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Book Review: Shadows and Tall Trees, Vol. 7, edited by Michael Kelly

“A good mix of established names and relative newcomers, Shadows and Tall Trees Vol.7 is a fine showcase for some of the very best in Weird fiction.”

Shadows and Tall Trees, vol 7 coverIt’s safe to say that, at the moment, horror writing is in something of a golden age; if not necessarily in terms of sales, then certainly in terms of breadth, scope, quality, and diversity. And it could be argued that the most rapidly evolving facet of horror are those stories—and writers—classed under the umbrella term, The Weird. There are many arguments to suggest that The Weird is not simply a subset of horror, but a wholly defined genre in itself, but those discussions must take place elsewhere for now. Suffice it to say that horror and The Weird share many of the same concerns, intentions, themes, and imagery. The boundaries definitely seem to overlap and mingle more than other related genres. This blurring of the lines is also reinforced by many writers who seem equally as comfortable in both camps, some switching effortlessly between the tones, some managing to infuse their stories with elements of both.

Which brings us to Shadows and Tall Trees, vol. 7, from Undertow Publications, one of the finest publishers of Weird fiction. The anthology is edited by Michael Kelly, who, through his press, seems determined to bring the world the very finest in Weird/horror writing, having produced an impressive number of anthologies, collections, and specials, many of which have gone on to win major literary awards. Beginning as a periodical magazine, the Shadows and Tall Trees series has now progressed to full book format in order to include more writers and stories.

And an impressive volume this is. The first four stories (‘Line of Sight’ by Brian Evenson, ‘Everything Beautiful is Terrifying’ by M. Rickert, ‘Shell Baby’ by V. H. Leslie, and ‘The Attempt’ by Rosalie Parker) serve to whet the appetite for the rest of the book, being equally well-written, atmospheric pieces which are nevertheless, highly original and distinctive. What they do share, though, is a similar propensity for mood-setting, for the ambiguous. That is not to say they are incoherent, but they certainly don’t spoon-feed the reader, either; much is left to interpretation, with currents of meaning and depth shifting throughout and within. And whilst none are especially mind-blowing, they are still lovely examples of the craft, setting the tone for the rest of the book.

Things take an upward shift in gear with Conrad Williams’ ‘The Closure’, an achingly lovely meditation on the past, the present, and regret, infused with bitter nostalgia. It’s a wonderfully ambiguous ghost story, perfectly realised. Following this, is the exemplary ‘The Water Kings’, by Manish Melwani, which again deals with the past, this time of familial transgressions. Gorgeously written, with some chilling scenes, wonderful dialogue, and a shifting narrative, it is a true highlight. Simon Strantzas gives us ‘In the Tall Grass’, another story dealing with loss and love. It’s a singularly strange story, as befitting The Weird (or plain weird), and yet Strantzas manages to convey deep emotion and empathy for his odd, tree-child. Evocative and engaging.

‘The Erased’ by Steve Rasnic Tem is a nicely realised and downbeat slipstream piece which evokes the spectre of dementia/mental illness, yet it feels like it could have—should have?—been more. Things take another huge upswing with Robert Shearman’s ‘The Swimming Pool Party’, in which a separated mother tries to deal with the barriers which exist between her and her teenage son. Utterly compelling, nightmarish, it carries—to this reviewer—the vaguest whiff of a pagan-ish Stepford. Another highlight. ‘We Can Walk it off in the Morning’ by Malcolm Devlin is a nicely atmospheric ‘lost in a strange landscape’ type of tale, though it adds little of originality to that kind of tale. It also feels as though more could have been made of its setting, despite also the sense that it runs on a little too long. Robert Levy’s ‘The Cenacle’ is a grim meditation on grief and loss, with some striking imagery embedded in its final pages, and a lovely line in what seems an original mythology. Though the first couple of pages of ‘Slimikins’ offer a little confusion, Charles Wilkinson soon pulls it back in a masterful and spiralling narrative which tightens as it trots towards its final, chilling scene.

The next three stories (‘The Voice of the People’ by Alison Moore, ‘Curb Day’ by Rebecca Kuder, and ‘Engines of the Ocean’ by Christopher Slatsky) all feel tied together by narratives which are—for this reader—just a little too ambiguous, too nebulous. Though well-written all, they have about them the sense of the unfinished, though perhaps there is also a measure of the subjective in that.

‘Sun Dogs’ by Laura Mauro is a wonderfully evocative piece which feels almost like a Weird West tale. It also utilises to perfection the tricky and rarely-used second-person perspective, giving us more insight of both the protagonist and the subject of her inner monologue than perhaps first or third might have. Another fantastic story from Mauro. Michael Wehunt’s ‘Root-Light’ takes us to a strange, colonial house in a rural setting, which may be some odd kind of hospice. It is, perhaps, the most definitive Weird tale here, driving forward with striking imagery and little explanation, beautifully written, and utterly compelling. ‘The Triplets’ by Harmony Neal is a wonderful little piece which mixes East European paganism with the shallowness of the worst kind of Western parenting. It’s amusing, sardonic, and sharp. Finally we have ‘Dispossession’ by Nicholas Royle, a very short, but very affecting story which treads that line between ambiguity and clarity with ease. A great tale to end the anthology on, despite its brevity; its final lines linger long in the mind.

All in all, a very fine and high-quality anthology. A good mix of established names and relative newcomers, Shadows and Tall Trees vol.7 is a fine showcase for some of the very best in Weird fiction. Undertow Publications clearly demonstrate an ongoing commitment to putting out some of the best and most strikingly designed books on offer today in the horror and Weird fiction genres.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Undertow Publications.
Paperback: (306 pp)
Release Date: 2 May 2017

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