Lauren James’s book The Side Effects Of The Medication is one of the strongest short story collections I've read all year, and almost certainly the best from a début author bursting into the party out of nowhere. The stories veer between horror, crime, and even science fiction. The tone is equally varied, James handling black comedy and grim horror with equal aplomb. She even writes a story in the second person that doesn't sound awful.
Fences starts the collection and it’s a riveting tale about the fear of our neighbours, and of trespass. Marianne and her husband have their garden invaded by their neighbour's big, black dogs, and put up a fence to stop them returning. But the intrusions, of various kinds, keep occurring... and escalating. As the plural title suggests, there are multiple boundaries erected and being crossed here, not just the physical one that marks off one property from another. The theme of lines being crossed – physical, mental, or ethical – and of boundaries being blurred is central to many of the stories here. As such, Fences is a perfect opening story to the collection, and one of my favourites.
Others that especially stood out were:
Cover Yourself – here James mixes science fiction with the kind of ambiguity found in the best weird fiction: although ‘what’ is happening is clear enough, the significance of it to those participating is vague; in fact exactly who is participating is vague. (As is this description, because I don’t want to ruin things for you.)
The Devils is the first of two stories about an exorcist called Reese Campbell, who deals with human created horrors as much as anything supernatural. The lesson being, I guess, that if we believe in devils and demons of any stripe we legitimise evil behaviour in ourselves. Not that this story is that simply black and white, for there is an outside evil here too. The final story in the collection, Full, is also about Campbell, investigating a too-perfect house.
Maybe best is The Side Effects Of The Medication - the title story contains the kind of surreal magic realism you might find in someone like David Barthelme’s work. In this story some people’s dreams are physical, fragile things like soap bubbles – these dreams are the ‘side effects’ of the title. And other, dreamless people, pay good money to see the dreams. Again, boundaries are crossed as the personal becomes public and all too visible.