Monday, 29 May 2017

'Christy'

A surprise, here, in Rebecca Lloyd's Seven Strange Stories. The previous two tales I've read and reviewed are very British in character, but now we're in rural America. I suspect the Midwest USA is intended, rather than the South. But wherever it is, somebody is playing 'Duelling Banjos' in the vicinity.

The story is told by Yola, a much-abused wife and mother, as an extended flashback to the Seventiees and the disappearance of her beloved son Earl. Earl was lamed by rickets, a condition that also afflicted Yola's only daughter. The poor girl was disposed of by her ghastly father, Daddy Hines. As a concession to his wife he does not murder his lame son. It's that kind of set up.

Earl vanished a few weeks after he starts taking about Christy. An imaginary friend? A ghost? Some combination of the two? Who- or whatever Christy is, when he touches Earl the boy is scarred by icy fingertips. Or is the whole thing a figment of Yola's imagination? Her friend Dulcie thinks so, but then Dulcie's yen for Daddy Hines makes her judgement more than a little suspect.

This is a remarkable example of a British writer attempting to riff on American Gothic conventions and almost pulling it off. I say almost because of two drawbacks. One is the presence of too many Britishisms, such as 'arse' for 'ass' - that makes no sense. And Yola's language is arguably too conventional, too devoid of specific regional words and phrases to be wholly convincing. She sounds a little too 'straight' and British at times.

That said, when 'Christy' shines - as in the descriptions of Yola's bleak existence - it shines with a clear, cold light. I was reminded of Robert Frost's poem 'A Servant to Servants', another portrayal of the rural wife's grim existence, albeit in a very different context. And in the end Yola wins most of her battles, as strong women tend to do. Daddy Hines, by contrast, suffers the fate of all hard men.

'The tattoos all over his arms and legs... have got him looking more like a grey rag than a living man now; since he's shrunk and gone flabby like the violent men all do down this way.'

So, another winner. Stay tuned for more of this running review.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

'Again'

Dipping a second time in Seven Strange Stories by Rebecca Lloyd I find myself thinking of L.P. Hartley. (Try it yourself, it's free.) 

'Again' is a tale that recalls Hartley's very British  approach to what the French call contes cruels.  If you know your Hartley, think of 'The Travelling Grave', 'The Killing Bottle', or 'The Cotillion'. 

In each of those stories we have a typical English country house setting, with guests that would not be out of place in an Evelyn Waugh novel, or perhaps Wodehouse. But what transpires is strange and disturbing, both unexpected and yet with the hideous inevitability of nightmare.

'Again' has a first person narrator, Richard, who is desperate to avoid his wife's friend Diane from making a scene. The story begins when they meet on the stairs after Richard leaves his guests to replenish the ice bucket. Diane is confused, unsure why she is in Richard's house. Gradually, as he harangues her and she expresses genuine bafflement, the grim truth is revealed.

As well as Hartley there is a touch of Poe about this one. I'll say no more than that, because it is a tale with a twist. While recognisably from the same authorial world as 'The Pantum Burden', 'Again' offers a different take on death and our responses to it. I think I'm getting to know the author a bit better, and we seem to be getting on all right.

Pop back in a while, the running review has just begun.

'The Pantun Burden'

The first tale I read in Rebecca Lloyd's Seven Strange Stories is on the margins of English folk horror. All the ingredients are there, but the story is far from formulaic or predictable. It is not so much horror, I feel, as a tale of belief and delusion. Who is deluded is not entirely certain.

An educated person - in this case a scientist conducting a firefly survey - encounters superstition and general weirdness in a small village. The cast of characters includes some odd types, such as The Chicken Man. The description of the latter's bungalow, with the inside of its windows caked with the crap of his most favoured poultry, is one that sticks with me. Good job it's not a scratch 'n' sniff book.

The Pantuns of the title are a mother and son, village outcasts thanks to a curse that they believe leads to supernatural manifestations. The way in which the narrator tries to deal with what she feels sure is an abusive relationship is realistic and not too harrowing. Lloyd's touch is just light enough to ensure suspension of disbelief, her prose elegant and graceful.

In the end 'The Pantun Burden' is a clever tale about the way all our minds play tricks on us, because we are human. Being deluded, especially by love, is part of our condition. Ghosts may be inevitable in such circumstances. Fortunately not all of us can see them.

So, a good start. Another story will be pondered a bit in due course.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Seven Strange Stories



Hark! 'Tis the cheery rapping of the friendly neighbourhood postman, delivering another review copy from Tartarus Press. Seven Strange Stories by Rebecca Lloyd looks interesting and is a beautifully made book, as you'd expect. I will be doing one of my now almost-popular 'running reviews' of these seven stories in about seven days. Fingers crossed. Lloyd is a new writer to me, so I'm coming at these tales with no preconceptions.

I should remark that these are not all short stories. Two of them are really novellas,as you can see from the TOC. What's more, one is set in the eighteenth century, which is part of an interesting trend. Once period weird fiction tended to focus on the Victorian-Edwardian era, but it's been creeping back to its Gothic roots, I suspect. Anyway, more of all that theorising anon. So thanks to Tartarus, reviewing hat on, and much reading to do!