On the Hill of Roses by Stefan Grabiński
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Just today I read a short, tweeted lament by author Laird Barron regarding the lack of opportunity for short story collections to be published because they "don't sell". As those of you who read my reviews can tell, I love reading (and writing) short fiction. Yes, I read novels, as well, but a good short story can dig into my brain and, sometimes, into my heart and leave an impression that stays deep-seated. lodged in there, for some time. And, I'll be honest, I'd rather take the time to read short stories and novellas because, frankly, I don't want to spend hours reading a novel that comes out as a disappointment. If I waste an hour on a short story, oh well. But if I waste several hours on a novel. Well, I'm not too happy about that. So, give me a collection of short stories any day. I love them, especially when they are as good as Grabinski's On the Hill of Roses.
The title story puts the "decay" back in "decadence". I figured out the central conceit very early on (which is, admittedly, one of the dangers of reading a lot of short fiction), but the journey to get there was delightfully atmospheric and horrifically rewarding. Well worth the read, even if you guess what's going to happen in the end. Five stars.
"The Frenzied Farmhouse" was, like the first story in this volume, predictable, but the perverse joy of the journey more than makes up for having foreseen the destination. As Deep Purple used to say "It's not the kill, it's the thrill of the chase". Five stars.
I need to read the last 1/3rd of "On a Tangent" again! It's a brilliant unraveling of sanity and reality. Something very Roland Topor-esque about this story. Literary and manic at the same time, with the redolent smell of science fiction. I will note that there are a LOT of typos here that spell-check would not pick up, but a good editorial run would have. Despite the shoddy editorial work, five stars.
The line between psychological dysfunction and the Changeling or Skin Walker is blurred in "Strabismus". Or, if you will, it is a story about a doppelganger that is not, but is the one who sees it, like a rabbit re-absorbing its young, only the young is itself. If this is not making sense to you, perhaps you should just read the story. Four stars to this enigmatic, swirling tale of borderline personality disorder(?).
Now, while I enjoy tapping the deep parts of my brain while reading - this is my "entrance" into the labyrinth of reading - I am delighted when a story goes beyond just teasing my brain and sets its hooks in my heart. The next story did just that. I have three sons. I have a hard time imagining them ever being at odds with each other for too long. So, the story-behind-the-story in "Shadows" saddened me a great deal. It's a tale of two brothers who find themselves on the opposite . . . wait, now, you didn't really think I was going to spoil that, did you? An emotional gut-punch of a tale with a touch of the strange. Five stars.
I had a hard time with "At the Villa by the Sea," at first. There was a lot, too much, of explication and info-dumping in the beginning. Thankfully, the first stretch of the tale (and it was a long one) was subsumed in the overall tale. By the end, the story unfolded like a gothic lotus, dark, dreamlike, and with it's own intoxicating odor. I started out disliking it and ended up liking it very much. Five stars, in the long run.
The recipe for the last story in the collection, "Projections": Mix one part The Stone Tapes, one part True Detective (season one, of course), and three parts ancient cultist ghost of a nun driving a man, a rather M.R. Jamesian or Robert Aickmanesque protagonist, insane. Despite the comparisons, this story (created well before TV even existed) is a compelling whole with a nasty ending that I wasn't quite expecting. Five stars!
Grabinski's writing style reminds me very much of Brian Evenson's (which I love), with anachronistic back-echoes of Roland Topor (whose name I often accidentally spell "T-o-r-p-o-r" - I wonder why) and, has been mentioned, James and Aickman. As I also pointed out, there are lots of typos in this book, which is a disappointment, but not enough of a reason to drop my overall enjoyment of the volume. It is a beautiful little hardcover, published by Hieroglyphic Press, with stunning cover art by Eleni Tsami, the sort of gorgeous artifact that only the small press seems to be doing nowadays. As long as they are putting out collections of this quality (sans typos, please), I will continue to be a champion of both short stories and the small press boutique publishers. Long live the written word.
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