Review: “Tales from the Shadow Booth: Volume 3”

Oh, this is good.

First, declarations of interest: I supported the initial Shadow Booth anthology on Kickstarter. There were some superb stories (Malcolm Devlin’s ‘Moths’ in particular) but I wasn’t impressed enough to buy volume 2 when it came out last year. If it’s as good as volume 3 I’ll be rectifying that shortly.

Additionally, my copy was supplied for review but that changes nothing: I’d be singing its praises anyway.

The idea of The Shadow Booth is to explore “that dark, murky hinterland between mainstream horror and literary fiction”. The title and cover artwork are suggestive of horror but the contents (and this is a good thing) are more easily described as “weird”: there’s little straight-up horror on display. The stories demonstrate how broad a field “weird” encompasses, and that’s good too. I just wonder if there’s a slight disconnect between what The Shadow Booth thinks it is, and what it actually is. A minor niggle.

I enjoyed all the stories: some more than others, as is usual with anthologies. These are my personal highlights.

The collection opens with ‘Cousin Grace’ by Jill Hand which has the best opening paragraph you’ll read this year. The story doesn’t go where I thought it would – not necessarily a bad thing – and becomes instead a moving meditation on grief. The weirdness – a single event, really, in which Grace’s dreams emerge into reality, or else she disappears into them (either reading is possible) – is understated and, as with several of the stories, left unexplained. It takes confidence to know when to explain and when not to. Explain too little and the reader’s suspension of disbelief fails to lift off; explain too much and the story undermines itself.

Nick Adams’s ‘Demolition’ may owe something to China Mieville’s ‘Covehithe’, but this isn’t a bad thing. A shopping centre scheduled for destruction rebels against its fate and goes on the rampage like a wounded animal. Wonderful imagery abounds:

“the noise of the rusting bones of the structure pulling themselves apart sounded like popcorn kernels exploding one after another”

…which suggests both shopping-as-entertainment and the condemned building’s death throes being treated as a spectacle. Also:

“the escalators that ran through its innards will be turned to the outside and will grind on the grass and mud for fruitless purchase”

Even in death, the dying structure grows and mutates. The story is told in the implicitly unsettling future tense, which brilliantly makes the entire story conditional: will this actually happen at all? A darkly comic elegy and meditation on modernity and nature, I loved this story and look forward to more from Adams.

Judy Birkbeck’s ‘Meat’ unfolds in a Royston Vasey-like town in the north of England. Fenella has recently moved there with daughter Saskia, but unlike the teenager, Fenella is suffering assimilation anxiety. She does not quite fit, and the locals’ attitude to her is bewilderingly changeable. The dissonance she feels is heightened by (as the title suggests) the focus on bodies and their destruction: nature feeding on itself, or the lorry-loads of animals en route to the slaughterhouse. Birkbeck keeps the atmosphere on a queasy knife-edge that reflects Fenella’s unstable sense of belonging.

Tim Major’s ‘Hangers-On’ also features as its lead character a woman uncertain of her position in a group. In this case Katryn is in York for a weekend with her old ante-natal class. Bodies are, as with ‘Meat’, a concern: pregnancy, birth and the hanged criminals whose death give the story its name. The tale races toward a climax as Katryn – alienated from her group – is overwhelmed by the physicality of bodies. That it breaks off mid-sentence is entirely apt.

Another highlight is the superb ‘The Cherry Cactus of Corsica’ by Verity Holloway which I re-read immediately to see how the author had done it. Teacher Kurt becomes increasingly concerned for the welfare of one of his pupils. As he becomes entangled with the boy’s peculiar family background, Holloway starts to ratchet up the sense of unease. The ending is very satisfying and had me turning back to spot the clues I’d missed. One of the best short stories I’ve read in a while, I’ll keep an eye out for Holloway’s work.

Editor Dan Coxon (who brought us the recent – and excellent – This Dreaming Isle) is fast becoming a name you can trust. Roll on volume 4.

Published on April 11th, you can buy The Shadow Booth Volume 3 here.











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