted an egregious error in the original posting of this review in which I completely ignored Eric Schaller's To Assume the Writer's Crown: Notes on the Craft, falling into the trap of reading it as an essay, a piece of non-fiction. That's the problem with meta-fiction, it can be a trap to the unwary - myself included. In my defence, it just goes to show how clever a writer he is, hiding something very dark within something seemingly so innocuous.)
It’s not a themed anthology but there’s a definite connection between many of the stories thematically. In particular the device of moving into a new home is one which recurs throughout. The Quiet Room by V.H. Leslie deftly weaves the myth of Philomela into a story of teenage angst and fractured relationships when widower Terry moves into a new house with daughter Ava having been reunited after a split from his wife Prue. It’s an atmospheric tale in which silence is far from golden.
Summerside by Alison Moore is the name of the house bought unseen at an auction by the Irvings. Unable to bear living there themselves, they rent out an extension built onto it. This is a pretty much perfect short story, told in a neutral voice and offering no real explanation for the disturbing events which unfold, simply reporting what happens but in so doing hinting at something terrible associated with the building.
Vrangr is the location of another house, this time an inheritance in North Dakota for Arthur Speth in C.M. Muller’s first published story. This is a surprise in itself as the writing here is so assured it’s hard to believe it’s a debut. The first of many more publications I’m hoping though. It’s a literary piece that twists and turns, disorienting the reader in much the same way as happens to Arthur himself. It’s an odd name for a house, an odd word in fact having only the one vowel but it’s the perfect name for the location – and the story itself - as anyone with the time to hunt down its original meaning in Scandinavian will discover.
The Space Between is a collaboration between Ray Cluley and Ralph Robert Moore and is the third “moving into a new home” story as I’ve come to clunkily classify them. This time it’s a downsizing as newly redundant Don and his wife Carolyn relocate to a more affordable apartment building. Left alone through the day, Don neglects his job-seeking to instead explore the crawl space between apartments, spying on his neighbours. Voyeurism soon turns to vicariousness however as Don’s forays turn from a desire to a need. A story of obsession then, but also a story about relationships – the line “it really isn’t important who should have loaded the dishwasher” a perfect encapsulation of what it is to be in a relationship (although I acknowledge that quoting it out of context may lessen its impact here…) The Space Between is a wonderful story, deeply disturbing and which will take you – much like Don – to some very dark places.
Entering a new building involves the literal crossing of a threshold but a more metaphorical interpretation of that theme – the journey from life to death – is the basis of some of the other stories within Shadows & Tall Trees. Avoidance of that particular journey is the subject of Kaaron Warren’s Death’s Door Café – a high concept idea in which a last chance is given to those unwilling to take those final steps, a concept which is fleshed out brilliantly in the story which creates a wonderful sense of unease.
Christopher  Harman’s Apple Pie and Sulphur is set in the Lake District though distractingly seems to combine real and fictional locations (is Connerstone really Coniston?) though I’m guessing this won’t be too much of a concern to anyone less anal about what is one of my favourite places in the world i.e. everyone except me. It’s one of the longer stories in the collection – perhaps a wee bit too long – but builds an effective air of paranoia and disorientation before journey’s end arrives for the story’s three main characters.
Shaddertown is by Conrad Williams and tells of Peggy’s daytrip into town with grandson Billy, a trip which includes a tour of “Underground Manchester”. It’s no surprise, given the author, that this is a beautifully written story, an impeccable character study of an old woman nearing the end of her life. It’s a testament to Conrad’s skills that even minor characters – some of whom don’t even appear, are only mentioned – are as fully drawn as Peggy herself. The denoument may come as no surprise but it’s poignantly and movingly done. It’s a very fine piece of writing.
Death visits in Robert Levy’s The Vault of the Sky, The Face of the Deep – this time for a Russian woman haunted by a terrible memory from wartime, an era that provides the backdrop to Tara Isabella Burton’s The Golem of Leopoldstadt. Vengeance is at the heart of the conclusions of both stories but manifests itself in very different ways.
The concept of history impacting on the present which was a feature of both those stories is echoed in Charles Wilkinson’s Hidden in the Alphabet in which the controversial – and deeply disturbing – practices of a film director come back to haunt him when he is reunited with his son. There’s  a contemplation of what Art is (or perhaps what an Artist is) within what, on the face of it, reads as a revenge tale.
The Statue by Miriam Frey is an odd, fable-like tale that shows that Teddy Bears and/or picnics are not prerequisites for big surprises in the woods whilst R.B. Russell’s Night Porter riffs on the new environment motif – this time it’s a new job for the protagonist – in a tale that ends with just enough ambiguity to leave you wondering what, and even who, the villain of the piece is.
First person narratives are used to outstanding effect in two stories in particular. Road Dead by F. Brett Cox is the shortest story in the book – a piece of flash fiction – but still manages to pack in an amazing amount of storyline. The real joy lies in the narrative voice however, a stream of consciousness from a witness to bizarre and terrifying events is presented in a single block of text with no paragraph breaks, emphasizing the fear and panic he feels at what he’s describing. Brilliant.
Robert Shearman’s It Flows From the Mouth has a very distinctive first person narrator too. Although it’s never specified in the text, there’s a definite suspicion that the narrator – John - has Asperger’s Syndrome and thus has no social or empathetic skills. The fact that this means that he says exactly what he thinks and also describes exactly what he sees makes him, ironically, the most reliable of narrators. The story revolves around a reunion with friends still grieving the loss of their son. Whilst he is incapable of feeling emotion, his friends are seemingly unable to cope with the same and are “dealing” with their grief in very bizarre ways. A memorial statue to their son, erected by the father, provides a heavy dose of weirdness and this is where the decision to use such a distinctive narrative voice comes into its own. What John sees happening seems impossible, surely the result of an overactive imagination. And yet… It’s a very, very clever story which I enjoyed a lot.
The final story in the book is David Surface’s Writings Found in a Red Notebook. As its title suggests, it’s presented as a series of extracts from a diary – the literary equivalent of a “found footage” film. It’s a device that could go wrong if handled badly but that’s definitely not the case here. The sequential extracts convey perfectly the disintegration of the couple lost in the desert to whom it belongs – that disintegration both physical and psychological. They also convey the mounting feeling of dread they are experiencing and the final lines – which happen to be the final lines of the book as well – are truly and utterly chilling. It’s the perfect placement of this story within the anthology and a perfect end to a stunning collection of tales.

In his introduction to the book, Michael Kelly states that he believes short stories are “the perfect art form”. It’s a bold statement to make but he’s backed it up with enough evidence here to make it a hard one to argue against. The book is dedicated to the memory of Joel Lane and I can’t think of a more fitting tribute.


  1. I appreciate the kind words, Anthony. Tusen takk!

  2. Reading your comment about each story is an unexpected gift, useful and exhilarating.