Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Recommendation: Skein & Bone by VH Leslie

VH Leslie's is a writer who I first became aware of via her work in Black Static and Shadows & Tall Trees, in which her stories were consistently among the best featured. So I've been looking forward to her debut collection for a long time, and by god Skein & Bone from Undertow Publications doesn't disappoint. In fact, it's one of the best collections of quiet, strange horror I've read for a long time.

Namesake, the opening story, perhaps sums up Leslie's approach: the story of a woman named Burden, trying to lose her unfortunate surname by finding a husband is intricately constructed from the outset, with every detail note perfect. When Burden meets Blithe, a man at a bar, the reader knows her anticipated happy ending isn't on the cards, but the actual ending is both chillingly ambiguous and clear like fine crystal. Namesake showcases Leslie's skill both at wordplay and literary allusion, neither of which detract from the horrific denouement.

There are almost too many highlights in this collection: the deeply unsettling haunting in The Quiet Room; the fantastic allegory of The Cloud Cartographer, the dark, dark comedy of Ghost and the hotel-based psychological horror in The Blue Room. There's plenty of uncanny things happening in these stories but what makes the unease really hit home is the emotional charge behind them all. Grief, loss and missed opportunities haunt Leslie's characters as much as the supernatural or ghostly.

Many of the stories use as a central metaphor something that is handmade, traditionally crafted: old dresses in Skein & Bone, the decoration of a new house in Ulterior Design (with yellow wallpaper, natch), the cooking of preserves in Preservation. There's a similar feel to the stories themselves: these are handcrafted, every allusion and metaphor woven together to make something unique. For this reason, Leslie excels at the endings of her stories: both the literal and the symbolic come together. Indeed, in the perfect last line of Preservation you know longer know or care which is which.

Absorbing, subtle, scary, exquisite - you really, really need to read Skein & Bone. (UK | US)

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