These delightfully dark and often unsettling stories take us to frightening places and deeply strange situations. A young girl is biding her time before she can recover the fingers her mother stole from her.
A wood takes over a cluster of houses even as its inhabitants still live there and soon there are slave wolves to contend with. A circus huckster engages in a secret, passionate affair and is gifted with a beard.
The mother-of-a-girl turns out to be memorably made of twigs and branches with a “berry glow in her eyes, a glint of pupil between the prickly tangle of her eyelashes.” As far as fiction goes, it’s really out there. And then some.
There’s no shortage of wild imagination at play in these pages: it’s a collection best read when there’s a chill in the air, though it alone can add a lot of temperature drop. . The deeply unsettling “Three for a Girl” amplifies this simple nursery rhyme line into a complex tale that is both satisfyingly constructed and psychologically tense.
A sister visits her pregnant sister in an oversized country mansion called Magpie Hall, which was once a children’s home. Playing Pandora, the sister explores the resonant, unfurnished rooms of the house, opening doors that have been closed for years. Soon the sound of young people’s laughter mingles with the screams as the long locked ups come out to play and seek some motherly comfort.
It’s a story taut with suspense and just dripping with atmosphere, from the flagstones of the treacherous walled garden in frost to the rotting skeleton and warped roof of the disused shed, while charting the geography of horror that awaits its last inhabitants.
Lively and sensual
The writing in this varied collection of 26 stories is often strikingly lively and often very sensual, like this description of a simple wooden floor:
The grain takes on all the shades between mocha and bistre depending on the time of day. When the afternoon sun warms the wood, believe me, you’ll want to strip down and lay on it with your legs wide apart. You will immerse yourself in it, deep in the memory of its living roots, and you will dream of mice and burrowing earthworms.
Holmes is very good at conjuring up images of time and light, such that “day was bright outside the window, silhouetted in yellow wedges” or an early twilight was “scratching the edge of things”. Nature is also very present in these tales, wild in its energy and often unbridled.
In the rural gothic horror of “Beneath the Skin”, a woman feeds an animal in the garden cuts of meat before having sex with it, which “undoes your human self, makes you a monster” . It is a coupling without feeling or intimacy, an exquisite thrust.
In ‘A Small Life,’ a new recruit to a village rowing team senses something dangerous lurking on the bank and ends up with the man offering her a human sacrifice, ‘falling boned like a half-scarecrow. stuffed between my outstretched arms.
‘Ghost Story’ does what it says on the box, as a young man hunts down such stories to both captivate and thrill him. He hears an old woman’s tale before being led to the place he is talking about, a ruined house deep in the woods where there are ghostly faces at the windows to complete the feeling of dread that sets in. in the bone marrow of the thrill seeker.
Too late, he realizes there is a chilling truth at the heart of the story, even as the young girl who guided him to the place loses her life.
Shards of a Nightmare
But there is a story that lingers in the mind, haunting like the remnants of a nightmare. ‘Sleep’ is the story of a mother called Rosy who struggles to care for her son Tom due to her own poor health, resorting to encouraging him to take sleeping pills so she can rest for a while. let him rest. , often aided by heavy drinking, the kind that “reduces inhibitions without clouding thought”.
Gradually, she drinks more and more and the thinking consequently becomes cloudy, leading to the fateful day when she plans to “throw her damaged beautiful son into a sleep from which he will never wake”. For his own good. For her.’ It has an end to chill the very soul.
In another story of mental illness titled “They Tell Me”, a woman with a diminished libido is consigned by her husband to an asylum where the treatment meted out to her soon resembles torture as much as medicine. Cold baths lead to tooth extractions and then increasingly invasive surgery as staff seek to rid her of the so-called infections that led to her condition.
Some of the stories are modern day fairy tales, with figures called Gretel knowingly wandering around, while others, such as the eponymous “Figurehead” story, offer total fantasy in which the wooden figure on the bow of a ship is given a voice to share with us recounts its marine adventures just as “Little Matrons” finds Russian dolls revealing their inner secrets.
There is a confident sense of logic underlying it all, a credibility to such extraordinary events and occurrences which are all due to the author’s assured skill in harnessing a wild imagination to the dark twists of history.
These stories of wild woods and wilder inhabitants settle in the reader’s mind in such a way that he becomes aware of the creaks of the room, the possibility of other presences, the edges of the known world being more blurred. , anxiety-provoking, much less defined. than before you start reading the first of these demon-strewn, spooky, spooky stories.
I would recommend reading them with an ax handy, just in case.
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