'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!)