Shadows & Tall Trees 7 by Alison Moore and Brian Evenson (book review)

July 19, 2017 | By | Reply More

This is a volume of modern weird stories, the kind that aspire to fine writing and a certain atmosphere of dread rather than hero overcoming a succession of crises to win out in the last act plot shenanigans. Heroes overcoming a succession of crises to win out in the last act plots are good for trilogies or endless series if the publisher lets you get away with it, but the short story is a place for experiments of this kind. Maybe.

‘Line Of Sight’ by Brian Evenson has third person narration with a neat point of view switch at the end. Todd directs a film but is sure there’s something wrong with it. He goes back to view the finished version and there seems to be something amiss with the eye-lines in scenes shot in an old house. So he goes back to the house. ‘Being in the house was like being in the belly of something. It was like they’d been swallowed, and that the house, seemingly inert, was not inert at all.’ A nicely spooky atmosphere is evoked and the author clearly knows something about filmmaking.

‘Everything Beautiful Is Terrifying’ by M.Rickert. First person narration. Two girls, best friends, look similar and dress in similar clothes so that they are often mistaken for twins. One is murdered. Although she is not found guilty in court everyone thinks the other girl did it and earns a certain notoriety. A film is made. Strangers come to town, identifiable by their clothes and manner so that ‘like belled cats they give their trespass away’. This was one of those stories that works by revealing bits of information slowly until you get a whole picture. A feeling of dread is evoked.

‘Shell Baby’ by V.H. Leslie. Third person narration. On a remote island in the Orkneys, Elspeth rents an isolated cottage for the winter. She wants to be alone. After swimming in the sea, amid a strange green light which she presumes to be the aurora borealis, she finds a small creature on the shore. She begins to consider it the child she always wanted, born of the sea like the goddess Aphrodite or it may be a monster. ‘After all, it’s a fine line between monsters and gods, a vague boundary like the shoreline itself where neither the land nor the sea hold dominion.’ The theme of the maternal instinct is perhaps not so comprehensible to a mere man but it was good.

‘The Water Kings’ by Manish Melwani is based on Balzac’s notion that behind every great fortune there is a great crime. A family of shipping magnates in Singapore may pay the price for their ancestors’ misdeeds. The similes tie in nicely to the main theme: ‘Tankers and cargo ships buoyed the horizon like floating coffins.’ ‘Adulthood and its inheritance weighed on him like rusty chains slipping beneath dark water.’ Partly, perhaps, because of the exotic background, this worked really well. Manish Melwani has a book of Singapore ghost stories coming out soon and it will be worth watching out for.

‘The Attempt’ by Rosalie Parker is a charming childhood fable. ‘The Tall Grass’ by Simon Strantzas was too weird for me. A plant comes to life. ‘The Erased’ by Steve Rasnic Tem was far too weird with things disappearing in a surreal world. ‘We Can Walk It Off Come The Morning’ by Malcolm Devlin evoked a vague sense of menace with some people lost in the fog in Ireland but ended with a whimper. Not unusual in this sort of story but even by those standards this was weak.

‘The Swimming Pool Party’ by Robert Shearman was downright chilling, reminding me of some old saying about the banality of evil. Some kids have a swimming pool party to celebrate Nicky’s birthday and Max, not at all popular, is invited, much to the surprise of his mother. Nicky’s mother is welcoming but odd. Kids birthday parties have gone mad in our time with Mum’s trying to outdo each other but this one was particularly bad. Genuine horror.

‘The Cenacle’ by Robert Levy is about a widow who can’t face going back to her ordinary life so she stays in the graveyard. It turns out there are others doing the same thing. Definitely weird.

‘Slimikins’ by Charles Wilkinson is one of those pieces that lets slip information bit by bit until you get a complete picture at the end. It’s about a former schoolteacher. Few people can stand teaching under modern conditions and they’re leaving the profession in droves but hopefully the robots can take over soon.

‘The Voice Of The People’ by Alison Moore is about a town with a factory that gives off unknown emissions which seem to cause lethargy in everyone. In ‘Curb Day’ by Rebecca Kuder everyone has to put out a certain weight of rubbish in black bags every year in May. No explanation is given. In ‘Engines Of The Ocean’ by Christopher Slats, a woman receives a letter from her father who is dead. She goes to investigate in the seaside town where he lived and everything is covered in salt. No explanation.

‘Sun Dogs’ by Laura Mauro was unreadable because narrative was addressed to ‘you’ as in ‘you did this, you did that’. I found this so annoying I couldn’t finish it.

Many of these stories are over-written but ‘Root Light’ by Michael Wehunt takes the practice to new levels. To be fair, the protagonist is a poet so the excessive descriptiveness may have been meant to reflect that. To be even fairer, it got quite gripping in the middle and had an ending, too. I’m not quite sure what the ending meant but it had one.

‘The Triplets’ by Harmony Neal is great. Three wealthy, beautiful women decide to conceive their girls under the same blue moon, outside, as according to some legend this will produce the perfect child. Three beautiful girls are born and grow up doing everything together. This razor-sharp social satire was an absolute joy to read and laugh out loud funny. The fantastical bit tacked on the end is almost irrelevant.

‘Dispossession’ by Nicholas Royle was a sad story about a Peeping Tom. There was no discernible fantasy element and it wasn’t very nice.

It’s a moot point whether this collection was front loaded with the best stuff at the beginning or whether the later stories didn’t appeal, with the notable exception of ’The Triplets’, because I was getting tired of the ‘New Weird’. There’s a lot of perceptive writing about everyday life today along with carefully worded prose that evokes an atmosphere of dread and as this is the aim perhaps that is how it should be judged.

I have a lot of respect for the authors. To get this kind of thing right takes a much skill and doesn’t pay much. There’s heaps more money in writing chase plots in bestsellerese that will get picked up by Hollywood. The writers obviously do it for the pure love of prose as opposed to story and if you share that affection you might like this book. It won’t be to everyone’s taste and didn’t really fit mine but ‘Shadows & Tall Trees 7’ is a shining example of ‘New Weird’ if you like that sort of thing. It may win awards but fantasy has joined the mainstream in that the stuff which wins awards and the stuff people actually like to read have mostly become separate.

It’s almost worth buying just for ‘The Triplets’. That was hilarious.

Eamonn Murphy

July 2017

(pub: Undertow Publications. 306 pages small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 13.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-99509-493-2)

check out website: www.undertowbooks.com/

Category: Books, Fantasy, Scifi

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About the Author ()

Eamonn Murphy lives in the west country and grew up reading Asimov, Heinlein, lots of other old SF and Marvel Comics. After many years hard labour he has settled down to a quiet life with a nice lady, two rescue dogs and four ducks. He writes reviews for crowsnest and a few short stories, some of which even get published in obscure magazines. His self-published (Beware!) horror novel 'Arnos Hell' set in a Bristol graveyard is available on Amazon as a kindle book. His YA novelette 'The Brigstowe Dragons' will be published shortly by Alban Lake. He seldom blogs at https://eamonnmurphyblog.wordpress.com/

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