How does your garden grow? Dan Coxon’s, needless to say, grows supernaturally, with infinite, unruly species. The author’s new mini-collection Green Fingers is a secret garden of horror stories: shadowy, motley, but robustly knotted together by one thematic root. We jump from cabin in the woods to waggon in the snow, stumbling across invasive pot-plants, killer fungi and a Goliath gastropod on the way. But every landscape and the life within it hangs neatly in Coxon’s near-Romantic imagination: this is an author in awe of nature, of its terrifying power and potential.
With the stories ranging between eight to 28 pages in length, Coxon’s main achievement is the immediacy with which he builds suspense, and, bar a couple of slightly abrupt conclusions, his pace is measured and authoritative throughout. We feel, often, the gleeful sense of being led up the garden path, enticingly, intriguingly, without hope of ever really finding out what, why or how the collection’s strange acts of eco-terror come to pass. In the forest, we’re told by one narrator how a ‘tangle of ferns and bracken and the tall, slender trunks of the silver birches to either side leave little option but follow the path’. In the same way we too must follow, blinkered, along the trail Coxon kicks up for us.
Our guides, of course, are a classic cast of horror characters designed to get themselves into trouble: the loner who walks her dog in a forest late at night; the city folk on a woodland retreat; the estranged son taken in by suspicious villagers. The joy of horror so often lies in inevitability, watching tight-lipped as a doomed protagonist falls victim to their tragic flaw: we know instantly it’s not going to end well for Coxon’s ‘decent Christian’ who decides to play good samaritan, nor for his crooked mayor still yet to face divine retribution.
In the collection’s first story, Invasive Species, the unwitting victim is a keen gardener, recently moved into a new neighbourhood. It’s a neat little opener, in which the narrator receives a package from an anonymous sender – a plant, to put among their monkey flower, bearberry and stink current. Something smell funny? The plant, of course, begins to grow at a terrifying rate, until cracks appear in the patio tiles, crawling ominously towards the house. An act of eco-vandalism, or a projection of the character’s fears? A physical threat, or all in the mind? We never find out; from the safety of home, the gardener simply pulls the blinds on the hideous outdoors, out of denial or hopeless resignation is for us to decide.
This tension between the real and imagined re-emerges in the last story, Among the Pines, which is the simplest but perhaps the most engaging of the collection. Disturbed by screams in the night, a group of friends – holidaying at a cabin in the woods – decide to investigate, the air around them turning musty and rotten. Unsatisfied by their first inconclusive reccy through the pines, the narrator ventures out again at night, pulled by the siren call, the moon ‘thin… through the canopy of trees’. It is curiosity that does for him, as indeed it does for the son in The Pale Men, enthralled by his late father’s shady friends, and the narrator of the title story Green Fingers, whose obsession with an ancient oak tree lands her – and her poor dog, I’m afraid – in a sticky situation.
The speculative but familiar landscapes of these stories – the insular village, the woodland, the Home Counties common – seem worlds away from the snow-lined wilds of the collection’s second offering, By Black Snow She Wept, my favourite of the six tales. Set in early 19th century American hinterland, it records a wife’s encounter with a wanted man, who appears to be suffering from a foreign disease. The story has a whimsical, folky feel about it, but a framing narrative – explanatory notes by a male explorer or detective – firmly roots it in the Gothic tradition. As in Dracula or Le Fanu’s Carmilla, the separate narratives work to heighten our sense of mystery and confusion by bringing both narrators’ authority into question: Missus Hopkiss, ‘prone to extreme emotional states’, is playfully dismissed as a hysterical woman – Gothic’s all-time favourite leading lady.
Green Fingers is, then, a varied and vivid collection, to be scooped up in one sitting. Occasionally, metaphors are hard to visualise (a mushroom is ‘ripped apart like a halloween mask’, lips tingle like ‘chewing on bark’), but mostly they are fruitfully foreboding: a saw makes the ‘dry rasp of teeth on bone’; tongues on a pair of boots are pulled out and ‘panting’; a mattress stain is a ‘fossilised remnant of some long-forgotten exclamation’. With precision and pace, Coxon, from his garden, has carved out a nervy little niche in horror fiction. Only, no nail-biting – there is mud thereunder.
Green Fingers is published by Black Shuck Books and is available here.
Dan Coxon has been shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Awards, the British Fantasy Awards and the Bath Short Story Award, and has won a Saboteur Award. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, Unthology, The Lonely Crowd, Black Static, Popshot, Open Pen, Unsung Stories, Neon, Gutter, Wales Arts Review and The Portland Review, among others. He compiled and edited This Dreaming Isle, shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Awards and the British Fantasy Awards, and Being Dad, a collection of short stories about fatherhood that won Best Anthology at the Saboteur Awards. He currently edits and publishes The Shadow Booth, the international journal of weird and eerie fiction.
Reviewed by Katherine Cowles
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