Book Review: Nothing is Everything by Simon Strantzas

“A showcase for a writer who ought to be on the shelves of every devotee of dark, weird fiction.”

 

It’s safe to say that Undertow Publications—in addition to producing some of the most beautiful books around—is home to some fantastically talented writers. Look no further than the publisher’s annual Year’s Best Weird Fiction, guest edited, alongside Undertow owner Michael Kelly, by a significant author each year. Or there’s the occasional anthology such as Aickman’s Heirs and the Shadows and Tall Trees series. These books can be taken as a sample of the intent behind the press, a way for readers to familiarise themselves with the type of stories UP put out. But the main purpose of the publisher is the continuous output of collections by some of the brightest talents currently working in the weird fiction arena. Works by Priya Sharma, Conrad Williams, Eric Schaller; the list goes on. The latest release is Nothing is Everything by Simon Strantzas, a writer with accolades from the likes of Angela Slatter, Kathe Koja, and Lynda E. Rucker.

 The collection opens with ‘In this Twilight’, a story that sets much of the tone for the rest of the book. On the surface, not much seems to happen beyond the interaction of the two main characters—one a young woman fleeing home from everything, the other a dishevelled young man with lazy charm. Yet there is a sense of unease, of almost-glimpsed secrets behind the words and images, before the curtain is partially lifted and we are shown wonder and awe. In this, the subtle threading of the strange and indefinable with an otherwise everyday scene is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson and Ray Bradbury at their best. That’s not to say Strantzas’ writing is derivative; rather, he is pursuing a modern and personal take on a similar style. It’s a voice which permeates much of the other stories to one degree or another. In ‘Our Town’s Talent’ this faintly offbeat atmosphere continues. A strange town that may be in the future or the past is shaken from its traditional—and unchanging—child’s talent show by a newcomer. Slowly, the cliques and strict social hierarchies break down, are thrown into fluctuation. Eventually, the wives and mothers, long shackled to their positions and routines, rediscover their names and their powers. It is at once a metaphor for emancipation, for self-determination and a feminist call to mobilise. Yet the driving, measured prose, and wonderous imagery make it as much a compelling piece of fantasy. ‘These Last Embers’ might be the shortest entry, but it’s no less enthralling. Returning home to find her parent’s house damaged by fire, Samantha tries to reconnect with a mother and father she barely recognises, and her twin brother who seems to be absent. A bizarre and impossible sight in her brother, Lemule’s room only adds to her sense of displacement. This is a lovely, slipstream story which offers little in the way of easy answers, much like the other pieces here, but plenty of atmosphere and intimation. A dark, modern fable with flashes of transcendence.

‘The Flower Unfolds’ concerns an office worker stuck in a rut and an accidental discovery of a botanic garden at the top of her office block. Shy, anxious, and socially phobic, she encounters a strangely alluring man who initially breaks down her barriers. Yet soon, her life and mind seem to be slipping from her carefully structured existence. Beautifully rendered and achingly painful, it is another work that suggests a kind of freedom and confidence can come by embracing the unfamiliar, by facing anxiety head on. ‘Ghost Dog’ details a future town suffering after some unknown apocalypse in which heat pervades all and the creatures of the title invisibly harry the remaining denizens. Narrated by a teenage girl with a deep, rebellious streak, it is by turns sardonic, terrifying, and emotionally affecting. There is a central mystery to be unlocked, but even when it appears to have been, Strantzas is far more interested in pushing the rebel nature of his protagonist as far as it will go. Subversive and not content to follow conventional narrative paths, this is highlight in a book full of exemplary stories. Next, the author gives us ‘In the Tall Grass’, a story that deals with deep loss and love. Following the death of her husband, Heike buries him in the soft dirt in the long grass. Years later, Baum is born, a strange son made of twigs and branches and Heike eventually decides to take him on a road trip. Strantzas manages to make such a bizarre concept seem utterly natural and real. In fact, he imbues the story with a heavy sense of melancholy and emotion. One of the more obviously weird tales here, yet it is, perhaps, one of the most affecting and human. Beautiful and almost indefinably sad.

Next up is ‘The Fifth Stone’, a narrative that follows a girl’s life into adulthood, and her finding of a number of unique stones that cause her excruciating pain when she touches them. Not too much can be said about this one for fear of diluting the effect. Suffice to say it’s another wonderfully subversive tale that manages to surprise with its ending. ‘The Terrific Mr. Toucan’ is, like the title, terrific. A richly detailed depiction of a married couple thirty years together, and his birthday surprise to her. Told in a compelling, natural-sounding second person voice, we are taken by Jeffrey (the husband) to a strange theatre/restaurant for the evening’s entertainment. Yet nothing goes as expected. The meal never materialises, and the magician—the one form the title who is performing that night—runs through his first act in clumsy and amateurish fashion. But it is the second half that showcases some real magic, dangerous and wild. Weaving in and out of the active narrative are thoughts of the daughter, Molly, and her absence from the couple’s life. The story is a perfect and seamless mix of melancholic human drama and genuinely awe-inspiring fantasy, each one informing and enhancing the other. Gorgeous stuff. ‘Alexandra Lost’ follows the title character as she and her new boyfriend take a road trip to see the ocean; the first time for her. What should be a romantic getaway turns dark and uncertain as she first ruminates on the nickname her father gave her before he, ironically, disappeared, then continuously loses their place on the map. Yet her boyfriend. Leonard, seems to know exactly where he’s going. Strantzas subtly crumbles the foundations beneath us, filling us with quiet dread, before flipping the tone in an unexpected yet wholly naturalistic fashion.

Finally, we come to ‘All Reality Blossoms in Flames’, the longest story by far, here; novella length. And yet it reads so fast that it seems over before it should be. Art restorer Mae Olsen encounters a mysterious stranger, Halton Graves, who she subsequently discovers has ties to a “terrorist” group, Enfants Terrible. This group engages in high-profile vandalism and theft of various artwork; sculptures, installations, and, of course, paintings. Their intent—to stop art from being commercialised. Mae is pulled into the orbit of this group against her will, though part of her comes to sympathise with their philosophy. She herself had dreams of becoming an artist, and Graves argues that to be a true artist—as he believes her to be—one must be a rebel, must follow their inspiration and not conform. Of course, this all might be flattery to get her to do as he wishes … This story is the absolute crown jewel in a collection of excellent works. It pulls the reader in, with precise and expansive prose, detailing every instance of Mae’s thoughts, worries, emotions, desires, and anxieties. It also suggests form the outset a hint of the esoteric, the otherworldly. This is built on and expanded in the later scenes until we are shown a vision of apocalyptic wonder. It truly is an exceptional piece, a cornucopia of literary insight, of fantastical imagery, of philosophical and thematic concerns. Wonderful stuff, and one that leaves the reader wanting more; not because they are unsatisfied but because they cannot get enough.

Strantzas writes with confidence and clarity, his words solid and weighty. Ironic then, that his subject matter is so often about the uncertain, about the intersection of mundane reality, the exceptional, and whether any of it is really real. Though his stories share similarities; all, apart from one or two asides, feature diverse, realistic, and believable female protagonists. All are written with the same, focussed voice. Yet the concepts are endlessly inventive, the themes varied and unique. It’s another stunning release from Undertow and a showcase for a writer who ought to be on the shelves of every devotee of dark, weird fiction.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Undertow Publications
Paperback: 274 (pps)
Release Date: 16 October 2018

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