shining the spotlight on short story collections
Constable & Robinson 2012
““The acromegaly infected the left side of his face, warping the facial bones like untreated pine boards. The flesh on that side of Rand’s face resembles a water balloon filled to capacity. The upper forehead bulges like a baby emerging from its mother’s cervix, its weight pressing against his bristling brow ridge. The puffy, bloated flesh of his cheek has long since swallowed the left eye, sealing it behind a wall of bone and meat. (…) But these deformities alone did not make Rand Holstrum the successful freak that he is today. While the left half of his face is a hideously contorted mass of bone and gristle, like a papier-mache mask made by a disturbed child, the other side is that of a handsome, intelligent man in his late fifties. That is what draws the fish. He is one of the most disturbing sights you could ever hope to see.”
From Freaktent, by Nancy A. Collins.
…The idea of bodies in transformation also features in perhaps the least shocking story in the book, Butterfly, by Axelle Carolyn, which is a lovely, hopeful piece. We meet John, a burns victim who is a seemingly hopeless case: “wrapped head to toe in white gauze, in places stained shades of yellow and red.” But the gauze becomes more than simply a wrapping, it becomes his cocoon. Nature works its “little miracle” and soon, he is released: “Writhing, wriggling, twisting around, he shed his bandages and heaved himself out of the chrysalis, which suddenly cracked open.” And becomes free.
One of the most successful stories is Fruiting Bodies, by Brian Lumley. In it, the body which is being acted upon is not really a human one, rather a geographical one. Easingham, on the north east coast of England, is a town gradually slipping into the sea as a result of erosion. The sea is slowly consuming the land, causing the town to be abandoned. But, as Lumley slowly reveals, there’s another agent at play too: rot.
‘It is a disease!’ he corrected me. ‘It’s a cancer, and houses die of it!’ Then he inhaled noisily, pulled a face of his own, said: ‘Here. Right here.’ He pointed at the warped, rotting floorboards. ‘The very heart of it. Give me a hand.’ He got his fingers down between a pair of boards and gave a tug, and it was at once apparent that he wouldn’t be needing any help from me. What had once been a stout wooden floorboard a full inch thick was as brittle as dry bark. It cracked upwards, flew apart, revealed the dark cavities between the floor joists. Garth tossed bits of crumbling wood aside, tore up more boards; and at last ‘the very heart of it’ lay open to our inspection.
‘There!’ said Garth with a sort of grim satisfaction. He stood back and wiped his hands down his trousers. ‘Now that is what you call a fruiting body!’
It was roughly the size of a football, if not exactly that shape. Suspended between two joists in a cradle of fibres, and adhering to the joists as if partly flattened to it, the thing might have been a great, too-ripe tomato. It was bright yellow at its centre, banded in various shades of yellow from the middle out. It looked freakishly weird, like a bad joke; this lump of… of stuff – never a mushroom – just nestling there between the joists.
There is dark humour at play in many of these stories, and often in the most unexpected places. Take Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft, for example. Lovecraft himself wasn’t a fan of this piece of work, considering it not fit to stand alongside the rest of his canon. In my humble opinion, it’s certainly an easier read than most of the rest of his serious work, reading at times, almost flippantly.
At its heart, it is a version of Frankenstein. Man as Prometheus: overreaching, playing God, and with terrible consequences. Here, the eponymous West and the unnamed narrator of the tale have stumbled upon a way of reanimating flesh, and through numerous experiments, they try to ‘perfect’ this art: “Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called ‘soul’ is a myth, my friend believed that artificial reanimation of the dead can depend only on the condition of the tissues, and that unless actual decomposition has set in, a corpse fully equipped with organs may with suitable measures be set going again in the peculiar fashion known as life.”
Much of what follows is slapstick rather than horrific, with Lovecraft displaying a heretofore unseen ability for comic writing, as he describes our two bungling scientists’ attempts to discover a body which is fresh enough to fit their purposes. Of course, the experiments themselves have varying results, most of them bad. When they succeed in giving life to lifeless flesh, their first reaction is terror, shaken up with no little disgust (calling to mind Victor Frankenstein’s initial reaction to his own creature in his workshop of filthy creation.
Human it could not have been – it is not in man to make such sounds – and without a thought of our late employment or its possible discovery both West and I leaped to the nearest window like stricken animals; overturning tubes, lamp, and retorts, and vaulting madly into the starred abyss of the rural night. I think we screamed ourselves as we stumbled frantically toward the town…
During their experiments, they manage to bring a former university head honcho back to life, and here, Lovecraft’s comic timing is everything: “I knew what he wanted – to see if this highly organised body could exhibit, without its head, any of the signs of mental life which had distinguished Sir Eric Moreland Clapham-Lee. Once a student of reanimation, this silent trunk was now gruesomely called upon to exemplify it.”
And finally, like the wafer thin mint which caused Mr. Creosote to explode in Python, I’d like to finish my mammoth review with a few words on another blackly comic masterpiece (and another whose film version has now overshadowed the original tale). That being The Fly, by George Langelaan.
Everyone knows the story of The Fly. But here, we’re free from Jeff Goldblum’s wisecracks. Instead, the story is narrated by the mad scientist’s naïve wife. And it is Andre’s experiments on the household pets which tickles the funny bone (bear with me here, no real animals were harmed in the process of writing, or reading this story.)
Andre begins with Dandelo, “a small white cat the cook had found one morning in the garden and which we had promptly adopted.” Without the knowledge of his poor wife he causes the creature to disappear. And then, without remorse, moves on to the guinea pig:
He set the furry little beast down on the green enameled floor of the booth and quickly closed the door. I again put on my dark glasses and saw and felt the vivid crackling flash. Without waiting for Andre to open the door, I rushed into the next room where the lights were still on and looked into the receiving booth…
Though not allowed to take Hop-la – the name I had given the guinea pig – out of its box in the laboratory, I tied a pink ribbon round its neck and was allowed to feed it twice a day.
Soon he’s moved on to bigger animals:
And then one day, Andre put Miquette, our cocker spaniel, into his “transmitter”. He had not told me beforehand, knowing full well that I would never have agreed to such an experiment with our dog. But when he did tell me, Miquette had been successfully transmitted half a dozen times and seemed to be enjoying the operation thoroughly; no sooner was she let out of the “reintegrator” than she dashed madly into the next rom, scratching at the “transmitter” door to have “another go”, as Andre called it.
Of course, we all know the largest (and smallest) creatures who are forced to undergo Andre’s experiments, and the search for the missing fly is a brilliant example of Langelaan’s dark humour:
By nightfall we had still not found the fly. At dinner time, as I prepared Andre’s tray, I broke down and sobbed in the kitchen in front of the silent servants. My maid thought that I had had a row with my husband, probably about the mislaid fly, but I learned later that the cook was already quite sure that I was out of my mind.
You don’t have to be out of your mind to enjoy this collection, but it will certainly help!
Read a story from this collection on ScaryForKids.com
About the reviewer: A J Kirby is the award-winning author of six published novels (Sharkways, 2012; Paint this Town Red, 2012; Perfect World, 2011; Bully, 2009; The Magpie Trap, 2008; When Elephants Walk through the Gorbals, 2007), two collections of short stories (The Art of Ventriloquism, a collection of crime shorts, which was released August 2012, and Mix Tape 2010), three novellas (The Haunting of Annie Nicol, 2012; The Black Book, 2011; Call of the Sea, 2010), and over fifty published short stories, which can be found widely in print anthologies, magazines and journals and across the web in zines, writing sites and more. He is also a sportswriter for the Professional Footballers’ Association and a reviewer for The Short Review and The New York Journal of Books. AJ Kirby lives in Leeds, UK.