Ruby by Nina Allan

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As the tales of Ruby progress, one thing soon becomes apparent – this world is not as it first appears. Author Nina Allan pulls us down a rabbit hotel of intense possibilities, warping the narratives into bizarre, absorbing, stories in this beautifully written collection. Allan takes us a journey through opposing times, places, and genres, captivating us with a whirlwind of lyricism.

Ruby was first published back in 2013, under a different title, Stardust. However, this updated version from Titan Books has been ‘thoroughly revised’, and also includes the addition of a brand new story. On her website, Allan details that she initially imagined Ruby as a linear novel, but that over the course of the writing process it morphed “into something more complex and fragmented,” resulting in the collection of tales we see today.

The binding character of Ruby Castle – the horror actor turned killer who infiltrates all of the central characters’ lives in some way – does have the makings of a perfect novel protagonist, her fascinating story allowing for a ready-made plot that would be certain to entertain. However, in Ruby, we’re instead treated to a much more intricate series of stories, in which Ruby Castle instead appears in fleeting glimpses, echoing the sinister environment of the circus from where she first hailed. By capturing her impact through a series of loosely related snapshots, Ruby is able to achieve that dynamic, ambitious element of storytelling where a novel would have perhaps missed out.

The pacing of each story, in particular, is so intense and consuming, something that wouldn’t have been possible in a longer, linear piece of writing. Allan effortlessly picks up characters, deeply investigates them, and just as easily places them back down again. We move through interactions and places and even time periods with such magical ease, that it’s hard not to feel quickly engrossed in the narratives. We whisk through the characters’ experiences and their connection/interactions with the famed Ruby Castle, in a whirlwind cinematic rush.

Allan creates this dizzying effect of almost disorientating the reader; the tales often felt akin to a ‘choose your own adventure’ type book – it’s easy to see how the whole narrative could have altered had a different path been picked, and we almost feel as though we’re joining Allan/the characters and they guide the plot with their choices. These tales manifest a mind of their own, and Allan works wonderfully to keep them under her grip, yet also allows their uniqueness to form something so inspiring.

The stories of Ruby dance from the streets of recent London to the baron wilderness of Siberia in 2029. We’re stranded in a forest in Tenerife, after traversing the home counties as part of an eclectic circus troupe. There’s no consistency to the sense of place in Ruby, but gloriously so. In each environment, whether far from our own or just around the corner, Allan roots the reader there. The level of research undertaken is fascinating; Allan takes every small detail into consideration when forming the setting, an incredible achievement when you consider too, the short length of each tale. Each story rarely stays in one place either, but Allan manages to effortlessly bounce us from one place to another.

The element of light is something that is done particularly well and played with in such a fun way, too. Whether it’s fostering a warm, welcoming environment, to showcasing the addition of something much more sinister at play, the light in Ruby is almost literally visible.

“The light was almost gone, the sky a bruised purple, the pavements shone as bright as mirrors beneath their varnish of rain.” – The Gateway

This subtle way of displaying horror in Ruby is echoed through the stories in the collection. While it would be easy to focus on the bloodbath nature of Ruby Castle’s actions and almost psychopathic personality, Allan shies away from resorting to cliched tropes, instead opting for a more menacing and ominous way of teasing out the theme. The everyday is inverted; we’re presented with dark characters, existing entirely normal lives. There’s the influence of traditional tales too, placed in the modern-day for a mystical, disquieting effect.

“Her eyes were a liquid black. Her frizzy dark hair looked a mass of tangles, matted together like a piece of old carpet.” – The Lammas Worm

The image of the circus comes into play throughout the collection, in some stories more strongly than others. Allan recognises our disturbing fascination with the unusual, and weaves it into the lives of the characters, picking out particularly dark images that drive the stories towards a spooky ending. While Ruby Castle herself abandons the ways of the circus and settles for the life of a film star instead, we’re left questioning whether the two worlds are really so dissimilar? One is merely a polished version of the other, yet the unsettling rituals, the blackened history, and the sinister-like nature of the industries are evident in both realms. As we come to see, Castle’s unsettled nature overwhelms the preened perceptions of Hollywood, as her life as a horror star becomes her lived reality.

As we move towards the end of the collection, our sense of what’s real and what’s imagined begins to blur even further, culminating in an explosive final story that ties the previous tales together. As our characters have consistently doubted themselves and what they are seeing, the ending story of ‘Red Queen’ also causes us to now question our own memories – people, places, and events are repeated, and we’re left wondering just how concrete these images are.

The dramatised worlds that we, and the characters, are accustomed to seeing in Ruby Castle’s films, are gradually seeped out, forming an imagined truth. It leaves the reader flicking back through pages, rediscovering overlooked moments, and ultimately, searching for meaning in the horror of the everyday.

Ruby is published by Titan Books and is available here.

Nina Allan

Nina Allan’s debut novel The Race was shortlisted for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the BSFA Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. Her follow-up The Rift won the BSFA Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. She has won the BSFA Award for Short Fiction, the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire, and the Aeon Award. She has been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award four times and was a finalist for the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award. She blogs at ninaallan.co.uk.

Reviewed by Mariah Feria

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