Thursday, May 29, 2014
Review: Shadows & Tall Trees 2014
Shadows & Tall Trees is the premiere journal for weird fiction. Editor Michael Kelly never fails to combine a stellar lineup of stories exploring the liminal and strange. The most recent volume, Issue 6, is special in more ways than one. It is the first Shadows & Tall Trees to be released since Undertow became an imprint of ChiZine Publications. It also marks the series growing from a smaller journal format to a full blown anthology, containing seventeen stories. This volume is also dedicated to Joel Lane, one of the finest practitioners in the genre, who tragically left us last year.
Kelly has far exceeded expectations, putting together an exceptional volume at a much larger length, alleviating the reader's fear that the larger length would lessen the overall quality by including filler stories.
Some highlights include:
Michael Wehunt's Onanon is a really creepy story about a man, his sickly old mother, and a mysterious girl. The man's search for identity and who is mother truly was are intertwined with the girl he begins a sort of affair with. The story builds to quite a disturbing conclusion.
Hidden in the Alphabet by Charles Wilkinson has an old, once-controversial filmmaker attempting to meet his long estranged and thought dead son, a meeting set up by his niece, who was once an actress in his films. There is a sense of great wrongdoing in the director's past, as he used his son and niece in ways that were utterly wrong, and a current sense of justice being enacted on the director.
Kaaron Warren's Death Door Cafe is about dying people given a second chance, and what they are willing to sacrifice of themselves for that chance. The setting is a secretive cafe, which is only known from word of mouth, where the dying go to see if they are worthy. The story is melancholic and beautiful, another great story from an excellent writer.
Road Dead is a really short story about four young guys going for a drive in order to find cellphone reception, when one of them decides to take a detour. F. Brett Cox manages to pull off a creepy little story that reads like some rattling off a story about a dream they had.
V.H. Leslie's The Quiet Room is a tale of grief and family. A father gains full custody of his daughter after her mother dies, and they move into a big old house. As the man is trying to adjust to being a full time father of a teenager, his daughter takes a turn for the strange, becoming quiet and withdrawn, seemingly obsessed with a dusty, old piano, on which she keeps the urn of her mother's ashes. Leslie paints a convincing portrait of the father and his daughter, and there is a sense of dread permeating throughout the piece.
R.B. Russell is mainly known for running Tartarus Press, an excellent British publisher of weird fiction, but he is quite an author as well. Night Porter takes a premise that seems like it's straight out of a mainstream horror flick: a young girl takes a job as a hotel's night porter, and her job soon takes a turn for the horrific. Russell takes this premise and veers it straight into weird territory, creating an excellent horror story that I enjoyed very much.
Shaddertown by Conrad Williams reminds me of much of Ramsey Campbell's modern fiction. In Holes for Faces many of Ramsey Campbell's stories featured either elderly characters, or children, and sometimes both, playing on their similarities and differences. These stories are often fraught with anxiety so powerfully written that the readers begins to feel it themselves. This is very much what Williams has done with this story, which follows a grandmother with breathing problems (cigarettes get you every time) who decides to take her grandson out on a tour of some underground tunnels. The anxiety the old woman feels is palpable, and Williams executes this like a master.
Christopher Harman's Apple Pie and Sulphur was an great story that was bursting with dread. A trio of old hiking buddies get together for a last hike before two of them move away, and due to a full train take a walking detour through a mysterious wood. They stumble on some creepy abandoned places before finding a small inn/restaurant seemingly in the middle of nowhere. At this point Harman takes the gloves off and the story quickly veers into nightmare territory. Harman excelled at creating a surreal atmosphere, as the remaining protagonist seemed trapped in an almost limbo-like version of town, not knowing what was real and what was hallucination. The dread builds and builds, although the ending doesn't quite live up to it. Overall a very impressive story.
Summerside by Alison Moore explores the liminal strangeness of a certain house when a new girl moves in.
The Space Between is co-authored by Ray Cluley and Ralph Robert Moore, and is one of my favorite stories in the anthology. The authors do an excellent job displaying the hopelessness and despair of their main character. A man loses his swanky job, forcing him and his wife to move into a cheap apartment in an old boarding house until they can get back on their feet. A small door leads to a storage area and into crawlspaces around the house, and this soon becomes the man's escape outlet. Things get murkier and murkier the more obsessed with the crawlspaces and neighbors the man becomes, as he gets bolder and bolder in his travels through the walls. It's a chilling look into voyeurism, and how low someone can fall.
C.M. Muller's Vrangr is a short, eerie tale of a man inheriting an old property from a relative he doesn't even know. He has strange dreams and an affinity for the past, but decides to head to the old house and see what his inheritance is all about. I am familiar with Muller as a blogger and reviewer, and this was the first piece of his fiction that I have read, and it left me rather impressed. From reading the story it is clear that Muller knows his weird fiction, and has the skills to craft a rather numinous tale. I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.
The anthology closes with the wonderful Writings Found in a Red Notebook. I have long been a sucker for the "found notebook" style of stories (although I've so far been mixed about found footage films) as is apparent from two of the stories I chose to publish in Children of Old Leech. David Surface knocks it out of the park with this story, and sustains an intense feeling of dread that builds up right until the climax. When a troubled couple take a detour on a long drive through the desert, they awake lost and confused. Obviously, things get worse. It's an intense, terrifying story, and is enough for me to look for more of Surface's fiction.
2014 is a good year for weird fiction. Shadows & Tall Trees grows to anthology length, and knocks it out of the park, and Kelly's Undertow Publications is publishing the first volume of The Year's Best Weird Fiction edited by Laird Barron.