Joy Silence (joysilence) wrote in darkling_tales,
Joy Silence

New Undertow Anthology

I never got round to reading any issues of the new weird fiction magazine, Shadows and Tall Trees - I didn't have much money when it came out and, to be honest, I prefer my fiction in books rather than magazines. So I was pleased to see that the regular magazine has now morphed into a yearly anthology of the same name, edited by Michael Kelly. There is an arty, high-faluting vibe about the whole endeavour, with the cover blurb making the bold claim that Shadows and Tall Trees is "an anthology of exceptional literary merit". But is this so much puff or do we really have a great new contender in the world of weird fiction/horror anthologies?

From the title and charming cover art by Santiago Caruso, I was hoping for plenty of "pagan terror" stories in this book. In fact there are only two stories that fall into that category, but they are the best in the anthology for my money. The first is 'Apple Pie and Sulphur' by Christopher Harman, a terrific writer who has distinguished himself many times before by incorporating Jamesian terror mechanisms and a love of the countryside into his own weird slant on the supernatural tale. His 'By Leaf and Thorn' stood head and shoulders above anything in the recent Strange Tales 4 from Tartarus Press and his offering here is also good, with a feeling of suffocating dread infusing a narrative about a group of everyblokes who patronize a cafe in some woods in the Lake District and live to regret it. The British landscape really comes alive in Harman's stories, full of a hypnotic, sometimes beautiful but often malignant life - it's no mere backdrop.

'The Statue' by Miriam Frey comes a close second, though it's hard to compare two stories that are so different in content, tone and execution. This is a brief but charming sylvan fantasy about a "man whom the trees loved" (as Algernon Blackwood might have put it) and I hope to see more of Frey in future. Robert Shearman's 'It Flows From the Mouth' also has a more rustic, garden setting than he usually employs (though the author has such a varied output it's hard to say exactly what Shearman "usually" does.) It's an odd but effective story based on a man's fraught relationship with his close friend which blossoms into terror via some sinister statuary in said friends' garden. Anyone who's read L.P. Hartley's 'The Two Vaynes' will know how much fear can be extracted from the subject of statues, and the theme is not wasted here, with a conversational prose style driving things along and preventing the whole thing from floating off into airy-fairy meaninglessness.

The rest of the stories have an urban or purely psychological theme. There are several big-hitter authors here: Conrad Williams provides 'Shaddertown', in which an older woman's trip underground on a guided tour of the tunnels under the old Manchester Guardian building provides her with a key to her troubled past. It's not one of his best stories but it's not bad. R.B. Russell is well represented by 'Night Porter', a fairly memorable piece of hotel-based nocturnal strangeness. Kaaron Warren is another writer who seems to crop up everywhere these days, and 'Death's Door Cafe' is a high concept story with a moral message - always hard to pull off, and not really my cup of tea. I really missed Joel Lane's presence - the collection is dedicated to him and he would certainly have been at home here.

Where the lesser-known authors are concerned, I think the best story was by Alison Moore - "Summerside" deals with the trauma of moving into a new home and discovering it's hidden side in a simple but vivid and effective way. Many of the other stories involve capital-C concepts and formats that attempt to innovate on the old cliches of horror fiction (Michael Wehunt's second-person riff on murder 'Onanon' is probably the best of these.) This is a good thing, though quite a few of these gambles don't really come off and the overall feel of the collection is a bit anaemic. The stories tend to cover ground that has already been well-trodden, especially in those old Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Fiction that involves bizarre, unreasonable and inconclusive events just suddenly happening requires a certain amount of "oomph" and considerable beauty of style to avoid the feeling of laziness on the author's part (though I'm not suggesting any of these writers actually are lazy.)

Still, Shadows and Tall Trees does make a good palate-cleanser for those tired of run-of-the-mill pulpy fare. It's a refreshing change from all those collections dominated by steampunk and zombies. And I'm pretty sure that's what Kelly set out to do, so on that count it's definitely a success! And it's also very attractive for an affordable paperback, even by the high standards of publishers Undertow (formerly Nightshade) Press [ETA: Wrong! Skyhorse, not Nightshade, as it happens.]
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As claimed, Undertow has consistently brought out excellent tales of the uncanny with literary merits. I think it's possible that some of the stories that didn't work for you may possibly be victims of the expectations you brought to the book. Where you see a need for either resolution of "oomph", I feel that refusing to resolve uncanny events is part of the point of these stories, rather than lazy storytelling. The point of view I come from, though, is one where pulpy stuff is palate-cleanser after a long period with complex and ambitious work. I hope you'll give S&TT another chance now that you have a feel for it is are trying to do.

The periodical editions of SHADOWS AND TALL TREES are actually perfect-bound books, rather than magazines. Apart from occasional non-fiction content, there's not a lot of difference in flavor or presentation between them and the anthology. Regardless of the format, the work in them is highly worth seeking out.

Alison Moore may not be as well-known as she should be among weird fiction readers (although aficionados have caught on to the fine work she is doing for Nightjar Press). She is well-recognized though in the mainstream, where she was a Man Booker finalist in 2012 for THE LIGHTHOUSE and is regarded as a potential new star.

Undertow has always been Undertow. Night Shade is a different press with a very different focus. They were bought by Skyhorse and perhaps that's the change you were thinking of.
Thanks for the correction on Night Shade Press, I've corrected my post! I regularly make mistakes of this kind in my reviews, it's what I have instead of a memorable prose style.

I don't fully remember what expectations I brought to this book, so I can't say if they harmed my appreciation of it. I have a dim memory of expecting it to be poncey to some degree, but that's all. That "long period with complex and ambitious work" sounds rather painful and I would never personally undertake such a thing without keeping a tube of Deep Heat handy, but to each their own I suppose. In answer to your question I will certainly "give S&TT another chance" - if you think this was a bad review you should read what I wrote about Stephen Jones' last anthology! - and am also waiting for Aickman' Heirs to come in the post as we speak. The last Stranzas anthology for Gray Friar was a corker so I admit that I do have high expectations for that one!

*what it is trying to do.
Sheesh, my fat fingers...
*what it is trying to do.
Sheesh, my fat fingers...