01/02/2007. Contributed by Pauline Morgan
Pub: Immanion Press. 286 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 13.99 (UK), $23.99 (US). ISBN: 1-904856-14-5.
check out website: www.immanionpress.wox.org
All of us have interests that at times have become passions. Often these are short-lived enthusiasms but sometimes they sustain us throughout our lives. They can lead to discovering new friendships or finding partners. These are mostly harmless pastimes. Sometimes a passion tips over into obsession and the interest becomes something we cannot do without. If it was taken away or forbidden to us we would suffer withdrawal symptoms or even be prepared to commit crimes. When a passion becomes addictive it becomes dangerous. As the title 'Sheena And Other Gothic Tales' suggests, this selection of short fiction from 1990 to 2000, is of dark fantasies. All the stories evoke the darker side of life and generate sinister atmospheres. All deal with some kind of obsession mostly involving other people.
'Sheena', the title story, is the longest and has been placed last in the volume. Although the stories are very different in their plots, there is a sense of build up towards this final one. The narrator, Tony, works in a call centre. Most of his co-workers are women of a kind that go out in a gang, get drunk, insult men and take home the nearest one at the end of the evening for casual sex. One of the women stands apart from the rest. Sheena doesn't join in with the others but quietly gets on with her job. The only other man in the team warns Tony off her, saying she is seriously weird. Tony takes this as a challenge and invites Sheena for a drink. Part of Sheena's weirdness stems from the fact that she is a Goth in the fashion/lifestyle sense. As he gets to know her, Tony becomes increasingly obsessed with her, changing to try and fit in with her world view. One morning, he wakes up to find her dead beside him. This is a pivotal point. Instead of grieving and getting on with his life, he allows his obsession to carry him into strange behaviour patterns including self-harm.
'Rose, Crowned With Thorns' contains a different kind of obsessiveness. This time it involves revenge. At university, Rose became the quiet one of a quartet dominated by Barbara. Although they eventually paired up, Rose resented the fact that Barbara had taken the boy she preferred. Now years later, she discovers that her husband is having an affair with Barbara. What the others are unaware of is that Rose is a witch. Now she uses those skills, very effectively, to get her own back.
'Behind The Wheel' treats the same kind of theme in a very different way. Andy is drunk when he begins to chase the car which his wife's boyfriend is driving after artist with her. Here obsession continues beyond the grave.
'Rent' ventures into the dark streets haunted by rent-boys and their clients. Jez is selected by a high class patron. This is a vampire story with a twist. Unlike most authors ventures into the sub-genre, Stableford adds and extra dimension to the lore. Too many vampires in recent times have been charismatic, misunderstood beings. Here, they are taken back to their roots which are sexual and scary.
'Emptiness' is another take on the vampire mythos. This time it is an abandoned baby which Ruth finds. She knows it is of a new breed of blood-drinking offspring and knows she should report it, but her daughters have both left home and she is lonely. Its needs become her obsession.
'The Woman In The Mirror' combines the themes of loneliness and obsession leading to change. Martin buys a mirror at an auction. After a while he notices that the reflection in the mirror is not him but a woman, though she lives in the same shabby flat he does. He resolves to change his surroundings in order to improve hers. He buys her presents, which in his room become reflected and part of her surroundings. Then he decides that he needs to look like her as well. Each step of his transformation seems inevitable.
In 'Regression', Mark's university friend Jimmy is prone to obsessions. While students it was exploring the effects of drugs like LSD. Jimmy always took things to extremis. Now, after many years Jimmy is back in Mark's life, asking for his help in exploring the idea of regression.. Mark is reluctant as he knows that Jimmy's passions usually end badly.
'Tenebrio' takes another kind of obsession as its central theme. While concern for the environment is laudable and necessary, some groups take conservation and countryside protection to extremes. Entomologist Hazard is persuaded to investigate a phenomenon in an ancient woodland by an ex-student who is kind of 'lets chain ourselves to trees' type protestor. As well as atmosphere, there is a great sense of impending doom within the story as Stableford also demonstrates his knowledge of language. Tenebrio means shadowy and many of the implications in the story are shaded both by intention and the trees in the wood being investigated. Tenebrio is also a genus of beetles better known to most of us as flour beetles. They are not what would be expected to infest an ancient woodland, yet they are here in inordinate numbers.
'Heartbreaker' involves the tragic obsession of a young woman. When she phones Patrick one night, he knows she has made a mistake but cannot convince her that he is not her Patrick, the man who has walked out on her obsessive love.
All these stories are extremely well-written and show Stableford's considerable understanding of the obsessive mind. He writes equally well from the point of view of male and female characters.
The introduction to the volume is an essay exploring Stableford's ideas of the development of story telling from the oral tradition of tales of the mythic past to the present when writers have developed their own mythos. Many people skip introductions but anyone who has a genuine interest in the development of the gothic in fiction will appreciate the ideas in it.
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