I've been fortunate enough to read so many great short stories this year that I feel compelled to share some more with you. I featured ten of my favourites from the first half of 2013 here, including tales from David Haynes, Tim Jeffreys, James Brogden, PJ Hodge, Brian Aldiss and more. As usual, I must remind you that these are not necessarily newly-published short stories, just ones that are new to me.
The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler.
I like Reggie Oliver's short stories very much; and, when I saw that his debut collection from back in 2008 was available on Kindle for the first time, I had to read it. In some ways I think it contains his best work, as it is a little more varied than his two later collections, Masques of Satan and Mrs Midnight. Perhaps it's a little uneven, but all the more interesting for it. The Skins I found to be the most memorable of the tales therein, but they are all excellent in their own way, and as always impeccably written. Oliver's stories often involve the tawdry world of the stage, and, as he writes from experience, they have the benefit of authenticity. Syd and Peggy Brinton arrive at the Pier Pavillion Theatre in Scarmouth as the new speciality act; a 'Comedy Tap Sensation'. However, it soon becomes obvious that all is not as it should be. One part of their act involves donning the skins; Syd and Peggy form the front and rear of a pantomime horse, in which they perform a tap routine. The intimacy of this, both physically and mentally, is brought into uncomfortably sharp focus through jealousy, infidelity and revenge. What happens when Syd is unable to uphold his side of the bargain? This is a grim tale of the boards with a suitably downbeat ending.
2. Passing Forms by Anne-Sylvie Salzman. From Darkscapes.
This is the latest from Tartarus Press, and I must admit I have not yet finished reading the whole collection; however, I was moved to comment on this tale straight away. It is one of the most interesting things I've read for a while, combining the bones of a fairly conventional ghost story with pared-back prose and a matter-of-fact style which reminded me a little of Camus. (It may be significant that Salzman's stories are translated from the original French.) Bale is an academic who is on a walking holiday in a remote part of Scotland, recovering from his recent divorce. He explores the cold, misty and hostile countryside and makes a gruesome discovery; as the story expands, he makes more. Is he somehow a catalyst? This is a fascinating snap shot of Salzman's work, and I look forward to her other stories.
3. New Boy by James Everington. From Falling Over.
I think James Everington is one of the best new short story writers around right now, and I couldn't wait to read Falling Over, released last month by Infinity Plus. New Boy is one of my favourites from that collection, perhaps because it rings so true; I feel that it may contain more than a hint about the author's own experiences. The manager is returning to work after some time off, and finds that things have changed in his absence. There is indeed a 'new boy', but why does he seem so familiar? The manager gradually loses all authority, and is forced to come to terms with both his past and his future. I feel this may be the pivotal tale of the collection, incorporating aspects of alienation, mistaken identity, mystery and, ultimately, enlightenment. Welcome to the weird, slightly off-centre world of James Everington! By the way, I reviewed Falling Over here if you missed it.
4. The Shadowy Third by Elizabeth Bowen. From The Collected Stories.
Elizabeth Bowen is my latest obsession. I had read a few of her short stories many years ago, and I was aware of her reputation as one of the best short story writers, but I was not aware of quite how much she had written. I recently acquired a copy of The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen from The Book Depository, and was startled to see it contained no fewer than 79 short stories! The Shadowy Third is a subtle tale of mystery and intrigue, in the truest sense of those words. Martin is met at the train station on his way home from work, as is usual, by his second wife. He returns home with her to what had originally been the matrimonial home for him and his first-wed. As the story progresses, it is clear that odd things are happening, and that the house is having an effect upon them. Or is it caused by the ghost of his first wife? So much is left unsaid in this enigmatic tale. Bowen treats her readers like grown-ups, and her stories often have to be deciphered by the reader, but it's well worth the effort.
5. The Long Way by Ramsey Campbell.
This is a short story from PS Publishing, and a good way to get a reasonably-priced taste of Ramsey Campbell. I have never enjoyed his novels, but his short stories are quite different; when he writes a good 'un, it's about as good as it gets. This may not be one of his very best (see The Companion, The Guide ... etc), but I found it compelling nonetheless, and so evocative of my own childhood. Craig, the youthful protagonist, has to look after his Uncle Philip who is wheelchair bound. This involves walking through a rough part of the neighbourhood, along run-down and partially demolished streets. If he takes a certain route, he passes a house amid those boarded-up and derelict surroundings, in which he sees a strange, motionless stick-like figure. Each time he steels himself to walk that way, however, the figure has moved ... just a little. When the row of houses is eventually demolished, does it bring redemption, or something much worse? The Long Way is an atmospheric story of childhood guilt, reminiscence and terror.
6. The Nightingale Floors by James Wade. From The Satyr's Head: Tales of Terror.
This is a gem, from what was something of a golden era of horror; the 1970s. I was recently searching around for a creepy short story set in a museum, as mentioned on my blog here. I turned up trumps with this, the tale of the Ehlers Museum on the South Side of Chicago. A university dropout with a minor drugs problem (well, it was written within memory of the '60s I guess) wanders aimlessly through derelict streets, and discovers the dusty old museum needs a night watchman. I must say the story begins unpromisingly, but through a little perseverance the reader is rewarded with a supremely atmospheric tale and a satisfying conclusion. I won't give any spoilers, but it is well worth a look, and it influenced my short story Building Bridges, which will be part of my forthcoming collection Dying Embers.
7. The Bitter Taste of Dread-Moths by Richard Gavin. From The Darkly Splendid Realm.
Richard Gavin's work is difficult to pin down. Multi-layered, it is at once grotesque, horrific, fantastic and yet anchored in the everyday. In this dark tale Carolyn Mears is writing a thesis for her BA entitled Wide Eyed and Wider Minded: The Role of Fear in Eastern Mystery Traditions. By her own admission, a poor effort, but when she is contacted by a Dr Valzer, who corrects her on one aspect of the paper, she is drawn in to a nightmare world. She meets Valzer, who is experimenting with the production of the physical residue of fear, and becomes the subject of his bizarre research. She is forced to confront her own mortality, and to match her own memories of being born with something far more challenging. This is a roller-coaster ride, and his collection The Darkly Splendid Realm is well worth a look.
8. The Devils by Lauren James. From The Side-Effects of the Medication.
Lauren James is new on the scene, and came highly recommended to me. I was not disappointed. The Side-Effects of the Medication is her debut, and is full of interesting ideas and striking imagery; throughout the collection, her voice gets stronger, and the final couple of stories, The Devils and Full, really jumped out at me. The Devils begins as we meet the unwholesome Quentin Fisher, whose daughter Mellie is imprisoned behind bars in her attic bedroom. The reader is lulled into a false sense of security, assuming this to be a conventional tale of possession and exorcism, yet it turns into something quite different and much more unsettling. Highly recommended reading, and I look forward to Lauren James's writing developing in the future.