“Intriguing, entertaining and genuinely creepy.”
Lovecraftian anthologies seem to be all the rage right now so inevitably publishers are having to come up with original twists of the format in order to stand out from the crowd. Crystal Lake Publishing’s spin is to assemble five of the finest purveyors of fantastical short stories and have them produce five inter-linked stories centred around the mysterious gated community of Priory that creates a kind of novel in five parts.
Opening story ‘The Subprime’ by Gary Fry sets the tone for the collection with a story that showcases the very best elements we have come to expect from an author superb at getting into the psyche of his characters.
Lee Mann works in the mortgage industry for the intimidating Mr Philips but has become disillusioned with this competitive sector and uncomfortable with some of its dubious practices. When he confronts his boss with his desire to quit the business Mr Philips invites him to a dinner party at his home in the gated community known as Priory and asks him to hold off making a decision on his future until after. Things take a turn for the strange at the dinner party and it becomes clear that Mr Philips has an ulterior motive for his invitation.
There is an abrupt change of narrative viewpoint in the story that, had this been a stand-alone piece, may have lost the reader. However, it works beautifully in the context of this being the introduction to the Priory and sets firmly in the reader’s mind that anything can happen within its walls.
Next up is ‘Impossible Colours’ by James Everington who is carving out a strong reputation as a writer of well observed, unsettling fiction.
The story centres around Michala, a community support officer having to deal with casual racism and sexism within Exham police station, who finds herself drawn in by the contents of a diary left amongst the effects of a recently deceased local who had been obsessed with the goings on at Priory.
Bringing the theme of racism to the forefront but without becoming preachy it’s a competently told tale, that utilises Marty Young’s diary entries to create a duel narrative as Michala investigates, but ultimately feels like it peters out rather than having a dramatic resolution. Perhaps a necessity of the form of the collection than a fault to be levelled at the author.
The third story is by the ever impressive Stephen Bacon. ‘Stolen From The Sea’ is a haunting, emotional piece with the sort of finely observed characterisation we have come to expect from this author’s pen.
Ryan is a resident of the Priory who, travelling home one night, comes across Natalie and gives her a lift. Ryan’s life is perfect; he has a loving wife, a beautiful son, a wonderful home and a respected place in the community. When tragedy strikes he begins to question his place at the Priory and the implications of his life there. His wife becomes distant and obsessive about the Priory and he finds himself drawn to Natalie.
As with the Gary Fry story, this perhaps works better as part of the inter-linked stories than it would as a standalone but it offers up a really evocative depiction of what lies at the heart of the Priory and its devastating climax leaves the reader in no doubt about the threats that lurk in its depths.
V.H. Leslie’s ‘Precious Things’ has, at its heart, another keenly observed relationship that becomes strained as the insidious nature of the Priory takes hold.
Petra and Bernard are in the later years of their life, settled into the sort of comfortable routine that a long-term partnership engenders. When Bernard begins to become ever more reclusive in his study Petra becomes concerned and seeks to find the reason for his odd behaviour and his increased interaction with the unsettling Charles Erich and his house at the end of the street.
It’s another strong story, this time feeling more self-contained, even though it has many ties to the other stories, and you really find yourself rooting for Petra to triumph whilst at the same time feeling tense that she likely won’t. The only criticism would be that the depiction of the layout of the Priory seems contradictory to the stories that have preceded it, but as we had an early review copy these may have been altered so we won’t dwell on them.
Tasked with tying the whole thing together is Rosanne Rabinowitz with her story ‘Meat, Motion and Light’.
The main character here is Claudia, the young black girl from Gary Fry’s opening story now a teenager, who returns to get answers to strange occurrences that still trouble her years later. Also making a return appearance is Caitlin, the wife from Stephen Bacon’s tale who has become even more fervently devoted to the Priory’s cause.
Racism is once again a theme here although, as in the Everington tale, the author stays well away from using it in a way to lecture to the reader, and the escalation of tension is again well handled and palpable. The climactic scene, which serves as such not just for this story but also for the collection as a whole, is triumphantly handled and, managing to be both wondrous and icky, is the highlight of the book.
In his afterword Editor Joe Mynhardt details some of the genesis of the project: the Priory first appeared in an as yet unfinished story of his own, and the many hundreds of emails the authors exchanged in order to create a cohesive whole from their five individual stories. It’s time and effort that has paid off as the finished book is intriguing, entertaining and genuinely creepy.
Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing
Release Date: 4 May 2015
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