Book Review. Shadows and Tall Trees 6 edited by Michael Kelly

satt cover

 

I love short horror fiction. I read lots of it: magazines, ezines, collections, anthologies and single stories, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this one.

 

Editor Michael Kelly obviously likes a certain kind of horror: contemporary, literary, subtle and undefined. There are no zombies, no vampires, no chainsaw-wielding psychopaths. Instead there are expertly drawn characters dealing with terrible things.

 

There are two main things that make this book special, compared to other anthologies I’ve read lately.

 

  1. I’ve mentioned the lack of traditional monsters, but it seemed that all the characters here are all dealing with their own ghosts, either unresolved episodes from their past or some inner demon that becomes apparent in the story. Even when there is some outside agency it’s the characters’ action or flaws that attract them. It’s almost Shakespearian.

 

  1. None of the stories resolve in a satisfactory way. I don’t mean that as a flaw, quite the opposite. Every story here leaves you guessing, either about what actually happened or how we should feel about it. This apparently simple technique means that we keep thinking about the stories after we’ve finished them. I imagine Michael Kelly writing back to some contributors saying See that bit at the end when the monster appears and explains everything – cut that and we’ve got a deal.

 

 

Horror fiction can work on many levels. I think of them as

  • Jump/ yuck,
  • suspense,
  • creepy (glancing behind you while reading),
  • making you re-examine how you live your life.

 

Several of these stories work on that last level, the rarest and most effective of all.

 

 

It begins by deliberately unsettling the reader with Eric Schaller’s To Assume the Writer’s Crown: Notes on the Craft. This could be read several ways: as a genuine essay with a good dose of the author’s dark humour thrown in, or as a story told by someone who actually has a girl chained up in his basement just so he can write a good story about it, or a meditation on a writer’s relationship with his characters. I think the ambiguity is entirely deliberate and it makes uncomfortable reading for those of us who regularly use ink as a murder weapon.

 

And the book continues in that vein. The other pieces are more obviously stories, but that feeling of never knowing what’s going on remains throughout. I enjoyed every story in this book. Seriously, there wasn’t a single piece that I would have cut, but here I’ll only specifically mention my favourites.

 

Onanon by Michael Wehunt. This might be based on a genuine Scandinavian folk tale I haven’t heard, or it’s just so well told it seems real. Three strands of unpleasantness converge into something disturbing.

 

Death’s Door Cafe by Kaaron Warren. Taking a cliché and making it literal lets us explore morbidity in a story that seems upbeat but undercuts it and needles the reader.

 

H. Leslie’s The Quiet Room is about your past coming to get you. A house likes silence, so you can better hear the hollowness of your life.

 

Shaddertown by Conrad Williams is an apparently simple story that somehow encapsulates everything that modern western adults are afraid of in real life.

 

Ralph Robert Moore and Ray Cluley collaborated to produce The Space Between, in which a man finds he can spy on his neighbours and it becomes a compulsion that ruins his life. I read this as a parable about Facebook and the like but even without that resonant layer it’s a chilling story.

 

 

 

Shadows and Tall Trees is a truly brilliant book, showcasing the most subtle horror fiction currently being written. Go buy it.

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My view on the current (silly) Scottish Independence debate.

I have a problem with politicians, and it’s the same problem I have with deeply religious people or those with any long-standing beliefs.

 

Anyone who has been absolutely certain of anything for a long time cannot be trusted. If you can believe in anything unwaveringly for decades, whether it’s a political party, your god of choice, that women should (or shouldn’t) wear burkas, or that homosexuality is (or isn’t) evil, your opinion is irrelevant. The most useless people in any debate are the hardliners on both sides.

 

Put another way, the more strongly you believe that you are right, the less I believe you.

 

Politicians cherry pick information that supports their existing cause, and ignore or try to discredit anything that might give credence to an opponent. We know this, but we listen to them anyway hoping for a convincing, balanced and well thought out argument that might persuade us. It never appears.

 

I don’t have a telly, and my radio is not used for current affairs, so my main exposure to the debate is Facebook posts. They tend to be rigidly polarised, most often one side pointing out some error the other side has made and poking fun. I have yet to see either side show any respect or give any credit to the other. I hate that.

 

They keep telling us it’s the most important decision in Scotland’s recent history. It’s not. No matter what happens next month, in ten years time most Scots will be living where they would have been, doing the same job for the same salary and paying a similar level of tax for a similar level of public service. And complaining about it no doubt.

 

The Yes campaign keeps bringing up the failings of the Westminster government: dishonesty, corruption and unpopular policies. These are spurious arguments if we examine them singly.

 

  • The dishonesty I’ve already covered: any member or strong supporter of a political party or cause is inherently untrustworthy. Scottish politicians are no better.

 

  • The corruption thing is nothing to do with Westminster. Abuse of power happens everywhere, from Putin’s Russia to Troon Community Council. We need stringent laws and good policing but it’s probably impossible to eradicate from a democratic system.

 

  • Unpopular policies are once again part of the nature of democracy. Our elected representatives will make decisions you don’t like, or I don’t like. If those decisions displease the majority of the electorate, said representatives don’t survive the next election. The scale of government is not important. The current coalition government in the UK is not what I voted for and I have disagreed with some of their policies: others I have fully supported. The same will be true of a Scottish government, and no matter how local the government becomes it will still be true. If three friends have a vote on which pub to go to on a Friday, chances are one of them will be disappointed. The other options are for one person to make decisions on everyone’s behalf, or for each friend to go alone to their own choice of pub.

 

In the short term, independence will impact negatively on all our pockets – it’s probably cost us already. International investors hate uncertainty and almost certainly there have been board meetings in which overseas companies have chosen not to base their new European operation in Scotland, because anything could happen in the next year or two.

 

In the long term I think the difference to the Scots people will be negligible.

 

The Yes campaign’s other main argument is purely jingoistic, and I despise them for that more than anything.

 

Don’t you dare tell me that I’m any less Scottish than you, or that I love my country less than you, or that I care less about children and potential grandchildren that you do. My feelings about those things are my own business, but nationalism is dangerous because of the implied exclusivity of the word. The thing is, I care equally about friends and family in England, and Wales, and Ireland. I also care about the rest of Europe, and about people in trouble all round the world. Quite a lot of the trouble they’re in is down to petty parochial arguments about what city the taxes should be administered in, or what religion the administrators should be. It’s all shite and I hate it.

 

I have more to say, but this could turn into a rant and take me all night.

 

AND I HAVE MORE IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO. There are books to read, songs to sing, beauty to be photographed, art to be appreciated. You know, those things that make us human. Please give me peace from all this independence nonsense.