Ginger Nuts of Horror
BY LAURA MAURO
atmospheric and engaging; the humid air and dark,
smoky bars are almost tangible in their evocation.
One of life's small pleasures is discovering a new author for the first time. How exactly I have managed to miss Alan Baxter's weighty back catalogue is a bit of a mystery to me, as to date he's had around 70 short stories published across a range of genres. I can only imagine that paring them down to 19 for his debut collection must have been a hell of a challenge.
For the most part, it seems that he's chosen very wisely. The eponymous 'Crow Shine' - original to this collection - is a straightforward 'be careful what you wish for' type tale, in which a man discovers the mysterious source of his bluesman grandfather's talent, along with the inevitable high price. It's a fairly standard setup, but atmospheric and engaging; the humid air and dark, smoky bars are almost tangible in their evocation.
'The Beat of a Pale Wing' carries no great surprises, but a curious sense of satisfaction. I knew how it would end, and yet when the ending came, I was glad of it all the same. A tale of dodgy Mob dealings, illicit black magic and a neglected wife who takes matters into her own hands. 'Tiny Lives', on the other hand, is as compact and enthralling as the clockwork creations of its narrative. This snapshot of a father's devotion is deftly crafted, an off-kilter slice of magic with a potent emotional kick.
'Roll The Bones' is not my cup of tea, though I can appreciate the ideas at play. What starts as an almost noir-esque story of a man caught in a violent squabble between two dangerous men takes an undeniably interesting turn with the introduction of two ivory dice, and a fascinating character called the Toymaker. I don't feel like all of the ideas were successfully realised - perhaps it might have benefitted from being a longer piece, with more room to explore.
'Old Promise, New Blood' is another story about the sacrifices we make for our families, albeit a far darker, nastier take; a slice of pure horror. 'All The Wealth in the World' is a fascinating exploration of loss, and the necessary coexistence of love and pain. 'In The Name Of the Father' is an offbeat little tale: 'Midsomer Murders' meets a rural Australian parish, with shades of early Stephen King in its subject matter and execution. 'Fear Is the Sin' and 'The Chart of the Vagrant Mariner' both touch upon the surreal and evoke an effective horror in their unreality.
'The Darkest Shade of Grey' is the longest story in the collection, and as with 'Roll the Bones' I didn't personally care much for it. It's not an objectively bad story: I found the main character unpleasant in a way that made him difficult to sympathise with, and there were perhaps a few too many contrivances in the plot for my taste. There are some cleverly surreal moments, though, and I think it's the kind of pacy, occasionally visceral story that would make for an interesting graphic novel.
'A Strong Urge to Fly' is curiously domestic and almost cosy at first, an atmosphere which quickly becomes claustrophobic as layers of discomfort pile up. An effective story with an unexpected ending. 'Reaching for Ruins' is similarly discomfiting, and proof that even a simple plant can become creepy as hell in the right hands.
'Shadows of the Lonely Dead' jostles with closing tale 'The Darkness In Clara' for my favourite story in the collection - both stories are ostensibly about carrying the burden of an unhappy past, and the way we face up to these things in the future; about the poisonous nature of anger, and how closure is a broad concept. Both stories are heartfelt and clever, emotional without being overwrought. I loved them both.
And so to the remaining tales: 'Punishment of the Sun' is dark, enigmatic and imbued with an almost childlike terror of what lurks in the shadows. 'The Fathomed Wreck to See' is visually rich and descriptive but for me, ultimately unsatisfying. 'Not The Worst of Sins' is a Wild West-flavoured revenge narrative with a supernatural twist and a pleasingly cruel ending. And 'The Old Magic' is sweetly and beautifully evocative, spanning centuries but never outstaying its welcome. 'Mephisto' is a short, sharp footnote which does nothing new, but does it well.
There's no such thing as a perfect collection, but there's no doubt that 'Crow Shine' is certainly a very healthy specimen, and discovering Alan Baxter's work has been a rare pleasure.