Friday, 11 September 2015

Grimm Mistresses - a review of a collection of 5 dark tales edited by Stacey Turner

I'll be honest, I seized this book as a new formed Mercedes M Yardley addict.  A second read of "Pretty Little Dead Girls" left me so hungry for more I'd probably pay to read Ms Yardley's shopping lists. A quick trawl through the amazon pages threw up this anthology as the best (indeed in the midst of a publishing hiatus the only) source of my next fix. To see a novella length short story lurking in this admirable anthology of fairy tales would have been enough to lure me in to the purchase, even if every other short story in it had been Fifty Shades of Grey fan-fiction. In fact the other four stories were of an extremely high and enthralling quality so that the whole volume comfortably fitted into a working week of rather dark bedtime reading.

The premise of Grimm Mistresses is to have five female authors put an unconventional spin on some much loved Grimm's fairy tales.  The result is a handful of very diverse stories that are most certainly not for children (unless perhaps the child in question was Wednesday Addams). 

With some the original Grimm inspiration is more obvious than others - though it is possible that some picked a more obscure tale than others.  For example, The Leopard's Pelt - fascinating and well written as it was - triggered no tremor of Grimm resonance in my admittedly under-read mind - unless that is, the Swiss Family Robinson were a Grimm tale.  With all that, the stories still twist in quite convention defying ways. 


Little Dead Red by Mercedes M Yardley

But let us start with the story that brought me to this book.  "Little Dead Red" by Mercedes M. Yardley.  Ms Yardley said of the story "I think that's the darkest thing I've ever written. It was tough to write..."  This is a woman who routinely writes of serial killers, of death and mayhem all in a light lyrical prose that teeters on a tightrope above the abyss of hell.  A woman who coined a term not so much convention defying as convention defining in the phrase "whimsical horror." So if this is the darkest thing she has ever written then know it will send shivers so deep your bones will tremble for days.

That is not to say this is horrific, there is no gratuitous gore, only a glimpse of real credible people, broken people who a cruel fate has not yet finished with.  Marie is a guilt laden parent in a harrowing search for redemption at any price.  The writing is perfect.  Economical lines that build vibrant pictures in the reader's mind, images that remain long after the story is finished - burned into the retina of the imagination.  "...the flash of red Converse looking like fire flowing up the steps."

There was a film my wife and I watched once and she swore she could never watch it again.  The film was Wolfcreek, set in the Australian outback and based on true events. It centred on a very bad man and the three foolish young backpackers who fell into his power.  It was brilliantly convincing, the bad guy's contempt for humanity horrifically credible.  It was just too good at doing what it did to bear a second viewing.

Little Dead Red evoked for me that same intensity of emotion in a story that haunts me as few others have, though I will tease and torture myself by picking at a few lines here and there and maybe, one day, I will be brave enough to read it all again. 

Nectar by Allison M. Dickson

Henry goes on an unwise double date with his co-worker Greg. The fairy tale reference begins with the choice of names and becomes more overt as the date descends into and beyond a strangely depraved disaster.

The writing conjures up the jaded faded echo of a man that is Henry.  His bleak black outlook on life bleeding out with every cynical thought we share.  "I can tolerate a friendly dinner and head home, where Netflix, the only partner yet to disappoint me, awaits." This is a man who contemplated putting a bullet in his head but in searching the internet for the best shot to take instead "became distracted enough by irrelevant YouTube videos that the idea of suicide lost most of its allure."

However, when his unusual date draws him into a bizarre kind of honey trap, he finds a desire to carve out a new life for himself, before somebody does it for him ... or to him.  


The Leopard's Pelt - S.R.Cambridge

This has the feel of a fairy tale, a promise extracted under duress which condemns a stranded sailor to an impossible quest.  Henry Lowry, with his ship sunk beneath him by the Japanese, washes up on a deserted island haunted by something so dark that even the trees would have fled if they could but move.

Not since Tom Hanks was Cast Away with just a painted volleyball for a co-star has a story needed such a compelling central character to sustain it, and Cambridge delivers in the person of Henry Lowry. The shipwrecked sailor is vividly portrayed in the opening segment of this compact three part story.  His childhood poverty; his love of stories heard through the charity of a kindly librarian; an unspent coin; the sadness of his last liaison before he went to war - a woman who never intended to wait for him.  A man unlucky in all ways who deserves a better chance and a better mistress than the one fate gifts him.


Hazing Cinderella - C.W.LaSart

We are used to the wicked step mom with her dreadful daughters who persecute and enslave the poor little Cinderella.  But what if Cinderella were the step-mom's daughter or indeed something older and more primal than a mere daughter.  Neil Gaiman's "Ocean at the End of the Lane" had a charming trio of women possessed of strange powers, in communion with other worlds and in someway ageless.  They too were woman whom you crossed at your peril, but Step-mom Diane and her daughter Katie are definitely two women you would not want to fuck with.

LaSart treads the line between sex and violence with the steady footedness of many a teen horror flick.  The author darts to one side and then the other as a night heady with lust and vengeance goes decidedly tits up.

The Night Air - Stacey Turner

The anthology ends with another story about parenting.  Marla the graphic designer and husband Nick are moving out of Chicago together with their three children. 

The town of Hubble seems at first like a kind of Amish Stepford - an abhorrence of technology and an adherence to secret ways by its leading citizens foster suspicion in the reader, if not in the lead character.  But then, as readers of such fiction, we are more conditioned to doubt, to seeing malignance in the benign, than the characters we read about.

Like a good horror story, the little pebbles of disaster are dislodged piece by piece until there is enough to trigger an avalanche and in the end, for all that she left the Windy City behind her, it is the wind which haunts Marla with its soft whispering breath.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

A second look at Bryony Adams - "Pretty little dead Girls" by Mercedes M Yardley

I am not a great re-reader of books.  There are too many books and too little time.  Even those great books which have moved me to tears, The Time Traveller's Wife, the Book Thief, The Lovely Bones, Before I Die, The Girl with all the Gifts got just the one chance for my entire and complete attention. But this week I have re-read and re-lived the short bright story of Bryony Adams in its totality

The late great Sir Christopher Lee may have re-read Lord of the Rings cover to cover once a year every year, and I might even claim the same book as my all time favourite, but I have never re-read it as he did.

That is not to say that, once read, I ignore these literary gems.  It is more a matter of dipping in and out, of picking up those moments that piqued me so much that I replay them over and over.  (Like Henry the eponymously referenced time traveller in Audrey Niffenberger's great book finding his curse/gift drags him back to frequently revisit key nodal points in his life.) From Lord of the Rings who can forget the lines that captured the moment

"Begone foul dwimmerlaik, Lord of Carrion, leave the dead in peace"


"I am an emissary and may not be assailed"
"Where such laws hold it is customary for ambassadors to use less insolence."

Or even

"I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil."

But at the same time I have never revisited the mysterious enigma that was Tom Bombadil and the digression of the hobbits' time with him.

To that extent I have treated the books I loved like the sporting events I most admired, be it a great test cricket match, or a brilliant game of football.  I will re-watch and savour the highlights, the goals, the wickets and the near misses but I do not replay the entire game.

There are of course those childhood books, the bedtime favourites which are endlessly read and re-read - "Amy Said"  "Each Peach, Pear, Plum"  "We're going in a Bear hunt"  Books  so ingrained in my mind by repetition that I barely need the book to re-read them.  There are also a very few short stories, consumed at a gallop which bear a line by line word by word rediscovery - most notably Mark Lawrence's "During the Dance."

But until I met Bryony Adams, the delightful heroine of Mercedes M Yardley's "All the Pretty Dead Girls" I am sure that I have never re-read anything of more than a few thousand words cover to cover.

And such an exceptional circumstance merits an appropriate response.  A second read, deserves a second review. Not just to consider what drew me back again following Bryony on the life long journey towards her tragic fate, but also what new discoveries I made.

My original review is here  My later thoughts as follows

While I do not re-read books much, I do listen to certain songs over and over again.  There is something about music, and especially familiar music, which envelopes me, shrouding out the rest of the world in a mix of sound and poetry and symbolism. And there is a similar part musical, part poetic quality to the whimsical writing of Pretty little dead Girls.

The writing is unashamedly surreal.  There is fate personified as a hissing malevolent desert. There is a sadistic killer who is a scrupulously polite indeed good young man in all things except in the matter of murdering people, and even then he views the perceived evil in his actions as a matter of personal perspective rather than moral absolutes.  There is the impossibility of everyone's knowledge that Bryony is destined to be a murderer's victim and the struggles they experience in coming to terms with that.

The great sad songs are not just beautiful sounds, but have words which touch on deep themes of love, of loss even of death and it is that blend which turns beautiful into great, which makes the harmonious also moving.  It is that which makes us listen not just inspite of, but because of knowing the ending. In the same way Pretty little dead Girls resonates, for me at least, because it holds up a surreal mirror which does not distort so much as highlight what it is to be human.

There is throughout the book that fragility of human existence which we forget at our peril, along with the evil inhumanity which lurks within humanity.  A picture taken this week of poor Alyan Kurdi on a beach is another poignant reminder of these simple truths.  It is perhaps when we are in the shadow of death that we value and appreciate life most of all, maybe even it is only then that we are at our most alive.

Bryony Adams lives her entire life in the shadow of a horrific death and it is that which makes her possibly the most alive heroine I have ever read. It also makes her a potential Mary-Sue (or as I once thought it Pollyanna), a character of such unblemished virtue, such saintly forbearance, that she might be considered an irritation to read about - just too good.  But it is not flawed virtue which makes a character interesting, it is the compassion they engender in the reader, which Bryony draws out aplenty. And in any case Bryony is flawed - a flaw that clouds her relationships and constrains her lifestyle.

Bryony is of particular interest to me, as a writer, because my current work in progress features a virtuous and kind heroine who, to some might seem a Mary-Sue/Pollyanna cross.  It is at once reassuring and humbling to see Mercedes M Yardley manage so deftly a heroine with so many perfections.  But then, like Bryony my Persapha too is flawed.
  • Bryony's flaw is that destiny that stalks her - she is fated to become a serial killer's victim.
  • Persapha too is stalked by unkind destiny - she is fated to become a serial killer.
In the re-read there were parts that I remembered and others that had not registered so deeply.

I had entirely missed the significance of Jeremy in my rapid first read, or at least forgotten it in the intervening months.

I discovered and smiled at the line "They stopped by the first Starbucks..."  I mean how many Starbucks does any one market need to have, and I thought of a Simpsons shot of Bart walking along a shopping arcade where every shop closed and re-opened as a starbucks as he passed it.

Even the cover offers itself for rediscovery, the innocent white capitalised text of the first and last words PRETTY GIRLS bracketing the horrifically coupled adjectives "little dead" in subtler lower case red which lie between them. A motif repeated in the author's name, with the middle initial M in red, should we read M for Murder?

And then in the later pages, when the omniscient narrator speaks directly to the reader, I picked up the reference to jonquils and googled them as instructed.

So here, we leave for the time the addictive story of Bryony Adams with an image of her favourite flowers.  This is the book, of all that I have read, which is most like a song and I have need of books like that, maybe we all do at times.  It is, as far as I can recall, the first book I have entirely re-read; it is possible it may also be the second, the third and the fourth.

Source Wikipedia