shining the spotlight on short story collections
Iron Press, 2013
“‘… Shame you can’t find a good solid man,’ Nan said.
‘You make blokes sound like tower-blocks,’ Mam said.”
It is no accident that the cover of this book has a tall building on it. The built environment plays a strong role in several of the stories, as does “The Neighbour”, but despite that there is a heavy dose of the fantastic in this anthology, with child mediums, houses which reject their owners, would-be suicides turning into birds, and casual sidestepping of issues such as a probable murder.
The most fun had is in Angela Readman’s There’s a Woman Works Down the Chip Shop, in which a child interprets her mother’s burgeoning lesbian identity as her being possessed by the spirit of Elvis. It is a charming witty and poignant piece that nicely turns around the unspoken and the not understood.
Those houses and their neighbours: In Rosemary Brydon’s Daft John and Judy Walker’s Sieving the Earth, old men are befriended by younger women to the suspicion of their children, and justice is served in different ways – more unpredictably in Walker’s tale.
In Rob Walton’s Crazy Paving, watching his much loved garden being destroyed by the new owners of the house brings a bereaved man to the brink of foolhardiness, while Eileen Jones’ The House persistently and determinedly springs leaks until its new owner gets the message – a nice twist – the house was only built in the 60’s.
Avril Joy’s Tough Love takes us into a close friendship apparently sprung apart by an ill-thought-out present and a badly concealed reaction, when in fact the rift is hiding a much darker issue. A very well constructed and voiced story.
And the final building taking a starring role, horny teenagers plan to sleep out in the wreckage of Goebbel’s House (Pauline Plummer). This story didn’t do it for me, spooky houses make me yawn, and nothing special happens here.
Another trope threading through the stories is parents and children negotiating death: In Jane Roberts-Morpeth’s Charybdis a child is kept away from his parents after the death of a baby, and has to work out for himself what is going on, whereas in Shelley Day Sclater’s Picnicking With my Father a child is being exploited as a medium, and drifts too far “the other side” – a clever little story that raises the creepiness quotient very gradually. Another parent-child-death story, John N Price’s A Bitter Frost deals with demanding elderly parents from the carers’ view, and deals rather summarily with the problem.
A final mother daughter story, The Golden Valley Line from Fiona Cooper (whose novels I read many moons ago) doesn’t do much with its material as an adopted woman is swallowed nearly whole by a ready-made natural family.
And then there are the stories that don’t fit:
Stephen Shieber’s Birdman has a good Samaritan’s interference having unexpected consequences for both the man she plans to save and for herself.
Crista Ermiya’s Signs of the Last Days is a profoundly predictable story that ought to engage and entirely fails to.
Beda Higgins’ Waiting almost works, I loved the circus setting and the complexity of the main character but while the inevitable let down is handled well the revenge is too obvious, I wanted something messier and more worthy of the character we have grown to know.
Amanda Baker’s The Remainder is a cleverly titled story of what happens when cloning is the norm and natural reproduction becomes almost impossible, as the ability is bred out. There is something of a chicken and egg conundrum about the scenario, and the idea of the anodyne bleakness of a world where chance has been almost excised is an interesting one, but it takes a rare talent to write interestingly about blandness (I can think of only two writers who manage it). This stirling attempt doesn’t quite come off, perhaps if it hadn’t been a first person narrative there would have been room for more reflection on the situation that didn’t include acceptance.
So all in all, worth reading. A strong mix of prosaic and peculiar, with some really interesting voices.
About the reviewer: Cherry Potts is the author of two short story collections, Mosaic of Air and Tales Told Before Cockcrow, and the editor for Arachne Press of four anthologies: Lovers’ Lies, Stations and London Lies and Weird Lies. She also hosts South London live literature events at The Story Sessions.