The Old Knowledge and Other Strange Tales by Rosalie Parker
Rosalie Parker who, with her partner, R. B. Russell, run one of my favorite small presses, Tartarus Press, presents here, in a beautiful Swan River Press edition (another of my favorites), eight short stories of strange fiction. it is a slight volume, but beautiful, as one expects from Swan River. The autumnal cover, designed around one of Russell's pieces, create the proper mood - rich and loamy, but with a cold edge - for reading.
First impressions are important. At first, I thought "The Rain" might be a well-written rehash of the 1970 TV drama Robin Redbreast. I was so wrong! There are elements of homage (whether intentional or not) to that (in)famous drama. This is far more horrifying, yet the frisson is brought on by careful omission and ominous indicators, by what is explicitly not said or shown, rather than with the literary equivalent of jump-scare scenes. This is something Rod Serling would nod to and smile. Oh, it's five stars worth of eloquent dread!
Nearly as enigmatic, but not nearly as convincing, "Spirit Solutions" evokes the feelings of siblinghood that anyone with a brother or sister will recognize, all in the context of a night spent by two brothers and two sisters in the haunted house of their recently-deceased father. Four stars.
I was not terribly surprised by what I found "In the Garden," but was I supposed to be shocked? I don't think so, honestly. I wasn't even creeped out . . . much. A little. But I ended the story feeling a little that Parker felt I should be more scared or surprised than I was. However, I know full well that auctorial intent is seldom what the reader thinks it is or was. Still, three rowan-berry stars to this domestic(ated) tale.
As far as straightforward strange stories, "Chactonbury Ring" is, well, just that. A good story, well-told. Perhaps if there were a little more folkloric background or context, I might have enjoyed it more. But, as I said, it's a good story worth three stars.
"The Supply Teacher" is a clever little story with a clever little twist. The beautiful prose and perfectly-timed dialogue are what make it a four star story. I could just as easily see this as a novel excerpt as a short story, though it is impactful even in its current form.
"The Old Knowledge" is unrevealed until the end, and what an end! A story of barrows and witch bottles and the trickster in the dirt, as it were. Folk horror without the horror, really, but a fine specimen of the form, if not the outright oeuvre, of folk horror. This is a grim, yet beautifully capricious story worthy of five bronze or flint stars. This story made me chuckle a wile- pun intended.
"The Cook's Story" is an excellent little ditty with multiple angles of obfuscation. Definitely one of those tales that leaves you guessing, but gives several possibilities as to what really did happen and what really is happening. I'm not big on stories about the chosen subject matter, to be honest, but this is well done and a wicked little read. This story has come back into my mind time and time again, like a dog to its vomit, as they say. Be careful what you eat . . . four stars.
I might like "The Picture" best of all. A piece of Symbolist art comes at a cost, again and again and again. The ending out O'Henrys O'Henry. A deliciously twisted story that takes the notion of The Monkey's Paw two steps forward and one step back, or maybe it's taking a side road through musty antique shops and back alleys, I don't know. I have a hard time putting into words what this story does, but it does it sneaky and sinister and leaves you begging at the end. For what? Can't tell. If you're lucky, you'll find out. Five stars!
In the end, you have to admire Parker for her endings. They often work, and are always clever. Maybe a trite too clever once in a while, but still, you can tell she's honed her storytelling craft. I'll often read, and sometimes state, that a collection is "worth it" for this story or that. This collection is worth it for all the stories. Some more than others. But altogether, this is a nice little meal - not too much, not too little - of strange tales to read by a warm fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa. You'll want just a hint of chill in the air. And if you can't crack open the door to let it in, The Old Knowledge will do it for you.
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