Mike O’Driscoll on short story collections by Georgina Bruce and Aliya Whiteley
The two collections reviewed here appear under Black Shuck Books’ ‘Shadows’ imprint, whose intention is to bring readers a ‘pocket-size sample from the best in modern horror.’ With collections from the likes of Gary McMahon, Brian Evenson and Simon Avery – whose A Box Full of Darkness was a highlight in the series – the publisher is doing a pretty good job in providing a home for non-mainstream genre short fiction and novellas.
The stories in these two collections are linked, Aliya Whiteley’s by theme – Fearsome Creatures (2020) gives us five unique takes on some of Horror’s classic monsters – while Georgina Bruce’s stories explore the psychological and psychic impact of the titular House on the Moon (2023) on their protagonists. With that baleful influence to the fore, perhaps one might have anticipated Bruce spinning a tale of lycanthropy, but the closest she comes to it is in the disturbing social satire ‘All Too Red’. Baker Fleet is a global superstar, albeit one who seems less in control of her career decisions than, say, Taylor Swift, and more subject to the whims of social media, as well as to the demands of the men in her life. As a construct, there are conscious parallels with Ziggy Stardust, not only with Baker’s obsession with the moon seeming to evoke memories of the Starman, but also when she envisages herself being devoured by her ecstatic fans. She’s just been given the biggest gig of her career – to compose the theme song for an Elon Musk financed expedition to the house on the moon, an event that will be followed by most of the planet’s inhabitants. Baker herself is as fascinated by this House – whose presence on the moon is never explained – as anyone else, but it also prompts violent nightmares in which she sees her lover brutally murdered. Perhaps these dreams are prompted by the external forces that shape her public image – what better than for the moon anthem’s composer to have an affair with Mike, the lead astronaut on the expedition? And of course, his being Ukrainian comes with added social kudos. But just as the full moon can unleash werewolves, so the influence of the house seems to liberate Baker from these pressures and social constraints. If, ultimately, this liberation is temporary, she does get what she wants – the elusive song – and the moon as a convenient scapegoat.
In contrast, in ‘The Roses are Sighing’, the house seems to be a locus for the memories and yearnings of a husband and wife, two former astronomers whose perceptions of the life they shared seem at odds with each other. It’s a subtle and elusive tale that speaks of the fragility of memory, and of the fear losing one’s tenuous hold on the past. Whereas the moon gives Baker Fleet license to slaughter, here, the protagonists agree that there will be no blood in what we infer is a suicide pact.
Another astronaut – the replacement for Mike the Ukrainian – narrates ‘In Maksimir Park’, in which a day spent with his lover, Maya, who urges him not to go to the moon, is, through the memory of Baker’s song, conflated with a moment of crisis from the actual mission. The astronaut’s argument with Pam, his co-pilot, about which of them killed a third member of the rocket crew, echoes his fraught discussions with Maya about what really happened to Mike. He struggles to distinguish between dream and reality and is powerless to prevent the moon from having its blood sacrifices.
The two strongest stories feature women struggling to hold onto or re-establish their sense of self. In ‘Don’t Be Clever’, Suzanne takes a holiday alone in Croatia, disappointed in her husband’s failure to understand her reaction to the house on the moon and the sense of longing it prompts in her (he dismisses her feelings as the menopause – in a wonderfully deadpan moment, he tells her he ‘heard about it in Sainsbury’s’). It’s an acutely observed story with Suzanne as an unreliable narrator who ensures our sympathies, particularly with regard to her fractious relationship with the annoyingly self-regarding Dee, a new age type and self-proclaimed Highly Sensitive Person. Suzanne listens to songs by Baker Fleet and reads theories about the moon house proffered by Elon Musk and Jordan Peterson. All she wants is peace and quiet, but Dee’s smothering positivity serves as a reminder of the reality she’s trying to escape. The ending is both unexpected and brutal, casually wrongfooting the reader.
An unsettling and paranoid air suffuses ‘In Real Life’. The female narrator finds her relationship with boyfriend Zoran beginning to break down after the discovery of the house on the moon. Already ripe to conspiracy theories post-Covid, he begins to gaslight her, claiming the house is a hoax perpetrated by NASA. Soon, he’s questioning the reality of birds, suggesting that they are drones, meant to spy on us. As he becomes increasingly housebound and paranoid, accusing her of bigotry and fascism, she finds herself drawn to Iris, a woman she meets at an observatory where she goes to stare at the house on the moon. Iris encourages her to break with Zoran. The ending is particularly bleak and in keeping with the other stories, suggests the impossibility of escaping the insane rabbit hole of conspiracy and delusion.
Whiteley’s stories explore a more familiar terrain but are no less macabre and surreal, and, like Bruce’s are leavened with moments of dark humour. In ‘Day of the Dog’ the switching on of a giant air freshener is the trigger which drives a town’s canines into frenzied attacks on the populace. Alice, in a bar with boyfriend Petie and barman Marcus, decides they should escape, but Petie wants to turn off the machine in the hope the dogs will return to normal. They go with Alice’s plan. Forty-eight years later, Alice, long since married to Marcus, breaks into Petie’s house to dissuade him from plugging in a giant deodoriser. It turns out Alice and Marcus have been engaged in a long term guerrilla war against the manufacture of mass smells, and fear Petie’s deodoriser will precipitate another bout of animal madness. The story is mildly bonkers but hugely entertaining, offering a wry commentary on the drive to homogeneity of consumerist society as well as evoking the memory of countless movies – Cujo, Tremors, the Swarm – where nature strikes back.
In ‘A Very Modern Monster’ Eve returns to Exmoor to tell her Uncle George of the death of his sister. Her visit prompts memories of the Beast of Exmoor, a mythical creature blamed for killing and mutilating sheep in her youth. George invites her to visit and spend some time exploring the moor. At first reluctant, Eve eventually takes him up on his offer, and on the first night in his isolated caravan in the woods, they talk about the beast, with George insisting the beast is not merely some escaped wild animal, but an actual monster. Eve’s scepticism – she sees no place for monsters in the modern world – is undermined when she wakes up alone with ominous sounds coming from outside. Determined to leave the next day, George persuades her to accompany him on a trip to a cave where they find the ripped open body of a pony. In the back of the cave, they hear the beast humming. Eve is terrified and flees. She accuses George of trying to myth-making, but he insists the creature is real. He nurtures it and tells her some day it will get the better of him. A few years later she learns that George has disappeared, presumed dead. She watches the local news as stories begin to appear about a new Beast roaming the moor.
‘Luisa Opines’ is a real oddity, part fairy tale, part satirical comment on social/marketing surveys that attempt to mould our preferences. Luisa is an orphan living in a house in the woods with an aunt and there’s a big, bad wolf, but it’s what Whiteley does with these old tropes that invigorate and turn the narrative on its head. The wolf – named Peel – is employed in carrying out consumer surveys; Luisa is possibly his only interviewee but, having spent her whole short life in the woods, she appears ill-equipped to take part in Peel’s surveys. Undeterred and fascinated by Peel, Luisa nonetheless offers opinions on everything from crime levels in the woods, to the ranking of the qualities of hand soap. The story is quirky and surreal, and concludes with a great line that signals Luisa’s refusal to accept certainty.
I was less taken with ‘Wrapped’ which offers a variation on the theme of the Mummy’s curse, here played out as a tale in which a female Egyptologist’s central role in the discovery of the death mask of a female pharaoh, is downplayed. Ursula’s marginalisation by her male colleagues mirrors the erasure of Khefatra from her own position of rightful ruler to consort of Ptolemy XIII. Ursula’s fate calls to mind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s haunting ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, but Whiteley’s handling of similar themes is laboured, in spite of the genuinely powerful climax.
Nature, or some corrupted version of it, is at the heart of ‘The Lovers That Lie Down in Fields’, a subtle tale of vampirism in which the earth itself requires the blood of young lovers in order to renew itself. Will’s awkwardness with the socially superior Phoebe is beautifully conveyed and the manner in which their mutual desire overcomes their shyness is convincing. One thing that irked me though, at the start of the story the girl is referred to as Sarah, then Imogen, until finally she’s named as Phoebe. Although it’s not clear, I imagine the intention is to signal that both young woman have been earlier victims of the hungry earth, but the possibility of some editorial oversight somewhat undermined the story. Nevertheless, both collections are fine additions to the Shadows series. ∎
Mike O’Driscoll is the author of horror, crime and fantasy fiction whose work has appeared in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best New Horror, Interzone, Black Static & elsewhere. His story ‘Sounds Like’ was adapted and directed by Brad Anderson as part of the Masters of Horror TV series. You can find him on Twitter @MikeODriscoll6 and at his website: www.mike-odriscoll.com.
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