Book Review: All the Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma

“Connected not just by themes of human-creature melding, but also by an adherence to clear and poetic writing, deeply affecting emotion, All the Fabulous Beasts deserves to be read far and wide.”

Quiet, literary horror seems to be in something of an ascendancy at the moment. Not surprising as, when well-conceived, it aspires to the best of both worlds, and can produce something rather special. Such is the case with UK writer Priya Sharma’s debut collection, released through Undertow Publications. Renowned for creating beautiful-looking books which rival those of much larger presses, All the Fabulous Beasts is no exception. Evidenced by stunning wraparound covers—designed by Vince Haig with artwork by C7 Shiina on the paperback, Jeffrey Alan Love on the hardback—it’s a stunning production. And as for the stories within…

The book opens with ‘The Crow Palace’, and in many ways, this story sets the tone for the rest of the collection. Following the death of her father, Julie is burdened with returning to the family home. There, she must reconnect with her disabled twin Pippa, and confront uncomfortable memories of the past. Add to this an assortment of strange neighbours and allusions to avian mythology and bird-behaviour, and we have a compelling mix of dread-fuelled horror and kitchen-sink drama. Sharma slowly builds the realism of a broken family before pulling the rug from under the reader’s feet with full-on fantastical imagery. It’s a bold move and one which works by confounding the expectations of both those who lean towards the literary and those who prefer their horror a little more straight-forward. This is followed by ‘Rag and Bone’, a sort of alternate history/fantasy/horror piece. It unfolds in a pre-industrial Liverpool where strange families rule shrouded in even stranger rumours. Tom, the protagonist, pays the poor and working class in exchange for items his powerful masters demand—cutlery, furniture, and more personal, essential articles. This is a story steeped in mystery, in deception, in secrets, with shades of Clive Barker in its world-building. And though complete and satisfying as is, it begs to be expanded into something far larger. Next is ‘The Anatomist’s Mnemonic’, a beautifully heart-breaking tale of obsession and the search for true love and ultimate desire. Though shorter than the previous two, it is a truly affecting piece which twists and pierces the heart of the reader. The desire and longing feel real, the growing horror even more harrowing because of what has preceded it. An absolute masterclass of emotive writing which again, without being derivative, echoes—this time—the prose of Barker.

‘Egg’ is a rather offbeat story which deals with motherhood and all its attendant neuroses and uncertainties. It could be considered a strange sibling of ‘The Crow Palace’ with its feathery hybrid. Initially putting the reader through the ringer, it slowly heads towards an unexpectedly hopeful conclusion. Then there is ‘The Sunflower Seed Man’, a story of bereavement, the struggles of single motherhood, and delicate moves to bridge the gap between a mother and daughter. Add to this the terrifying figure of the title—a cruel parody of the protagonist’s dead husband, made of seed and discarded clothes—and we have yet another powerful story that mixes the darkly fantastical ad the realistic. ‘The Ballad of Boomtown’ is set in a ghost estate of Ireland, used to great effect—as it is here—by writers such as Tana French and Tracey Fahey. Infidelity, dark secrets, human tragedy combine with ghosts of the mind and heart. Powerful stuff. Paranormal reality shows get skewered in ‘The Show’, where a manipulated and pre-scripted episode gives way to a very real and horrifying supernatural event. Though the premise might be familiar to avid horror fans, the execution is perfect; and is as much about the past and psychology of the main character as it is about the horror.

‘Pearls’ is a beautiful, melancholic, and sympathetic take on the Medusa legend, reimagining the character in modern-day New York. Whilst spending her days enjoying, remotely, what the city has to offer, she muses on her mythological history. A chance encounter with an engaging possible-suitor offers a chance to break free from the weight of the past, or risks dropping her into a hell of self-hatred. Absolutely stunning, it’s again a shorter piece which devastates and affects the reader with pure emotion; so much so, the book must be set aside at this midway point for a short time.

Another story mixing past and present in intimately intertwined threads is ‘The Absent Shade’. It concerns a man searching Hong Kong for his childhood nanny. This was a woman who, as he grew to young adulthood, became substitute-mother to him. Dependency turns to love turns to spite as family secrets spill out. A dark act sets the young man on a path he is uniquely suited for. Regret, jealousy, self-centeredness, all a play a part, and there is a hint of nihilism in this finely-paced story. ‘Small Town Stories’ is another piece about “haunted people”, threaded through an almost kitchen-sink drama aesthetic. The fantastic plays second fiddle to a heartfelt examination of a tragic incident, one ultimately caused by human imperfection. ‘Fish Skins’ is both a reimaging of the Selkie myth and a look at the cracks in a marriage. It’s also about loss, longing, regret, family, tradition, and the sometimes unbridgeable gap—or so it seems—between two people. Quietly affecting and full of sorrow. More personal hauntings in ‘The Rising Tide’. A young doctor recuperates at the old holiday home her father used to take her to in Wales. There, she thinks back to her teenage years, to a new job at a new hospital, to meeting and falling in love with a young paramedic. And to the teenage girl she treated and failed. Her own feelings of guilt rise like the tide of the title, until it seems she might drown. But it’s what’s waiting in the dark waters she must fear.

One of the shortest stories in the collection, ‘The Englishman’ is no less well-conceived. It follows the protagonist as he returns to an India he long-ago abandoned in favour of the more “civilised” environment of his adoptive England. He is slowly and surreally enfolded back into his mother country by Hindi gods and an act of sacrifice. It’s a lovey little piece which sits comfortably within the weird while still suggesting themes of culture-abandonment, social ties and constructs, the desire to “fit in” in certain circles. This is followed by ‘The Nature of Bees’, a Shirley Jackson-esque piece whose weirdness begins almost immediately. A young woman moves into a new home and soon encounters her strange neighbours, an extended—and extending—family who are deeply knowledgeable and immersed in bee-keeping. It soon becomes apparent that they are more closely linked to the behaviour of these insects than might be normal. Lovely, strange, and unsettling.

Finally, we come to the last two stories. Both are the longest works within—novelette-size, at least—and both about people who feel, and are, different from others. They are also about families; dysfunctional, fractured families with secrets. ‘A Son of the Sea’ tracks its protagonist to Ma Wan, a small Hong Kong island. There, he seeks to find out who his mother might be, following the death of his father. It is a journey filled with fractured memories, a gnawing longing, and an undefined—at least to him, at first—enthrallment with the ocean. It’s an absolutely stunning story which teases out its emotions and themes with perfection. And then there is ‘Fabulous Beasts’, about a working-class family who live in a flat under the patronage of the mysterious and imprisoned Kenny. All the players are related to each other in some way, and there is the suggestion of an inhuman bloodline. Lola, recollecting this sad childhood of hers from a position of adult wealth, recounts how she was an odd-looking child and often fell foul of bullies until the day she retaliated against one. This event highlights the power the family name has amongst the adults of the estate. When Kenny—either Lola’s father or uncle or both—is released, it sets in motion a series of events which allow Lola to grow into her full potential. Despite the fantastical nature at the core of the story, it never allows the humanity, the emotion to slip. A masterful and wonderful conclusion to a collection with not a single weak entry.

It really is an amazing volume. Without a doubt, one of the highlights of 2018 and it will take a strong work to surpass the quality of this latest Undertow Publications release. Connected not just by themes of human-creature melding, but also by an adherence to clear and poetic writing, deeply affecting emotion, All the Fabulous Beasts deserves to be read far and wide. It’s a book which ought to be on every horror fan’s shelf; not just those who love dark fiction with literary aspirations, but also those who like their horror distinctly hard-hitting and offbeat. Sharma truly knows how to walk the line between genre and literary, and if this is a showcase of her talent in the early stages, we can only wonder what delights she has in store in the future.

 

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Undertow Publications.
Hardback: (288 pps)
Release Date: 1 May 2018.

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