Before I start this review, a confession. I'm not all that familiar with Shirley Jackson's stories. I've read her most famous short story, 'The Lottery', and the chilling novella We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but that's the extent of my knowledge. So the fact that this particular installment of curious tales from Curious Tales is based on her body of work was always going to be a little bit lost on me. I'm sure there are many Jackson references throughout these five stories that I've completely failed to recognise. With that out of the way: I was always going to read this book, no matter the inspiration; I've been waiting for it since last year's Poor Souls' Light, and hope these collections of unsettling stories will keep coming long enough to become an annual pre-Christmas tradition.
Congregation of Innocents opens with Emma Jane Unsworth's contribution, 'The Festival' - one I was particularly looking forward to, as I loved her story in Poor Souls' Light. April is on a train, en route to a festival, feeling not quite as enthusiastic as she should. 'She could be at home now, listening to the radio, festering. Lovely.' Some rowdy teenagers are getting on her nerves, and things get worse when a 'long, thin man' sits down opposite her. The atmosphere between them, which has a weird, unwanted sexual pitch, reaches a crescendo with two disturbing moments, but the story is left open. It could be that nothing here is macabre at all, but on the other hand... This left an impression that had me re-reading it, though of course I wanted more. (Before the year's out, I really have to get round to reading Unsworth's Animals, like I've been meaning to for well over a year.)
Richard Hirst's 'Do You Know How To Waltz?' starts like an inverted version of 'The Festival', in which we see things from the viewpoint of the strange interloper, while the innocent subject of his plainly malign interest remains ignorant. The narrator targets a woman newly arrived in New York, lost, drawn to the bright lure of a department store. There's a disconcerting opening, in which we're unaware of the narrator's apparently omniscient presence until he suddenly appears, and tells us so - 'this is where I come in' - after a few pages. How does he know so much about the woman? How much of what he says is true? His motives may be unclear, but his intentions become horribly obvious as he guides his victim, and the reader, towards an oppressive fate.
The next story is told in a different format: 'The Brood of Desire', by Ian Williams, is a graphic tale. There's something both funny and horrifying about Williams' illustrations of a child afflicted by a condition causing 'friable horns' to grow out of his face. As with the others - but more emphatically here - what's left unsaid is far more important than what the narrator chooses to reveal, as we're left to wonder exactly what's meant by lines like 'my present circumstances, as you know, make that an impossibility' and 'my parents, of course, are not around'. Am I imagining echoes of We Have Always Lived in the Castle here? The final, full-page panel is both beautifully done, creating an image that's intensely eerie and haunting (I'd quite like a print of it, actually...)
Jenn Ashworth is next up, with 'The Women's Union of Relief', in which I can finally say for certain I recognise something of Jackson's influence - it owes a debt to 'The Lottery'. The shabby black box from 'The Lottery' even puts in an appearance, as a group of women in a small American town gather to decide what is to be done about the dwindling cash, and consequently the dwindling reputation, of their locale. Naturally, the solution they decide upon is a diabolical one, though Ashworth's narrative swerves around it until the very end, performing a clever feint that almost convinces you the women are benevolent after all.
Finally, there's 'Desert Stories' by Tom Fletcher. This is also set in a small American town, a sunburned one on the edge of a desert: 'this is a dying town, but there are those of us who have still got to live in it'; the few residents maintain unhappy friendships because 'if nobody came calling, then nobody would know when it was time to bury you.' The narrator, Arlene, receives one such call from Megan, who runs the local motel. There's history between the two women, and that's partly what's explored in the gripping, uncanny conversation the two proceed to have. 'Desert Stories' is the high point of this collection - Fletcher handles atmosphere and tension masterfully, creating such a clear vision of this town that it feels like he surely must have created a whole book's worth of backstory to go with it.
'Desert Stories' and 'The Brood of Desire' stood out as the highlights, but none of these stories were disappointing. This time, they truly are 'curious tales' - not ghost stories - and that gives them greater scope to move into the surreal, the inexplicable, and indeed the horror of ordinary human cruelty. Whether that's Shirley Jackson's influence or not, it makes for a stronger collection than Poor Souls' Light; Congregation of Innocents is more even and consistent. Here's to many more Curious Tales.
Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Buy the book: Paperback