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Book Review: The Little Gift by Stephen Volk

“A roadmap to places the reader thinks they know well, only to discover Volk is leading them into unchartered territory.”

The Little Gift by Stephen Volk - coverThe Little Gift begins like so many good horror stories, with a bump in the night. However, this particular disturbance serves less as a Lewton nightbus, even though there is a cat involved, and more of a Proustian jolt back in time. While his wife weeps over the lost beauty of the broken bird in his hands, the narrator hums to disguise the final destruction of the bird. A hint at the constructed obliviousness they may or may not share about a time in his past, a time when he felt his wings were being clipped and something needed to die to set him free.

The heart of the story deals with those issues. A middle-aged family man enticed by a forbidden lust that evolves quickly into a yearning love. While the genres may appear to swap or mutate in this arc of passion and sex, Volk uses cunning literary devices to keep the reader on the edge. Between each encounter there are concealed trapdoors in the spaces between the words. When a sentence or paragraph ends the reader may question what they had just read. Going back, they’ll only see small suggestions, but seeds have been planted deep within the mind. This almost hidden story is the genius at play here.

It’s easy for the reader to think a simple tale of deceit brought on by a mid-life crisis is just that. But even the woman in question, Ghislane Hammond, evokes supernatural folklore in her words. Stephen Volk enlists the rules of Eastern European vampiric traditions, such as the invited guest, to subvert this section of crisis for the narrator. A writer with such command of language as Stephen Volk has to mix and play with the rules makes this seem easy. Though it’s anything but.

There are even hints that certain words have double meanings, maybe even treble at times. All of this combines to build an intoxicating confusion inside the reader’s mind. When nothing is as it seems, how can the reader be sure what will happen next?

While contemplating these matters, and the associated guilt for prying on the narrator’s destructive actions, the reader is then suckered into the real horror. The death hinted at in the opening section with the bird, the cat’s little gift, may be the loss of man’s life as he knows it. A family gone, a wife abandoned. But it may also be something deeper and more horrific than any metaphor may intimate.

The Little Gift plays with genre and teases the reader with diversions along a Robert Frost-like road. When the narrator is faced with the fork, they realise it’s not always in the hands of a person to decide which road to take. Sometimes little gifts are dropped at our feet with disgust. It’s only later we realise momentary diversions lead us on journeys that take the wrong roads for the right reasons. In The Little Gift, Stephen Volk makes the reader question every twist and turn, every genre shift and each precise choice of language. It’s a roadmap to places the reader thinks they know well, only to discover Volk is leading them into unchartered territory. A place where true life horror resides.

ANTHONY COWIN

Publisher: PS Publishing
Paperback (80 pps)
Release Date:  31 March 2017

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