Anthologies of short stories often have a theme around which all the stories are based. The best provide a wide range of interpretations covering a number of genres. They show the diversity of talent of the authors whose work is included. It is rarer for a single author collection to be themed. The season in Damien Kelly’s collection, ‘Season Of The Macabre’, is Christmas.
Statistically, it has been claimed that there are more arguments over money, relatives and the wrong kind of present happen at Christmas. Statistically, there should be more suicides and murders as a result. As Kelly is writing horror, it might be expected that these are the ideas that he gravitates towards. This slim volume contains fourteen stories. What this volume doesn’t say is whether they have appeared elsewhere previous to this publication.
Christmas is supposedly a time for children, especially those with an expectation of what Santa will bring them. Their faith in this supernatural being is total at a young age, so, in ‘Cold Comfort Child’, Anthony is eagerly awaiting Santa’s arrival. He has a special request for a gun! Although Anthony’s age isn’t stated, he reasons well against stiff opposition. The chilling part of the story is not so much the request, but the hint at the end as to why he wants it. This story and ‘Thankless’, the one that follows it, feature children that have a very nasty streak in them.
Although Thanksgiving is a little outside the yuletide season, this second story could easily have been a Christmas tale with a young boy determined to save the turkey from being eaten though his resolve is tested by the thought of pears in syrup with which a neighbour’s daughter is taunting him. Again, it is the carefully crafted last line that tells everything. The other story featuring a child as the main character is ‘Winter Barley’. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the stories because it is a ghost story and only ties in with the theme by the name given to the crop the girl is hiding in. It is effectively a ghost story beginning with a young girl apparently hiding from her parents in the field. The minimalist style means that it lacks the emotion and tension a longer piece would have.
The last sentence/paragraph revelation is a feature of many of these stories and in some ways is cheating as the rest of the story doesn’t give sufficient clues for the reader to work it out. Such is the case in ‘A Polite Exchange’, where a woman goes into a jewelers with the intention of exchanging the neck chain her husband has bought. The dialogue with the salesman doesn’t offer the depth of characterisation such a story really needs. ‘Day Of Rest’ also seems to have been engineered into the theme. It is a classic pick-up story which just happens to be in the run-up to Christmas, the season here is for colour rather than an integral part of the story and, although there is a suspicion of strangeness about the situation, the clues are all in the last paragraph.
‘Kissing Mary Jane’ is very, very short, less than a page, but one that has to be unpicked from the clues and, for once, doesn’t depend on the last line.
Because of the short length of most of these stories, there isn’t the time to develop their potential and, as a result, some don’t quite work because not enough information is given. ‘Unexpected’ is one of these. It relates the busy day of a vicar’s wife and, even if there is a subtext, it is not strong enough to propel the story forward. The same applies to ‘The Rare Gift’ which is the anthropomorphism of an underdog stag at the annual rut. Sometimes, as in ‘Mine Alone’, we are given just a small episode in what feels like a much longer story. It is more of an idea than a completed piece and involves a woman discovering that her son is incomplete. It is a kind of cloning story gone wrong, except that cloning would produce a daughter rather than a son.
In contrast, ‘And What Will Robin Do Then, Poor Thing’ is a neat story that for once is an appropriate length. It does have a (not completely) unexpected dénouement but it builds up to it with ingredients that the reader needs to know being built into the structure. It concerns a bird which has a habit of tapping on an apartment window and leaving marks in the glass.
There are some stories that begin to show what Kelly is capable of. Generally, these are the longer stories such ‘Unwanted’. It begins with Jonah Hope alone in a bar at Christmas when he is approached by a woman who has a doll in a box that she claims belonged to his wife. The gradual unfolding of the story, alongside the supernatural elements makes this another satisfying story. Similarly, ‘Yule’, though not perfect, shows Kelly’s potential. It is a surreal story and the longest in this collection. Despite it being Christmas, Marten Anders has driven out in to the snow-covered forest with the intention of committing suicide. His reason? His wife was leaving him and he killed both her and his son. The story is seen through the eyes of someone already unbalanced, so it is questionable that the wolf he sees and follows is real or the product of a deranged imagination.
‘What Hearts Can Bear’ in which a sick man’s heart is found not to be in his body but been stitched somewhere else for safe keeping. Unfortunately, the heart has become damaged and, unless it is found, he will die. Despite the impossibility of the situation, there are interesting ideas here which could have been explored to greater length.
‘Merry Mr. Kent’ is set is a prison where Mr. Kent is a warden. Narrated by one of the inmates, it tells about Mr. Kent’s kindness to the prisoners and his ways of treating them as human beings, especially those that commit suicide shortly afterwards. This ‘nasty’ little story is perhaps the most unsettling in the volume because of the understated implications.
Overall, these are short pieces specialising in the sudden revelatory ending. Kelly has a good writing style but needs to expand his stories to do justice to the ideas within them.
(pub: Monico/Clarion Publishing. 86 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 5.99 (UK), $ 5.66 (US). ISBN: 978-1-909016-4)
check out website: www.clarionpublishing.com