Shadows & Tall Trees 5 by Michael Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I owe my writing career to the small press. My first story published in print appeared in the February 2001 issue of Indigenous Fiction. Since then, my work has appeared in over 50 venues, some of them prestigious or popular, but most of them in the small press universe (both literary and speculative). So, feeling nostalgic, I bought a copy of issue 5 of Shadows & Tall Trees. The cover art is amazing, and the submission guidelines rang a happy bell in my head, the kind that says "you just might like this".
Now, I've done a little editing here and there. I'm pretty keen on having a unifying theme or at least a unifying sense of atmosphere in the anthologies I edit (or have edited - it has been a while). Still, I understand that most anthologies and magazines are mixed affairs. As Stepan Chapman once said, remarking about Leviathan 3, "there's something for everyone to hate".
While I didn't truly hate any of the pieces in this (let's call it what it is) short anthology, it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride, in terms of quality. I was a little worried, at first, as the introductory story really didn't do it for me. "New Wave" gave too much away early on. Today, on NPR, I heard the writers of Breaking Bad extol the virtues of telling a story by what is not said. I tend to agree with them. Give the audience 2+2 and let them figure out it's 4. Unfortunately, this story seemed like it felt the need to explain everything. It gave me 4 - I'm giving it a 2, as in 2 stars.
"Casting Ammonites" was much more moody than the first piece. It left enough unsaid, building the skeleton of a story around the bones of dialogue between two characters, but leaving the meat of the narrative up to the reader's imagination. This helped create mystique that added to the brooding nature of this 4 star piece.
"A Cavern of Redbrick" telegraphed the ending way too early. Still, it was a decent story; 3 stars worth, at least. One note: A lot of these stories had children as either protagonists or narrators. Long ago, I was given advice by Jeff VanderMeer, with whom I was editing Leviathan 3, at the time. He said, in essence "never include children in your stories - it's too easy to rely on sentiment to get a response from the reader". I've only spurned that advice a few times (all of them here). It's good advice for you writerly types. Writing about children often slips into child-like writing, which is not good if you're not writing a children's book.
"Laudate Dominum (for many voices)" continued in the same sombre mood that pervades the earlier stories. Again, the author "telegraphed" a bit too much for my liking. As soon as the narrator stated that his milk was sour, the gig was up - I had a pretty good idea of what was coming. The surreal central conceit of the story, however, knocked me back on my heels. So, despite knowing (view spoiler)[that the narrator had been drugged (hide spoiler)], I found this an enjoyable, very creepy, 4 star story.
"Moonstruck," by Karin Tidbeck, was the jewel of the anthology. It is a brilliant piece of speculative absurdism that avoids becoming silly. I was reminded of one of my favorite authors, Italo Calvino, which is some of the highest praise I can give to a story. The main child character in this fable is held in check by her staid, logic-driven mother. By far the best story in the volume, and possibly worth the cover price alone. 5 enthusiastic stars!
"Whispers in the Mist" is a ghost story set on its head, a'la The Others. At least that's how I read it. It was more emotive than most pieces in this volume, but not super compelling. I liked it, didn't love it. 3 stars.
Interestingly, this volume of Shadows & Tall Trees contained a non-fiction piece entitled "A Woman's Place". This essay examines Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper in the context of fin-de-siecle feminism. It was an intriguing take on Gilman's story, with little substantiating evidence (in the form of cross-referenced sources). The reader in me enjoyed it, the trained historian bathed it in red ink. Still 3 star worthy.
"The Other Boy" continues in the child-as-central-figure vein. I really enjoyed the characters in this family ghost story, but it was a very slow read. 3 stars.
The volume closes out with "Widdershins," the story of an American expatriate in Ireland who finds himself enmeshed in the local scene a little more than he would have liked. This story is an excellent example of giving 2+2 to the reader. I give it 4 stars.
From a rough statistical viewpoint, the anthology rates a 3.44. But, given the absolutely stunning cover art and the fact that editor Michael Kelly can keep a theme (children) and an atmosphere (brooding and a touch sad) running strong throughout, I have to "cheat up" to a 4 star.
Seriously, you've got to read Tidbeck's story. Wow.
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