’52 Stitches 2′ edited by Aaron Polson

16 06 2011
52 Stitches 2

'52 Stitches 2' edited by Aaron Polson, Strange Publications, ISBN-13: 9780982026656, $8.99

[Reviewed by KV Taylor]

As was the first volume of 52 Stitches, this second installment is a series of dark flash tales, originally posted for free at the 52 Stitches website run by Strange Publications’ Aaron Polson, one a week for an entire year. Why, then would one pay for a paperback — apart from the marvelous cover?

One very good reason I came up with while reading it was that these sharp little stories, none of them more than three pages long, could easily bring the bedtime story back into fashion for grown-ups. Ideally one would read one a night and it’d last a few months, but the problem there is that it’s like candy. You finish one and think, “Oh, that was good — one more won’t hurt”, and pretty soon you’re stuffed.

Fans of dark fiction on the fence about the flash phenomenon might find this a good starting point as well. The theme is just that, short and dark, which covers a lot of territory. Sometimes that can be disorienting and ends up feeling slapdash in an anthology, but these stories have something deeper in common that makes it work on another level: it might be called 52 Sucker Punches for the way it operates on a reader. If the writer’s job is to evoke emotion, it’s pretty impressive to land a jab in 500 words. Particularly when so many of them still hurt the morning after, as in this collection.

A few stories fall flat, but with the minimal time investment there’s not much disappointment — and there’s enough to delight in that it’s easy not to dwell. There’s dark, delicious humor (Michael Stone’s “The Rise of Azaliel and Lorcas”, Jonathan Pinnock’s “The Wrong Thing to Say”); mini descriptive tour de force (K. Allen Wood’s “By the Firelight”, Joe Nazare’s “Beside Himself”); small town horror and silence (Doug Murano’s “Fireboomers”, Alan Davidson’s “Thor’s Hammer”, Kent Alyn’s “The Slough”); intense gut-wrenchers that run the gamut from childhood innocence (Michael Colangelo’s “The Chronicles of Blackbriar”) to dystopian futures (Cate Gardner’s “Edible Flowers Perched Above a Dying Landscape”). Madness, hunger, paranoia, loneliness, love, war, holidays, and, as the chilling cover might imply, even dolls with bad intent.

Familiar themes, but each reworked into something quick, clever, yet lasting. Some of the stories are almost poetry, they are so prettily but exactly written. It’s a bedside table book, for sure — though there’s always the issue of what dreams may come to deal with, after this one.

(As an important note, 52 Stitches 2 is dedicated to the memory of one of the contributors, Jamie Eyberg. All proceeds from its sale go to the Kennedy and Brendan Eyberg fund.)


‘Disciple of a Dark God’ review

10 12 2010

'Disciple of a Dark God', by Edmund Glasby, 606pp, Matador, ISBN: 9781848763708, £7.99 PB

Review by Sam Kelly

Matador, it turns out, is Picador’s self-publishing imprint. I was quite surprised to find that out, since Disciple of a Dark God is one of the nicest paperbacks, physically, that I’ve handled in a long time – it’s solidly made, with a slightly heavier weight paper than most, and the cover art & design were very clearly done by someone with a real understanding of genre trends. Less so of swords, but impractical weaponry is also a long-standing fantasy tradition.

The book itself is very definitely the kind of swords & sorcery that everybody used to write (Leiber, Vance, early Moorcock, Howard…), and in general it’s energetically & atmospherically done. Our protagonist, Everus Dragonbanner (the last thing you could call him would be “hero”) is a historian turned assassin in the service of Xethorn, god of murder. This profession requires crypt-robbing, drinking in dodgy pubs, wearing a cool trenchcoat, investigating long-disused temples to chthonic deities, and long strenuous journeys to exotic locations. It could easily be a novelization of someone’s old school D&D campaign, and I’m sure I’ve seen stat blocks for death squirrels, the Eye of Evil, and that thing in Chapter 13 (whatever in Juiblex’s name it is) before. The plot structure is a classic bracelet fantasy; it consists of a sequence of plot coupons, each one at the end of its own quest, and intervening FedEx quests (“I won’t help you find the artifact you seek unless you go to this dangerous location and collect a randomly generated item for me”) to break them up. There are two main characters, Everus and his sidekick “Creeps”; others accompany them for a quest or two, until they meet some gruesome end, often at the hands of the main characters.

There’s one other characteristic of sword & sorcery novels that Glasby has kept (and exaggerated), however, and that’s the deal-breaker for me: this is the most toxically misogynist book I’ve read in a very long time, and if I hadn’t promised to review it I’d have put it down halfway through, washed my hands, and gone to read some Joanna Russ instead. For more than half the book, every single reference to women is a joke about prostitutes, or a derisive simile; the first woman with a speaking part appears on page 368, and I can do no better than quote her first appearance.

The door was opened by a tall, curvaceous beauty.  She was outstandingly pretty; from her long, rippled hair which was a striking blend of rich lilacy-purple with flaming red highlights, to her eye-catching figure and modest but close-fitting clothes – all contributing to make Everus think she was a classy and highly expensive courtesan.  She looked about his age.

“You look a little surprised,” she said, her voice a little husky.

“I…I was expecting someone else.” Tilting his head, Everus glanced over her left shoulder, checking that there was no one else with her. It was then that he was pleasantly struck by the mild scent of exotic perfume. The aroma was delightful and highly arousing.

I would like to assure you that – unlike the author, I feel – I was typing that quotation with both hands and without suggestive music playing on the soundtrack. Carrie (and if you feel that’s an odd name for a fantasy character, you’re not the only one) is a sorceress, of course, rather than a warrior, and serves as a support character and rescue object.  Everus (inevitably) sternly refrains from sleeping with her even though she obviously wants it, and then his suspicions about her beauty are proved entirely justified when she turns on him and is revealed to have been a horrendously ugly succubus all along.

There is a second female character later on: Gwennifer Jannson, a competent and sensibly dressed general (though still described as a “slim brunette with long braided hair”) and it’s presented as entirely unexceptional for women to be officers; this would be a definite step forwards, if she weren’t there purely for Everus to impress, and if she survived longer than four pages.

I don’t want to risk giving the impression that the horrendous misogyny is this book’s only bad feature; it’s also rather classist and extremely fat-phobic. Glasby’s prose is faintly purple and occasionally rather clumsy, with sporadic outbreaks of passive voice. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this book to women, anyone with female friends, or anyone else.

‘The Places Between’ by Terry Grimwood

13 09 2010

'The Places Between' by Terry Grimwood, 120pp, Pendragon Press, ISBN: 978-1-906864-2-00, £7.99

Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones

There are some writers who like to let the horror and suspense build slowly and gradually, emphasising the ordinary vs the phenomenal in the story they’re telling. Not so Terry Grimwood in The Places Between, his latest novella from Pendragon Press – right from the outset, we’re plunged into a world of extraordinary possibilities, dangerous otherwordly creatures from who knows where, exotic characters, blundering headlong flight and an unsuspected truth behind the reality we know. From the very first word the pace is relentless, breathless and breakneck, leaving us little time to ponder just what is happening and with no space to take a much needed breath – our only concern, as it is Rebecca Ann Samuels’, is to survive the mad drive to the forest to bury the body of her husband, Dr. David Samuels, who she has just recently beaten to death with a hammer.

And that’s how it starts, with a rollercoaster ride of a car journey, a dead body bouncing around in the boot and a panic-stricken wife driving through dark country lanes. And from here on in everything gets slippery, both plot- and character-wise, as explanations are presented and then snatched away, as paranoia starts to mount, madness beckons and distorted creatures from myth stride into her life. Rebecca knows she has claw-hammered her husband’s skull in, killing him in a welter of blood, knows she has driven pell-mell at night into the local woods, knows she has dug a shallow grave and then dumped his body in it; that is her version of how things are. Yet, she feels like she’s being watched. Also, that something isn’t quite right, that something wrong is happening and causing reality to shift. A feeling which is emphatically underlined when, just as she confides in her best friend Lynne to the killing of her husband, he walks through the door as if her world hadn’t gone disastrously wrong. So who is this Dr David Samuels? Is he the real one? Did she really kill him? Is he even human?

The beauty of this novella is that it keeps the reader constantly guessing as to what is going on; it’s a series of layered puzzles, enigmas that, even when solved, become nothing more than the most tenuous of mists and fogs. Through the semi-opacity you can sometimes catch glimpses of further secrets and mysteries awaiting, shifting and moving, and also hear the tinkling of laughter beckoning you in deeper. Ultimately, the novella is about that thin veil that exists between possibilities and other places, other times and other existences. How easily the human species ignores those very possibilities, or how we as a species have effectively pushed them away from us, simply because our worldview has been moulded in ways markedly different to that of our ancestors’ perceptions.

It’s also about the equally thin barrier between sanity and madness, at least in the early part of the book; that the reality Rebecca had cocooned herself in is slowly dissolving through the twin agencies of encroaching paranoia and insanity, as well as the physical existence of the police closing in on her. Suffocating claustrophobia is ever-present within the narrative, both when Rebecca’s attempting to deal with her guilt and its aftermath, and when she finally accepts the reality that’s been thrust upon her. Perhaps she has succumbed to madness, after all, and this is either her punishment or, at the very least, that it has skewed her relationship with the world that you and I live in.

It’s a difficult novella to pin down precisely, and not just because of the slipperiness of the narrative and plot. Elements of horror, contemporary fantasy and even a light touch of steampunk are mixed up with borrowings from traditional folklore. Perhaps my only criticism, a minor one at that, is the sheer rapidity and breathlessness of the telling of it. I read it in a single sitting, it being only 112 pages long, but I felt exhausted and drained after putting it down. There were dips in the pace, yes, but even so, I felt like I’d been whisked away by a whirlwind and summarily dumped when it was all over.

However, the ending is perfect – that despite all the horror and the dread, the potential for everything to repeat itself endlessly and uselessly, there are still choices to be made. Choices that very much shape the outcomes of what happens next, or whether that repetition occurs or not. That, perhaps, nothing is ever completely graven into stone, and that we all need to consider our choices carefully; VERY carefully, in fact. Because when all is said and done, unlike David and Rebecca, we very often don’t get second chances in this life.

The Places Between will be launched at FantasyCon 2010 and is available for pre-order at a special price from Pendragon Press.

‘The Girl with No Hands’ by Angela Slatter

5 09 2010

'The Girl with No Hands' by Angela Slatter, 210pp, Ticonderoga Publications, ISBN: 978-0-9806288-7-6 (ltd. hc)/978-0-9806200-8-3 (pbk), $75AU/$25AU

[Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones]

Angela Slatter writes fairy-tales for adults, but not just any fairy-tales. They are not just ribald retellings, or tales which have been subverted merely for the sake of it. No, Ms Slatter delves much deeper than that, pile-driving her way to the core of the traditional fairy-tale, the type that we know so well courtesy of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. As Jack Dann notes in his introduction (Caressing with Razors), many of these ‘traditional’ tales were themselves subverted to fit a patriarchal agenda, to shape the gender roles so beloved of the society prevailing at the time. Times have changed, but more often than not those traditional tales haven’t, and they are retold countless times preserving the original intent of the ‘retellers’.

In The Girl with No Hands, Slatter hauls some familiar tropes, willingly or not, into the 21st century. Her women, for instance, no longer bow to the patriarchal ‘head of the family’, the type of man who insists on carving the roast every Sunday and presiding at the top of the table. Instead, the females are liberated in every sense; mentally, psychologically and sexually. They know themselves and they know exactly what it is they want. Like the young girl in Red Skein, a riff on Little Red Riding Hood, who not only knows she’s different, but positively revels in that very difference from the others of her village. She isn’t afraid to show those around her exactly who she is, and also why her mother is wrong in attempting to stifle it. Then there’s the woman in The Little Match Girl, stoically unrepentant and in the end deciding her own fate, irrespective of the one handed down to her by male authority.

Power, and freedom, is vested in the hands of women to take control of their own lives, a point wonderfully made in the absolutely beautifully-wrought The Living Book. The female narrator is, quite literally, just that; a living book, with words flashing across her skin for all to read. She is made, ultimately, through nothing more than the pride of a male creator, (a point which can be read on so many different levels), and the denouément comes as the result of absorbing the ethics and ideas of the modern world. The female writer in Words knowingly has both power and freedom as well, a point she forcefully makes when her neighbours and compatriots cause her grief for expressing herself and wilfully defying the conventions and diktat of so-called ‘societal norms’.

Many of the men in Slatter’s stories appear weak, greedy and very flawed. Davide in Bluebeard is one such; he desires Lilly’s mother greatly, but there’s more than a hint he also desires the child’s flesh just as much as her mother’s. The same can be said of Master Justin De Freitas in Dresses, Three, inappropriately desiring above all else his beautiful niece Aurora. Then there’s the greedy, avaricious king looking to refill his impoverished coffers in Light as Mist, Heavy as Hope, a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin tale, as well as the titular character being much nastier and sleazier than the original fairy-tale.

So far (and I put my hand up here willingly), what I have written appears to paint Ms. Slatter in a very heavy-handed feminist light. This is very far from the truth. There are good men here, as well as bad women. In The Girl with No Hands, although the girl’s father is depicted in a less than flattering way, the king is the very opposite, and is the epitome of the kindly, doting husband and father. Even the kingly character in the Rumpelstiltskin retelling becomes a model man once his fortunes have been restored. In Skin, the shortest and quite possibly the finest tale on offer here, the human husband of the Selkie girl is the most loving man that any woman can want. Slatter is also well aware that women are human, and therefore subject to the same species of frailties and evils as all people are. Not all of them are heroines; the mother in Frozen, who leaves her little son to freeze to death outside the bingo hall where she’s enjoying herself, is anything but. Neither is the Second Wife in The Juniper Tree, whose weakness is jealousy and whose subsequent companion is regret.

What I am trying to get at here, is the raw humanity of the panoply of people who live in Slatter’s tales. These are real people, with real emotions and real desires, real strengths and real weaknesses: a microcosm of the real world. Thus, whoever they are and however they behave, we empathise with them fully, both the good and the bad. Slatter has distilled that humanity into beautifully-written and brightly poetic tales, stories that sing out and resonate with our own experiences of the Big, Bad World. In the same fashion that the fairy-tales originally collected and reworked by Andersen and Joseph & Wilhelm Grimm closely mirrored the type of society and world they moved in, so do Slatter’s updated retellings reflect the world as it is now.

Above all, these stories sparkle and shine. It would have been far too easy to produce pastiches of traditional fairy-stories, just in order to put a point across. Slatter wants to redress the imbalances of the older iterations of the tales, and she succeeds in doing so by weaving her words with subtlety and finesse, rather than by being blunt. Just like, in fact, the originals defined the roles of children and gender without being explicit. This is what happens when these primal and powerful archetypes in prose are freed from the constraints of a world-view that no longer holds true. Their true power as purveyors of basic truths cannot be denied. More to the point here, Slatter has done so admirably, achieving a marriage that partners wonder with the prevailing zeitgeist of the early 21st century. On that basis alone, I heartily recommend that this book be sought out and digested – Slatter’s star is surely rising and it would be a shame to miss out on the celestial spectacle.

‘Fungus of the Heart’ by Jeremy C. Shipp

4 09 2010

'Fungus of the Heart' by Jeremy C. Shipp, 158pp, Raw Dog Screaming Press, 978-1-935738-00-8 (hc)/978-1-935738-01-5 (pbk), $24.95/$13.95

[Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones]

There are times when I can liken writing to the fine art of crafting a wine. There will be some writers who, in order to get their point across, will serve up a cheap commercial variety, with a blunt, unsubtle palette. Its purpose is simply to bludgeon, and isn’t afraid to show its true colours from the off. Then there are those writers who want their words to be appreciated and mulled over, and so consequently craft their stories exactingly and with attention to the minutest detail. Nuances are allowed to reveal themselves slowly, almost shyly. There are layers upon layers of ideas and images, and each time you reread them new ones show themselves. There are times when complexity disguises itself as simplicity, those very qualities concatenating unexpectedly into a sensation that is at once surprising and delightful. These stories are not meant to be read just the once or casually imbibed without regard; they have been lovingly created to be savoured.

So, if the metaphor holds, then Jeremy C. Shipp’s tales are amongst the finest of vintages indeed. Each of the thirteen stories contained within this collection are rich, exotic, and rare nectars, culled from all the far-flung corners of Shipp’s imagination. However, just like those long ago days of the Age of Exploration, as rich and exotic as those corners are, seen from the outside they’re dark and sometimes dimly lit, full of mystery and hidden dangers. The people, places and situations are as familiar to us as daylight, yet there is an edginess and darkness to them that warns us to keep ourselves at arm’s length. And this is the central core of Shipp’s art; that he is able to twist and subvert the stuff of the everyday and make it somehow menacing and threatening, whilst simultaneously emphasising just how extraordinary and wonderful it all is.

Superficially, like the best of the vintner’s artistry, the tales are delicately and minimally spun, slippery, elusive and fragile, brightly absurdist and dizzyingly surreal, transporting us to other places and other times. Don’t let that fool you, however, because running underneath the seeming fragility are hints of darkly delicious and sinister flavours of terror and malignancy. These tales are exactly like the delicately scented wine that, upon tasting, proves to have a surprisingly strong backbone and can more than hold its own.

Here, the fragility extends to the people who inhabit the tales; the fragility of relationships, how we see ourselves, how we see others and how we relate to each other, as well as the brittleness of ideas. Like the ‘war’ hero in The Escapist, where the idea of the heroic man (or Gnome, in this case) as a symbol of hope in a time of war is easily shattered by the onslaught of the realities of conflict, and the atrocities it inspires in otherwise ordinary folk. Or, perhaps, the eggshell thin psyche of the father in Kingdom Come, a man whose reality breaks when the truth intrudes on his seemingly idyllic life. Or how the ‘ghost’ in Haunted House is just as fragile and fractured as the girl he’s trying to help: in bringing suppressed memories to the surface it triggers some of his own. Or maybe we should ponder on the fragility of both love and memories, as exemplified in the eponymous story, Fungus of the Heart. Human frailty is found even in the midst of strength and purpose, and love lurks where it is least expected. And sometimes relationships, once strong, shatter and change irrevocably through simple words, as in the beautifully and strangely simplistic Just Another Vampire Story.

The strongest element of Shipp’s spare and minimalist writing is its deep humanity. Look beyond the strangeness and the fantastic, and you’ll find the entire panoply of human experience and emotion arrayed before you. Despite the weirdness you’ll meet people very much like the ones you know or have met. However, it’s those very elements of the outré and magical that draws the reader in, and enables them to hone in on the solid heart of the matter. They may delight, infuriate, frustrate and entertain, but they’re no mere baubles; look deeper and you’ll discover that here are parables for today. That, my friends, is the art and craft of the verbal vintner that is Jeremy C. Shipp.

‘Cursed’ by Jeremy C. Shipp

23 08 2010

[reviewed by Peter G. Bell]

'Cursed' by Jeremy C. Shipp, 214 pp, Raw Dog Screaming Press, ISBN: 978-1-933293-86-8

I had no idea what I was getting into when I opened Cursed, the latest novel by Jeremy C. Shipp, but I’m happy to say that my faith was rewarded; it’s been a while since I read a book that so consistently surprised and confounded me.

The story is narrated by Nicholas, a man with a guilt-ridden past whose fears of abandonment are realised as, one by one, his friends, family and even perfect strangers turn against him.

His one hope for salvation is Cicely, an oddball acquaintance who believes the fate of mankind has been placed – quite literally – in her hands and that she and Nicholas have been cursed by person or persons unknown. They determine to track down the culprit, but can Nicholas prevent his curse from driving them apart?

The plot is actually quite simplistic, but this only becomes apparent in retrospect as it’s almost devoid of the usual literary crutches designed to keep the reader on track; there are no signposts or clues littered about for us to find. Shipp doesn’t ask us to solve a puzzle – he makes us share Nicholas’s growing sense of helplessness as his curse manifests itself, one day at a time. Narrative twists, when they come, are unexpected and jarring, and usually explode any notions we might have been forming about the nature of the characters’ plight.

The pieces all fit smoothly together though, with the possible exception of the climax, which bundles together a few too many new concepts in too short a space, resulting in a grinding of mental gears. It still provides a solid conclusion though, and I can guarantee you won’t see it coming.

I’m suspicious of self-described “weird” or “bizarro” fiction. While I don’t mind a healthy dose of the surreal in my prose, I’ve read too many pieces that feel forced or pretentious, and usually end up distracting from their own stories. Not so here. Things may happen without rhyme but Cicely’s assertions that they never happen without reason helps ground the more outlandish and offbeat moments in a solid (if uncomfortable) reality, even if we don’t always share her suspicions.

And perception is key. From the very first page it’s clear that the titular curse is likely nothing more than a few unfortunate coincidences, fuelled by a guilty conscience. As one character puts it, “If I’m not insane, then the world is. I don’t know how to handle that.”

Subsequently, Cicely’s determination to blame her bizarre behaviour on another can easily be interpreted as an outright denial of reality and personal responsibility – she has invented a scapegoat for her personal failings and spiralling neuroses. Nicholas, meanwhile, is more reluctant to let himself off the hook. Again and again he blames himself for others’ behaviour towards him; he is damaged and can’t help damaging those closest to him.

This might not sound like a barrel of laughs but the story is refreshingly light on sullen introspection and Shipp ensures a steady supply of off-kilter humour and charm to counteract the story’s more disturbing undertones.

And it does become very disturbing indeed at times, punctuated by a few moments of sudden, shocking horror. Even here though, Shipp demonstrates a commendable restraint, preferring the prospect of unpleasantness to outright blood and guts.

But the book’s real power lies in its characters, all of whom are sparsely but expertly drawn. This is especially true of Nicholas; Shipp never gives us more than the bare minimum of information about him but he coalesces from a few quick, masterful strokes into a fully formed person within a handful of pages.

Perhaps the key is that we are given enough room to invest him with our own anxieties. His sins are never fully revealed so we substitute our own; who doesn’t have things they’d rather keep to themselves? Subsequently, his fear of exposure becomes our own as well.

This is where the novel excels – I don’t think I’ve read anything that so effectively captures the creeping dread of inadequacy.

But then, Cursed isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever read; it’s scary, delightful and surprising, all in one. Full marks to Jeremy C. Shipp for making it look effortless.

‘Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things’ by Cate Gardner

11 08 2010

'Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things' by Cate Gardner, 188pp, Strange Publications, $11.99 US, ISBN: 978-0-98202-664-1

[Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones]

There’s an absolutely wonderful line in one of the stories included in this collection (Trench Foot) which sums everything up about Cate Gardner’s stories, and which goes thusly: “Sometimes Amelia forgot she was living with people who existed on the wrong side of reality.”

All the characters peopling the 24 delightfully surreal and beautifully warped tales contained in this book do indeed exist on the wrong side of reality. However, it would be fair to say that the worlds in which these characters have their being are on the wrong side of reality, too. More to the point, these figures simply couldn’t exist anywhere else. From the shunned giant in Through the Warped Eye of Death, hating the brightness, colours and people surrounding him whilst in the midst of mourning his mother’s death, to the strange blue alien in The Man Who Climbed Out of a Suitcase, and from the cast-aside lover in The Forest of Discarded Hearts to the bearded lady haunted by a self-created curse in Reflective Curve of a Potion Bottle, these lost, lonely and displaced figures stand on the outside, looking in, trying to fit themselves into a world that for the most part doesn’t want them.

The tales span the surreal, the tragic, the pointed, the horrific, the magical and the comedic, all of them possessing a poetic, fairytale-like simplicity that emphasises rather than obscures their dreamlike qualities. Indeed, when one reads any one of Cate’s off-kilter tales, it’s easy to imagine being caught up in either a dream or a nightmare: their twisted and brazen illogicality is unsettling, yet everything is internally consistent and makes perfect sense, no matter how disturbing the scenario is. The imagery she employs is always startling, phantasmagorical, bright, and honed with a keen, steel sharp-edge. They are simultaneously hellish yet heavenly, fluffy yet prickly, bright yet malignly sinister, and full of corruption and cancerous danger; we must watch our step here.

The characters, both the good and the villainous, are technicolour archetypes who are themselves made of dream-stuff: feisty little girls like Molly in The Sulphurous Clouds of Lucifer Matches (complete with three classic Brothers Grimm-style wicked witches and an uncaring guardian) or the sinister twin ghouls of Black Heart Balloon, attempting to reach the moon. There are the lonely, too: the top-hatted and pinstripe-suited man of Opheliac, luring young girls down to his watery world in an effort to cure his loneliness; or the wished-away Ruby Ash looking for her heart in The Forest of Discarded Hearts. The wonder about Cate’s writing is that, no matter how unworldly these characters are or how far removed from real-life they may be, we care about them; she brings us effortlessly into their lives and dexterously stirs long-forgotten hopes in us.

Terror abides here, too, as instanced in the chillingly horrific Burying Sam, Cate’s take on the zombie trope. There’s also something eldritch and unwholesome about Manipulating Paper Birds, but then circuses and sideshows freak me out anyway. Cate’s range goes further, as she can also bring us the blackly humorous, as in Bob’s Spares and Repairs, a story about a robot seeking his fortune in the Big City but nearly ending up the victim of a serial-killing ’droid instead.

But let me tell you something else about Cate’s writing: it’s one of the most deeply affecting I’ve come across in a while. I’ve saved the best two stories for last. In a spell-binding tale of deeply true love, Other Side of Nowhere, a young girl decides to follow her dead husband to the ‘below-world’, against the wishes of both the law and her in-laws. The strength of the unbroken bond between the living and the deceased is more than apparent, as is the utter willingness of the young girl to follow her and her husband’s dream and the chilling calmness (and determination) with which she carries out her last wish.

However, for sheer, unadulterated spine-shivering beauty and sadness, then Empty Box Motel is the one. A dying girl’s father is distraught when she tells him that she’ll be allowed home: he knows his brittle daughter’s time is near.  However, both she and the fragile butterflies, pinned to displays in the cabinets in her doctor’s office, long for the place where they’ll be free from the cares of the world and the grip of death: the wind and cloud-laden sky. Ultimately, it is a bittersweet story, but beautifully told, and a tale both heart-wrenching and heartwarming.

This was my first encounter with Cate Gardner’s writing: let me assure you that she is in great company, for its invention and otherworldly qualities very much reminded me of some of Gene Wolfe’s short stories and Shane Jones’ Light Boxes. There’s that same sparkling level of dazzling imagination and originality, that same feeling that the universe running parallel to this one is ever so slightly weirder and considerably more unsettling, a place where all our dreams and nightmares not only have a physical reality but also where the fairies and monsters become our neighbours. It’s a place that we would all like to visit, or at the very least, in the darkest corners of our mind wish that this world was like.

Be warned, however: dreams these may only be, but they possess teeth, and sharp ones at that.

(Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits is available for pre-order. Secure your copy now!)