Book Review: Arterial Bloom, Edited by Mercedes M. Yardley

“Following on from Crystal Lake Publishing’s hugely successful Tales From The Lake series, Arterial Bloomwill sit proudly alongside those tomes and, undoubtedly, the best anthologies that 2020 has to offer.

 

Arterial Bloom, edited by Mercedes M. Yardley - coverIn the introduction by the ever-eloquent Linda D. Addison, the Stoker award-winning author and poet touches on the bravery in editor Mercedes M. Yardley’s decision to curate her first anthology without a theme. She goes on, though, to touch on a strand that ties these collected tales together, that being a sort of dark poetry. A beautiful darkness. Reading this assembled cast of tales, it’s difficult to think of a better way to describe what draws these disparate tales of monsters, apocalypses, cosmic beings and serial killers together. Addison also speaks of closing the book and allowing herself to ponder for a moment at each story’s end. It quickly becomes apparent that the emotional gravity of each of these stories almost demands such a response.

The opening tale, ‘The Stone Door,’ by Jimmy Bernard, sets up with three sisters and all of the tension that implies, living together and taking shifts peddling a standing bicycle. Bernard peels back the layers on their relationships and the reasons for the reason for their obsessive cycling expertly, beginning with this central, unfeeling symbol of the titular stone door. Long before knowing what the door is for, the reader is gripped and that pull is unflinching until the finale.

‘Dog (Does Not) Eat Dog’ by Grant Longstaff zooms out the lens and presents the world after an apocalyptic event, painted in such lush language that its all-consuming ‘Everstorm’ seems almost beautiful. This story works on multiple levels, on one hand exhibiting snippets of a world in ruins and the societal breakdown that follows, while on the other zeroing in on two men and their relationship. Old friends, reunited by chance during or after the catastrophe, the friction between them is uncomfortable from the off. The reader is strapped in, discomfited, but unable to look away as their divergent paths and personas are laid bare.

Linda J. Marshall’s ‘Kudzu Stories’ takes a rather more playful approach, providing much needed respite after the weighty content of the first two tales. Here we find linked vignettes in a small town on the bayou, laying bear unfaithfulness, criminality and general animosity, tied together—both literally and figuratively—by the kudzu vines as they weave their way, almost knowingly, into a variety of situations.

‘Dead Letters’ by Christopher Barzak is a part-epistolary story, written to and from a deceased young woman. The non-epistolary elements follow one of the letter writers as they try to uncover how the death came to pass. This is another which unravels itself and gradually reveals its truth, hooking the reader until its thrilling conclusion.

Naching T. Kassa’s ‘The Darker Side of Grief’ is a tale so beautifully crafted, it’s tempting to call it prose poetry. We discover a young boy, ‘haunted’ by his recently deceased mother, and his father who is struggling to keep it together. The strength of this wonderful story, beyond its stunning language-craft, lies in the shades of grey in which it is painted. Ambiguity is omnipresent and the reader is pulled skilfully in one direction and then the other throughout.

‘Welcome to Autumn’ by Daniel Crow begins with a rain-soaked journalist arriving to interview the wife of a missing artist. As they sit and talk about the artist’s work and subsequent disappearance, autumn imagery becomes the focus, beautifully articulated.

Kelli Owen’s ‘Still Life’ starts with a body, desiccated in a dry riverbed, then follows the curiosity it generates, from grotesque murder-tourism to the artistic value found in this still life of sorts, by the protagonist. This tale is another example of finding beauty in the darkest of places, unsettling the reader by rendering the horrific in such artful tones.

‘Three Masks’ by Armand Rosamilia is a story amplified by its wicked delivery. There are three differing views of a relationship between couple, each so different, in so many ways that the reader begins to wonder how they might be tied together. When the reveal is delivered, it knots the sections together so expertly, the reader has no choice but to applaud.

John Boden’s ‘Doodlebug’ is a story delivered in micro-chapters, which somehow only seem to add to the urgency with which the reader devours it. We are presented with a character, Marta, who obsesses about fire. Piece by painstakingly assembled piece, we discover what lies behind the obsession.

‘Happy Pills’ by Todd Kiesling sees Marcus, a man with depression so severe he has a name for it: ‘the absence.’ As he begs his physician for new medication, she recommends him for a medical trial, the results of which are beyond what anyone might expect. One of the creepiest of the tales presented in the anthology.

Jennifer Loring’s ‘What Remained of Her’ is perhaps the most difficult story in the anthology, in terms of subject matter. The protagonist, Jamie, tries to find out who is behind the murder of her sister. As Jamie delves deeper into what happened, the language in which the story is told is bold, and at times starkly direct. Compelling to the end, it’s impossible not to be shaken by it.

‘Blue Was Her Favourite Color’ by Dino Parenti finds another child grieving for a lost mother, this time a girl, Milly. Through her father’s eyes, the reader watches as this quiet child maintains a vigil, taking flowers of her late mother’s favourite colour to her grave. Her father’s curiosity about this ritualistic behaviour leads the way for the reader to discover what is really behind it.

Ken Liu’s ‘In the Loop’ begins with the protagonist’s killer drone operator father losing the threads of his sanity, paving the way for the protagonist—his daughter—to work in battlefield A.I. trying to make a difference. Without preaching or overdoing it, this story is layered with moral questions and frames them perfectly within the narrative.

‘The Making of Mary,’ by Steven Pirie sees the goddess Gaia, living disguised as a regular woman, Ruth, and deeply in love with her lover, Mary. The story strikes a fine balance between an insightful and humorously realised existence in a hum-drum town in Britain and the appropriately horrifying climate crisis message which underpins it.

Jonathan Cosgrove’s ‘Mouths Filled with Seawater’ presents the reader with an unstable, confused narrator, trying to make contact with a girl she believes she knows. Another of the stories in this anthology which takes time—and multiple twists and turns—before reaching its resolution, this tale is tense from the off and does a great job of evoking sympathy for the main character.

‘Rotten,’ by Carina Bissett borrows themes and motifs from a variety of well-known fairy tales, then knits them together into a beautiful tale of abuse and redemption. The descriptive language here is so stark, so stylised that it leaves a strong impression on the reader after the last page is turned.

Arterial Bloom is an anthology which is hard to pick flaws in. Each of its sixteen stories contributes to the whole, in both subject matter and depth of feeling. The way the table of contents has been crafted together delivers an ideal ebb and flow of pace, length and tone. Following on from Crystal Lake Publishing’s hugely successful Tales From The Lake series, Arterial Bloom will sit proudly alongside those tomes and, undoubtedly, the best anthologies that 2020 has to offer.

KEV HARRISON

Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing
Paperback: (234pp)
Release Date: 2 April 2020

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