Some spooky short story collections for #ripxvii

I’m finishing up my RIP Challenge reading this week with two collections of short stories that promise to unsettle and disrupt.

Dead Relatives by Lucie McKnight Hardy

I was very impressed with this collection of thirteen genuinely unsettling stories from Lucie McKnight Hardy, the follow up to her 2019 novel Water Shall Refuse Them. I enjoy horror writing, but it is rare that any of it genuinely scares me. Some of these stories really did.

The title story (and longest at 70 pages) is a wonderful slice of gothic horror told from the point of view of a strange, isolated girl, whose mother runs an establishment for women who need to deal with unwanted pregnancies. The narrative voice is assured, the pacing taut and the creeping sense that all is not what it seems in this house is perfectly rendered. Many of these stories could be described as domestic horror, featuring women driven by grief, maternal love and male indifference.

Jutland features a writer, Ana, who has moved to the eponymous peninsula with her husband and two very young children. She has had writer’s block since the birth of her baby but a tsunami of inspiration comes at a price. Beautifully written overall, this story has a last line that is as devastating as it is horrifying and which literally made my skin crawl. The Devil of Timanfaya is another story that taps into the anxieties of motherhood and uses its holiday setting as a foil for the horror that unfolds. The hellish landscape of Lanzarote is used to great effect as a family slowly find out why the house opposite their holiday apartment has recently burned to the ground.

Women are not always the victims in these stories.  The protagonist of Resting Bitch Face finds a novel way to stop her husband commenting on her unconscious facial expressions while sibling rivalry is taken to extreme measures in The Birds of Nagasaki. There is dark humour to be found in The Pickling Jar, which has shades of Shirley Jackson in the story of a town where women are scored on the quality of the pickle they have made from the bodies of their dead husbands. There is magic realism galore in the collection, with old women who might actually be parrots, mermaids and dystopian futures, but the stories that linger longest are the ones that successfully tap into our deepest fears and insecurities and bring them to the surface in a way that great horror can do, to chilling effect.

Seven Empty Houses by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell

I have found the work of Samanta Schweblin to be a bit hit or miss in the past. I loved her novella Fever Dream and her novel Little Eyes was great fun, but I found her last collection of short stories Mouthful of Birds to be inconsistent, featuring too many stories of differing quality.

In Seven Empty Houses, the amount of stories is not the issue, but only a few are genuinely disconcerting and some feel inconsequential.

Ostensibly, all the stories here are set within the domestic sphere and feature missing people, lost items and confused minds. In the opener None of That, the narrator’s mother drives around, breaking into other people’s homes and stealing an item to bury in her own back yard. It Happens All the Time in this House features a man who throws his dead son’s clothes into his neighbours garden every night, only to come over and collect them again the next day. A woman travels around a strange city at night in Two Square Feet, trying to buy some aspirin for her mother-in-law while in Out, a woman who has had enough of her husband also ventures out into the night in her dressing gown and befriends a man who gives her a lift before returning home again.

The premise of all these stories is relatively interesting; however, they don’t really go anywhere and besides a good sense of atmosphere and tension, feel unfinished.

Out of the whole collection, I was impressed with just three stories. My Parents and My Children uses the missing child trope to surprisingly funny effect, as two children are ‘kidnapped’ by their naked grandparents. In the longest and most impressive story Breath from the Depths, an old woman whose son died when he was very young, becomes fixated on a teenage boy who keeps coming in to her garden to talk to her husband. When her husband dies, the woman can no longer keep her grasp on reality and the truth of her situation is revealed with a creeping sense of dread. Stand out story An Unlucky Man seems, on the surface, to be about an abducted girl, but is laced with enough ambiguity to elevate it into something even more unsettling.

Overall, I found these stories relatively forgettable and not as dark as promised. Although as expertly translated by Megan McDowell as usual, I may forego Schweblin’s short stories in future and just stick to her full-length books.

I received a copy of Seven Empty House from Netgalley in return for an honest review.

Reading Challenge

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I’ve been hesitating over the Lucie McKnight Hardy, but it sounds brilliant! I found Schweblin’s Little Eyes really forgettable – I felt it was more a collection of linked short stories than a novel – and these sound much the same.

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