BOOK REVIEW: Fortune Box by Madeleine Swann

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I first discovered Fortune Box when I saw it appear in Kendall Reviews best books of 2018 – these guys know their thing when it comes to horror fiction, so why don’t you pop on over and give them a follow…you might just end up unearthing some fabulous works in the process too!

So, after seeing this appear on Kendall’s books of the year and reading up on the book, I couldn’t stop my fingers searching it out and purchasing the eBook.

Fortune Box is broken up into nine separate chapters, or shall we call them parcels – each story delves into the strange appearance of packages arriving from a shadowy  organisation called Tower Ltd Surprise Packages. The contents of each parcel is different, and turns the lives of the recipient inside out and upside down. It’s a marvellous concept for a short story collection, and the Bizarro / Weird fiction mastery on show by Swann is a joy to behold – with each story being so outlandish, so off the wall, that all bets are off…as Forrest Gump might say ‘You never know what you’re gunna get!’.

I am a huge fan of weird fiction, I also write a fair bit of it myself – so discovering this new voice (well to me anyway) in that field, I couldn’t wait to get started, and Swann’s offering did not disappoint.

Parcel 1Seed Man – After a string of disappointing dates and longing to find the perfect man to go with her perfect date, Meera comes home to find a parcel awaiting her from Tower Ltd Surprise Packages. She opens the package and discovers that she can actually grow her very own perfect man and enjoy that oh so perfect date she’s been craving. So, Meera sets about wining and dining her new man. We soon discover though that no matter how manufactured things are, how perfect they all seem, everything has a way of being corrupted, being changed for the worst – I felt as reading we soon find out that the issue may lay with Meera and not the male company she has been craving, as we see her perfect man soon corrupted by the selfish, self obsessed, defiant Meera – the body horror elements of this for me brought to mind the greats such as Clive Barker and David Cronenberg. Swann delivers a masterclass in the weird and the wonderful and this is only the first story!

Parcel 2Humane Traps – This one is balls to the wall crazy, and I have to say I loved it. Another mysterious package arrives this time to a student hall. We get from the background information, offered by Swann that there is a lot of backstabbing and many a fractured argument that takes place in this dorm. But Cassandra has received a new gift in the post that may change all of that. She opens her package to reveal a small cage a humane trap has been delivered. It’s small, very small. So, one night annoyed at the bickering in the house, and not sure what to do with the trap she leaves it in in the hallway, hoping someone may trip over it, and off she goes to sleep. When she awakes in the morning the majority of her housemates have been trapped inside, shrunken within the confines of the metal bars. Like small little Mogwai’s, trapped and angry. We all know what happens to Mogwai’s if you don’t follow the instructions carefully – unfortunately for Cassandra this box didn’t come with any and she has to love with the consequences!

‘A police car screeched to a half beside them and two officers leapt out, yelling at Alicia to get down. Alicia didn’t pay any attention, simply carried on chewing merrily on windpipe.’

Parcel 3This is Your Life – A man receives a book in the post, inside which is every intimate moment, every thought he’s ever had – his life written in witty anecdotes. There is space at the front for a signature, should he sign? What happens if he does? What will his life be if he doesn’t? So he signs. When he awakes the next morning he’s responsible for the next best seller, he’s a celebrity. But at what cost. He enjoys the fame, the recognition, the fun of it all, but he also has to face the fact that his life is now common knowledge, people reading his darkest secrets and personal regrets. He also has to deal with the online trolls and the bad publicity. A witty culturally relevant story with weirdness coursing through its veins!

‘He wanted to hit her, to keep hitting until there was nothing left…’

Parcel 4Eat me Drink Me – This was my favourite story of the collection it was right up my street with regards to weird fiction and the body shock literature that I like to read and write. The package has a glass bottle saying lies and a muffin with writing on it saying truth. She makes her choice and swallows. Our protagonist starts to develop a rash on her arm, the rash spreads like wildfire, swollen lumps begin to move under her skin, creeping to the surface covering her entire body, as the days pass and the lies keep coming. The final reveal is gore-tastic and right up my street! Horrifically beautiful, a real gem in the collection.

‘The thought of seeing the eyes again was too much. She felt them, though, as they swivelled and searched for her, making moist glowing noises. She put her hands over her ears and screwed up her face against any tears threatening to escape.’

Parcel 5Engineer – This story is bizarro at its very core and another fabulous offering from Swann. Focusing on Millicent the wife of an aloof Dr. Melford (who’s a bit of a misogynistic dick), she is unhappy with the neglectfulness of her husband and her lot in life. Their boiler breaks and it’s now fallen to Millicent to get in fixed. She opens the box that arrived in the morning from Tower Ltd Surprise Packages and a man jumps out informing her that he is there to fix the boiler. What transpires next is more of a counselling session between Millicent and her boiler, who talks about being ignored and not included – he’s in a way mirroring Millicent’s own disproval of her circumstance. The story is odd but amazing, the way Swann personifies the boiler is exquisite and when we are reading, it’s odd, but you never doubt the fact that this crazy thing is happening.

Parcel 6Cabinet – Mark finds a picture inside his box from Tower Ltd – it’s of the cabinet that he sold on eBay but the purchaser failed to turn up to collect, so it is currently occupying the driveway outside his house. The picture is hand drawn and has a treasure map of sorts (instructions) of where he needs to take it. Mark takes the cabinet to the location and skulks off to wait in the shadows to see what is to come of this strange request. Mark watches as people begin to shuffle along, open the cabinet and placing items inside, people continue to show up until there is a queue of people waiting to put their items in his cabinet, leave them there for a few moments before taking them out and going about their business. After the crowd dissipates, Mark feels it’s safe to go back to his cabinet, as he opens it he realises that there is a wad of money inside. An ominous figure appears from the shadows asking if they could purchase his cabinet offering £2000 as its an original Leminski. To a skint Mark this is a mouthwatering prospect, what he does next will change his life dramatically. Another fabulously intricate and deftly  constructed piece by Swann which builds to a dramatic and bold climax.

‘”Just to see your books on one of these shelves for ten minutes is a…privilege…not easily forgotten”‘.

Parcel 7 Cleaning – Two questions awaited Nicky when she opened her box. Do you crave a change? Would you do anything to start a new life? She ticked both. When she awoke she was suddenly moonlighting at an odd etherial establishment, which paid well, but meant she had to do a lot of odd jobs, with even odder outcomes. It seemed like purgatory to me, an odd take on that old chestnut. The story itself felt a little rushed, there was such a unique landscape to be used and played with, but I felt it wasn’t explored as much as the other stories, but it’s a small blip on what is a great collection, if it were longer and Swann could play with the interesting dynamic she had created so well it may have had more of an impact on me.

‘…never mind the weird aches and pains she couldn’t medicate just in case, what really disturbed her was how gloopy her organs felt, like a garden bursting with life after a long winter. She missed her safe, dry groin body. Now she felt on the edge of shitting herself or otherwise leaking fluid like an alien rejecting its human host.’

Parcel 8A Rusty Key – a young student receives a rusty key, and on touching it an ornate old oak door appears in her wall. The room in which she disappears into is more like the entrance to a grand hotel, the reception desk is empty, a grand staircase leads up to a number of rooms. The place she finds herself is where all her creative endeavours have been locked away, still being played out in this strange time warp of a hotel. Her podcast she created, still continues to replay and run itself, her TV pilot continues to run but still as awful as she remembered. It’s an interesting idea that Swann deploys and I loved the thought of there being these huge places where our past endeavours are collected and collated. Once again it felt a little rushed to me and the conclusion seemed to come from nowhere – but the themes and story are a marvellous idea, I just felt it needed a little more time to fester.

Parcel 9Leaflet – This is an ingenious little tale, I love it when authors splice dark comedy into their weirdness, and Swann excels, both in this collection and with this story in particular. She sets the scene so well, that we are just there enjoying the whole situation unfold, flies on the wall watching the crazy explode. A man opens a box to find a leaflet that details ‘How to win friends and have a jolly good time‘, it’s a guide that he follows to the letter. The dark comedy sewn within this tale is brilliant, it’s very different from the other stories within the collection and shows Swann in a different light too…a fitting end to a great collection.

So, there we have it, a whistle stop tour through the fabulous Fortune Box which was more like discovering the horrors that lurk inside pandoras box. I’ve tried to leave a little to the imagination with each synopsis of the parcels within the collection, but I wanted to offer enough that you may feel enraptured to purchase a copy. The best thing is that there is such variety in Swann’s stories that everyone will find something they love about it – if you are into bizarro / weird fiction this is a pretty tidy book to add to your collection.

Swann splices moments of gritty realism, gory body-horror and dark comedy into a bubbling cocktail of disturbingly delicious delights.

Fortune Box is published by Eraserhead Press and is available here.

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Madeleine Swann

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Madeleine Swann’s second novella, 4 Rooms In A Semi-Detached House, was published by StrangeHouse Books, and her first was part of Eraserhead Press’ New Bizarro Author Series. Her short stories have appeared in various anthologies and The Wicked Library and Other Stories podcasts.

She makes weird sketches with a friend at DADAkitten. Keep up with her writing at madeleineswann.com and her twitter at www.twitter.com/MadeleineSwann

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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