Review: “Tales from the Shadow Booth: Volume 4”

Just 6 months after the superb volume 3 of Tales from the Shadow Booth (which I reviewed here), “the international journal of weird and eerie fiction”, Dan Coxon brings us another. And its just as good: that’s all you really need to know. But if you want more, read on…

It begins, as all trips into the Shadow Booth begin, with a brief introductory tale. Poor hapless Peter, hoping to end his life in an upland tarn, is wrong-footed by the incongruous appearance of a tacky, gaudy, striped circus attraction. The Shadow Booth, like a malevolent TARDIS, appears and disappears without trace, having lured its victim inside.

The lead story is Lucie McKnight Hardy’s “The Devil of Timanfaya” which very satisfyingly extracts horror from the familiar scenario of a family holiday to Lanzarote. There are ghosts, and an act of hideous violence in the recent past which boils like the unstable, volcanic core of the island. If I had one reservation it’s that the final paragraph is superfluous, and by giving us a moment of explicit horror draws the sting of the tale somewhat. Nonetheless its a very pleasing story in which horror can be found in broad daylight and shimmering heat. This, it turns out, is a theme in this volume of Shadow Booth.

James Machin’s “The Tribute” is another highlight. Again, set on holiday (the south of France), again in the heat of the day, there’s a haze of unreality about this story, filtered as it is through decades-old childhood memories. This brief tale has my single favourite sentence in the collection which, although outwith the context of the tale it loses much of its power, I can’t resist quoting:

“I say ‘my sisters’, but really I should be carefully specific here: it was my elder sister and another girl, who everyone now denies ever existed”

This is a story where horror appears like a drop of ink in water: small but sudden, it spreads its influence through both the tale and the reader’s mind.

Charles Wilkinson’s “The Larpins” is also a tale with the idea of ‘tribute’ at its heart. I like the clash of the here-and-now with a dark & dirty pagan past. By this point in the collection Coxon’s sequencing of the stories proves to be spot-on.

“You Are Not In Kettering Now” by Andrew McDonnell is a short and merciless spiking of middle-class mindfulness. A headteacher thinks she can get away from it all by buying a fisherman’s cottage in France, but finds that ‘it all’ is always with you. There’s a critique of appropriation and, arguably, colonialism going on, too.

“Hardrada” by Ashley Stokes is back in a rural England reminiscent of “The Larpins” and is a gloriously dark tale of alcohol-fuelled revenge. I love how the first-person plural narration works like a Greek chorus, commenting on but also driving forward the action.

James Everington’s “Defensive Wounds” is another gem. Again, a tale ostensibly of revenge places six young women together in a remote Peak District cottage. So far, so slasher flick. They’re attacked by an axe-wielding maniac – yep – but that’s just the start, and then it gets interesting. Evelyn skilfully manipulates the reader’s expectations and gives us a visceral, much-needed fresh take on an old trope.

Furthering skewering of middle-class colonial aspirations come in Jane Roberts’s “The Salt Marsh Lambs”. A couple hope to supply top-class meat to restaurants, and to that end have bought a parcel of land & its ovine inhabitants. But did they listen to the warnings? Of course not, the idiots. The set-up may be familiar but what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in atmosphere and chills. I read this collection beside a wood-burner in a cottage in deepest Snowdonia, and this story was a perfect fit.

Tim Cooke’s “The Box of Knowledge” is a story of teenage outsiders. On the periphery of the narrow-minded society of their village, they explore the peripheries of its topography and discover a secret new venue to smoke their weed in private. A piece of landscape punk reminiscent of Gary Budden (of whom more anon) this shows how landscape acts on people even while they think they act upon it.

Polis Loiziou’s “The Hand” reads like a classic fairy tale of brutality and granted wishes, but the ending hints at a cycle that denies a happy-ever-after. I could imagine it adapted like a Sandman graphic tale.

I’ve previously reviewed Gary Budden’s Hollow Shores. His short “Collector of Games” is one of the most intriguing in the collection. I love the concept: the narrator collects and distributes games – RPG and video – that were never released or even finished. The deeper he digs into things that were never fully-formed, the darker the landscape around him becomes. Like a “Pickman’s Model” for the 21st century, full of hints, it left me wanting more.

The final story is “One, Two, Three” by Marian Womack and here I have a slight issue. My problem isn’t with the story: on the contrary, this wonderfully-realised trudge through a paranoid, steampunk Spain is arguably the most polished tale in the book. It just doesn’t seem to fit with the others. I raised in my review of the previous volume that there’s a slight gap between what The Shadow Booth is, and what it thinks it is, and this story is so different from the rest, without another tale in the volume to act as a bridge, that the effect is jarring. Perhaps the end of the book is the best place to situate such a story?

One final thing to pick up on is that there’s no biographical note for poor Anna Vaught, which can hopefully be rectified in future pressings, or on the Shadow Booth website.

These are just my highlights; there were a few stories which didn’t quite do it for me, but that’s the nature of an anthology. I look forward to volume 5, if Dan Coxon has got his breath back from this one yet.

Best stories: ‘The Devil of Timanfaya’, ‘The Tribute’, ‘Defensive Wounds’, ‘Collector of Games’.

Buy Tales from the Shadow Booth, volume 4

My copy was provided for review.

photo: Jamie Gorman

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