SEVEN STRANGE STORIES by Rebecca Lloyd, Tartarus Press, N Yorks, UK HC £35.00 (UK) 245 pages, www.tartaruspress.com
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
There are some books that it is a pleasure to pick up and handle. Any book from Tartarus Press falls into this category and they continue to keep their production standards high. They are also very good at choosing the contents of their volumes with work from quality writers.
The seven strange stories in Rebecca Lloyd’s collection all have a similar tone and style, that of quiet understatement. The differences in them come from the setting and the structure of the plot. The style suits the opening story, ‘The Monster Orgorp’, as it is set in a country house in the early 18th century and is reminiscent of some of the old masters of the horror story such as W.W. Jacobs. Though the clues to the modern reader as to the situation are there, the narrator is a naïve maid who becomes the dresser of the lady of the house. All the staff are curious about the stranger who moves in and is rarely seen, never without a concealing cloak. As a result there is plenty of speculation below stairs. There is a problem of credibility within the story. The humour falls flat as the maid shows an ignorance of sex, yet coming from a Dorset village she would be unlikely to have led that sheltered a life.
The problem with writing modern horror stories is that technology tends to get in the way, so setting them in the past can have its advantages. The presence of laundrettes and cameras puts ‘Jack Werrett, the Flood Man’ into the middle of the 20th century. The narrator is a scholar who rents a house on the marshes to use as a base while she takes photos of old churches. All is fine until water starts accumulating in impossible places. ‘Christy’, too, has a feel of mid-20th century as the house where the house where the narrator lives seems to have few amenities but has a yard cluttered with rusting vehicles. While not stated, the setting has the air of a poor American backwater. Children do not always live to adulthood. She has lost one child and when another disappears the dilemma for the reader is the reliability of her narration. Is the boy dead, or has he gone to live in the walls with Christy, his imaginary friend.
As with ‘Jack Werrett, the Flood Man’, the narrator of ‘The Pantun Burden’ is another single woman with a scholarly career living alone in a country cottage. The problem she has comes in the form of Eric who claims that the chicken who attacks is the dead wife of the man who employs him to feed the chickens.
‘Again’ and ‘Where’s The Harm?’ are the only stories here that have a male first person narrator. The former finds the narrator going upstairs during a wake to find the deceased standing at the top. The problem with the story which is an otherwise good rendering of the panic anyone would find themselves in in this situation, is that the wake usually comes after the funeral. The latter is very rural. Two brothers are renovating their childhood home to sell. It is on the edge of the wood and now as adults they venture into areas where they were forbidden to go as children. One brother becomes enchanted by a group of women who live there. The problem here is that children always go where they are forbidden, but it may be that the women never show themselves to pre-pubescent boys.
The only story told in the third person is ‘Little Black Eyes and Tiny Hands’. Set in Sicily the story revolves around a dilapidated house which, by implication once housed Alistair Crowley and was the site of satanic rites. Normally, the place is shunned but Ernesto is forced to go into it but the local bully. As a result he is cursed. Exactly what the curse it isn’t revealed until he returns to the island fifty years later after a career as an architect.
These are the kind of stories that, because they are well written, are enjoyable in the moment.