This hugely entertaining collection of nineteen stories and a poem is the best of Marion Pitman’s fiction from the last 35 years. Almost every piece contains elements of the supernatural, though with a great variety of style and treatment.
There’s humour in “The Cupboard of the Winds” (would you like to find a deity living in your airing cupboard?), in “Eyes of God” (full of extreme grotesqueness that shouldn’t be taken too seriously), and in “Dead Men’s Company” (a new take on sex slaves among 18th century pirates).
Sex, tastefully done, is an ingredient in several stories, notably coupled with music in the title story and in “Saxophony”, both told from a female position. “Music in the Bone” is arguably the strongest story here, building tension cleverly with musical performances, couplings and sharp changes of key leading to an unexpected climax.
There are more-or-less traditional ghost stories, including “Out of Season”, “Looking Glass”, “Christmas Present” and “Forward and Back, Changing Places”, though in all of them Pitman manages to surprise the reader (always the most difficult thing about ghost stories).
A surprise ending is not always necessary or suitable. There are folk-tales re-worked here, such as the exquisitely told “The Seal Songs”, set in the Hebrides, where the climax is fitting, predictable and not at all disappointing.
Not all the stories make sense, by which I mean that there are wonderfully surreal tales such as “Disposal of the Body”, where a visit to a family funeral becomes, by degrees, something entirely different. And there’s “District to Upminster” which, if you took it seriously, would inhibit you from catching another train ever again. And I suppose that “Overnight Bus”, which is about many things including stalking, travelling in South Africa and cricket, deserves a mention here for an astonishingly surreal dream sequence in the middle of it.
To complete the genres there’s SF (“Sunlight in Spelling”, with enough good ideas for a novel), a really unpleasant horror story of the “payback time” sort (“Indecent Behaviour”) and a fantasy western (“Meeting at the Silver Dollar”).
What’s exceptional about this collection are the arrangement and the poetic skills of the author. Longer and shorter stories alternate, though not slavishly––and I urge you to read the book in the order it’s presented. As a poet, Pitman has a great talent for finding the right word and creating the desired atmosphere, while maintaining a tight hold on her material. She never lets style obscure plot or clarity and she knows that one of the greatest secrets of writing fine short stories is brevity––cutting out all repetitions and inessentials.
You can always judge the quality of an author collection by its weakest story. This is a collection without weak stories.