I have felt in recent weeks in a bit of a reading slump. My TBR pile is increasing yet I have not been able to settle and read any book at length. There are so many interesting reads and so many books that I have wanted to get to that I have found it difficult to make a final decision about which one to sit with and commit to. A few months ago I had pre-ordered ‘The Haunting Season’ and so when it arrived recently the short story collection felt an opportune moment to try and read something in short bursts whilst still maintaining the feeling I was completing books and engaging with literature.
I cannot remember the last time I read a short story collection. It is not a form I naturally gravitate towards, although short stories that come to mind, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W.W. Jacobs I have enjoyed immensely. Enjoyed in the sense I was totally absorbed by the narrative and physically felt unsettled whilst reading them. I think sometimes short stories leave me as a reader wanting more, that I need to stay in the story world a bit longer and so this feeling of dissatisfaction tends to put me off and I convince myself I would enjoy a lengthier novel. However, despite this, I thought ‘The Haunting Season’ was intriguing. A perfect companion over the dark nights of Autumn.
Besides Andrew Michael Hurley, I had heard of all the writers in the collection and had experienced reading some of the past works of Elizabeth Macneal and Laura Purcell. I felt the structure of the book was a particular strength. Bridget Collins’ story, ‘A Study in Black and White’ had all the hall marks of a classic ghost story: a large house, a troubled past, a lone narrator compelled towards danger. It reminded me very much of Susan Hill’s ‘A Woman in Black’ with its slow increase in dramatic tension and dread.
Jess Kidd’s text ‘Lily Wilt.’ The unsettling presence of her corpse and the devastating impact that it has on the narrator had clear echoes of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ with secrecy and deception being central thematic concerns. The descent in the narrator’s control was powerfully unsettling and the inevitability of the ending felt all the more wretched. The positioning of the reader to share his misery was particularly impactful.
A highlight for me was the thread running through that sort to directly challenge the existing patriarchy and governance in power. Female characters that are nuanced and fully drawn pervade these pages. Imogen Hermes Gowar’s text brings this to the fore with her central female character defying all the odds and facing multiple foes to protect her child. The protagonist in Laura Purcell’s sinister piece the ‘The Chillinghan Chair’ faces similar adversity and despite the difference in outcome, attempts to face the threat with admirable bravery.
There are so many moments of terror and eeriness that make each story compelling and powerful in their own right. Reading Natasha Pulley’s ‘The Eel Singers’ and, again, Laura Purcell’s work where the supernatural comes to the fore. People acting in strange, inexplicable ways with characters being in fear of their both their sanity and their lives. Your sense of powerlessness as a reader in trying to logically rationalise, explain the situation or predict the outcome makes it all the more entertaining.
The compilation ends with Elizabeth Macneal’s short story ‘The Monster’. I deliberately read this story last as Macneal was one of the authors I had read before. Her book ‘Circus of Wonders’ was incredibly entertaining and enjoyable. Interestingly the ideas of dominance, exploitation and control were central in both narratives. The focus on fragile masculinity and again elements of the supernatural make it a compelling read. The distaste I had towards the narrator who is selfish in his pursuit of fame and glory at the expense of all else added to a sense of conflict for me. I partly wanted him to be justly punished whilst at the same time acknowledging the horror of events that were happening to him. The climactic ending of ‘Monster’ is horrifying and shocking in equal measure. A perfect ending to a compulsive and eerily captivating collection.