BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow Booth – Volume 3 Edited by Dan Coxon

The beauty of The Shadow Booth is that, though we’ve been blessed with Volume 1, and indeed Volume 2, there’s no telling what we’ll find inside a third time round.

There’s a strange canvas structure propped against the wall, a hand-made sign scrawled on a scrap of cardboard. Enter the Shadow Booth, it says, and you will never be the same again.’

Eleven writers adorn the pages of Volume 3 – each distinct in their eerie weirdness; the oddness they wish to present to the world. That too, is the beauty of an anthology that is solely based in weird and eerie fiction; the strange and the unexplainable. There’s little chance you could predict what you’re about to read. It’s not ghosts and vampires – gothic horror it ain’t, it’s all a lot more sinister than that. ‘The Shadow Booth explores that dark, murky hinterland between mainstream horror and literary fiction’. Edited by Dan Coxon, the anthology is a delight to all those who revel in something unusual.

Though I’m not always one for order, it would be foolish of me not to mention the first piece, ‘Cousin Grace’ by Jill Hand, well, first, as the opening line sets the tone in delicious fashion; “cousin Grace liked marzipan, standard poodles, and the actor Jean Reno. Three years ago her house ate her.’ The anthology gets weirder from then-on. Turns out, no one quite believes that Grace was eaten by her house. Her cousin, who narrates the piece – ‘we grew up more like sisters than cousins, raised by our maternal grandmother’ – is adamant Grace hasn’t just disappeared. There’s a total lack of evidence, and a dream Grace had about a door – ‘Grace described the room in her dream as being furnished like an old-fashioned parlour”. This dream recurs, Grace closer and closer to going inside. As is the nature of the tale, the end solves little. Grace’s house is eventually sold, and she never returns. Did she actually disappear through the door, or has she gone missing? Perhaps more could’ve been done to elongate the mystery surrounding such a strange occurrence, nevertheless, ‘Cousin Grace’ demonstrates a vital part of weird fiction – that meeting point between the peculiar and the everyday.

Demolition’ by Nick Adams follows, and again, we pass through the intersection between our reality and the potential for abnormality. It all starts fairly regular – an old shopping centre is to be demolished as a new one has been built just out of town. Yet it spirals from there when said old shopping centre appears to come to life. More sinister is that it’s making its way towards the new one – ‘this shambling thing will be seen propelling itself forward on blunted pillar-legs.’ Crowds gather and gawk until it is finally blown to pieces. Yet these pieces are sentient, and it begins a life of reconstruction – ‘tourists […] come to see what the mall has become.’ The concept of ‘Demolition’ is as fresh as it is interesting. The pathos it made me feel towards a building [which I didn’t expect] suggests the deftness of Adams’ writing.

From here I’ll drop out of review the pieces in their natural [contents] order, mainly as I read them randomly. More often than not I’m drawn to titles. ‘Meat’ by Judy Birkbeck is the sort of title that promises an unnerving tale. This is weird fiction after all. Here we have Fenella and Saskia, her daughter. They’ve recently moved to a town in the Yorkshire Dales, though nothing its quite as it seems. [Just as a side note here, I’m from the Yorkshire Dales, and can attest to many a strange thing happening on a daily basis.] Birkbeck throughout captures the town in vivid description, the recurrence of the lambs and pigs heading to slaughter, the butcher shop – of meat there is plenty. More than that though, there seems to be a sort of doppelgänger of Fenella’s in town. Perhaps it’s something more sinister. Clues are littered throughout – Saskia mentions seeing her mum in the village, yet her mum never seems to see her. There’s the woman in the art class too. It’s a neat tale that teeters with intrigue. It never gives too much away, leaving us to figure out the inconclusive ending.

Intrigue makes its mark in ‘Hermit Island’s Hermit’ by Armel Dagorn too. Beyond the bay there is a shack and a tale – ‘an old hermit lives there in the ruins on top of the island.’ A young man decides to check it out for himself. ‘If he finds something he’ll be a hero […] if not, he’ll laugh at them […] did you really believe in this bogeyman?’. I don’t want to give too much away here because the piece – short as it is – works well on suspending you in a conclusion that requires a second read. As Dargorn ends it – ‘that might just be this world tricking him.’ Clocking in at four pages, it demonstrates both control and pacing – how to write weird in few words.

Suspending you in the strange is a key element of weird fiction. The setting is familiar – a school, shop, hotel room [etc] but what’s going on there is anything but. Richard V. Hirst nails it in ‘The School Project’. A tale that grows into itself the further you read, here we have some school children in a gym, Mr. Latimer – ‘our only teacher, and, apart from our own parents, the only adult we see everyday’, and Mr. Sally, an inspector.  Though perhaps at the start you may well predict it will all go a bit south quite quickly for the school inspector [which it does], Hirst captures an uneasy sense of calm within his narrative; a sort of matter of fact tone which only serves to elevate the strange menace of the school. There’s nothing like someone openly and coolly admitting they’ve murdered a bunch of people to set you on edge.

School makes an appearance in Verity Holloway’s ‘The Cherry Cactus of Corsica’, [cracking title] too. The circumstances are just as unsettling. There’s Joshua, a young college kid, usually well behaved, but gets caught drinking cherry schnapps in the common room by Kurt, a tutor. There’s Joshua’s uncle too, Mr. Wismer, and Shane – his brother? Well, you’ll find out. Joshua’s parents died in an apparent accident and Mr. Wismer has taken him in, yet as the tale unfolds, largely due to Kurt’s embroilment and attachment, it turns darker. Holloway has the knack for keeping you guessing. Shane is an ominous inclusion, and when Kurt calls up Miss Faith, a former teacher of Joshua’s, the mystery deepens. This is another piece I’ll refrain from concluding too solidly, as the twists and turns are what make it so readable. Though there’s some competition, ‘The Cherry Cactus of Corsica’ is one of the darkest tales to be found inside The Shadow Booth.

It’s unsurprising that inside The Shadow Booth dwells darkness – both physical and metaphysical apparitions of it. In ‘I Say (I Say, I Say)’, Robert Shearman unearths a composite blend of darkness. Humour is to be found, jokes, more specifically. The piece starts off as the age-old joke – ‘there was this Englishman, and an Irishman, and a Scotsman’. Heard it before? Bet you haven’t this version. The three of them work together constantly, seemingly kept in a place for comedians and entertainers, where you can move up the ranks – expand into knock-knock jokes and the like. There’s the appearance of a daughter too, although whose daughter is anyone’s guess; she has no tongue, and they can’t hear her accent. ‘I Say (I Say, I Say)’ is an oddity for sure, the ending more affecting that I could have ever predicted. Standing out as one of the strongest tales of the anthology, Shearman’s writing here is adept – playing with just how expansive weird fiction can get.

Another strong piece, though they each hold their own, is ‘Ten’ by Gregory J. Wolos. Set near the Mexican border, a woman named Jenna is picked up by Claude in curious circumstances – ‘look for a young woman in a yellow raincoat. It might be bloodstained. She could be wearing a wig, because she doesn’t grow hair’. Jenna is caught up in something, and there’s a baby too. Claude keeps her, or perhaps she stays, existing oddly together. Claude spends his time in the room with her, carving tool in hand – ‘he’s fashioning […] poster sized versions of the small woodblock prints produced by Yoshitoshi […] Claude’s expansions hang on Jenna’s walls’. Another piece the revels in revealing rich details quietly, the ending of ‘Ten’ is wonderfully done, the title too, more than just a coincidence.

And just as connection and revelation is thematic of ‘Ten’, ‘I Have A Secret’ by Raquel Castro wanders a similar path. Translated by Lawrence Schimel, ‘I Have A Secret’ again tips us back into familiarity tinged with something that is never quite right. There’s a secret [as the title suggests]. Told from the POV of a young boy Emilio, the narration captures an equal sense of naivete and fear about his secret. You see, his Mama is ill. When she returns home, Emilio is convinced he isn’t really is Mama – ‘doesn’t she look different to you? She even smells different.’ The conclusion serves another slice of weirdness – Emilio and his Mama/not Mama connect – ‘when my head touched hers, I knew that although it was very old and it wasn’t my Mama, I knew it had a good nature’. What, or who, or even if the tale is true leaves more questions than answers, though in this case, it works to every advantage.

The insides of The Shadow Booth are towering – the tales, a multiplex of ideas. The final two pieces to mention, ‘Hanger’s On’ by Tim Major, and ‘I Am’ by Annie Neugebauer again delve into the weird abyss.

Hanger’s On’ sees Katryn take a trip to York with her Bump and Babies group. A city I know well [it’s about 20 minutes from my house], Major plays on the touchstones and folklore surrounding the city to elevate tension. Ghost tours, the rivers of blood ‘spilling down the cobbles of the Shambles’, and the children who were ‘known to […] pull at the feet of the folks being hanged, who were often members of their own family […] hence the phrase […] hangers-on’. The latter detail sets Katryn adrift. She wanders the city walls alone the next morning, spooked still. In the end she decides to make her way home – back north on the train, the notion of the ‘hanger’s on’ fresh. Her husband and children wait on the platform, her scarf is tight around her neck. Train doors close, and then…well, I’ll let you guess the ending. The tale takes time to get fully going, but the closing paragraph is a joyous moment of suspense, Major laying the traps throughout.

And to the final piece, more novelette than short story. ‘I Am’ by Annie Neugebauer is another stand out of The Shadow Booth. A tale that takes the pieces of the puzzle and scatters them far and wide. We begin on an island, but we don’t stay there. There’s mention of a bomb that lead to such strange circumstances, but nothing is ever quite what it appears. The title here is significant – the sense of ‘becoming’. The woman of the piece is dead – we are told, and she is in a strange Groundhog Day cycle with elements of purgatory or an in-between place throw in. This, of course, is my own interpretation. It’s a piece that gives only minimal answers. In fact, as we weave from the island, to a creature, to a door, to dolls, to a man in a booth whom the narrator asks – ‘where are we’, ‘what is this place’, ‘why am I here’, more questions than answers arise. Each time, she becomes what she is. She is the island, she is the doll, she is. Towards the end the narrative flips – we hear from the things she has become – ‘another version of myself and of my making caught in this endless loop’. To quantify the tale is perhaps too easy, or too difficult. It’s one to be devoured. The prose keeps you guessing, the sense of unease from the narrator a constant. It serves the tale well, closing out The Shadow Booth on a high.

Each author in The Shadow Booth delivers on the weird – each tale as curious as they are strange. The series itself is brilliant too – three volumes of fiction that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. Go get a copy and fall inside, you won’t [hopefully] regret it.

The Shadow Booth Vol 3 is available here.

Authors

Nick Adams, Judy Birkbeck, Raquel Castro, Armel Dagorn, Jill Hand, Richard V. Hirst, Verity Holloway, Tim Major, Annie Neugebauer, Robert Shearman, Gregory J. Wolos.

Reviewed by Emily Harrison

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