The Glasshouse (Polestars 3) by Emma Coleman (book review).

This third volume of Polestars, titled ‘The Glasshouse’, is by Emma Coleman. I will admit that Emma Coleman is a new name to me. Upon conducting a quick Internet search, I discovered that Coleman’s publications are relatively recent, but this does not necessarily reflect the quality of her writing.

The book’s back categorizes it as “rural horror,” which I must say is largely accurate. Horror is generally not this reviewer’s strong suit, so while I have heard of `urban horror’, its rural cousin is a new one to me.

This 236-page volume features thirteen stories, all of which fall under the broad category of horror, despite some not being particularly terrifying. At least they are all set in the countryside, and many revolve around villages and churches. Admittedly, the author does reveal her obsession with these settings in the introduction.

They typically fall into two distinct categories. In the first category, evil goblins and ghoulies typically pose a threat to innocent folk. In fact, there are only three stories in the volume that do not seem to include a supernatural presence. In the second category, goblins and ghoulies menace people, but this time, their motivation is clear.

For instance, in the first story, ‘Five Small Boys’, the titular boys explore an abandoned house, but one of them refuses to enter. It is this boy who encounters an evil underground spirit, which drags him down and leaves him forever. This type of story often leaves me frustrated, as the spirit appears to be malevolent solely for its own sake. There’s no explanation for its desire to seize the living. It just is.

Another example story would be ‘He Who Saw the Abyss’, which tells the tale of a young divorced woman finally buying the cottage of her dreams in a picturesque little village. When she moves in, she wonders why all the villagers are so distant and unfriendly. She is unaware that a misguided undead noble, who made a pact with a demon to ‘protect’ the village and preserve it as it was during his lifetime in the fifteenth century, foreshadows her doom. As such, any new outsiders have to be dealt with, and the heroine is doomed from the start. But as we now have the monster’s back story, the tale takes on a much more sinister tone. Ghouls with an understandable motivation are much scarier than just ghouls.

Unfortunately, portraying a monster as an understandable protagonist can sometimes backfire, as it increases the risk of making the antagonist overly sympathetic. A good example is ‘The Babes of Springtime’, in which we meet a well-to-do Victorian couple. The dominant husband has had the gardeners clear out all the hedgerows and trees so he can have a nice view across a pristine lawn down to the lake. Meanwhile, the wife looks forward to the birth of their first child. Unfortunately, Jack in the Green is horrified by the destruction of his beloved trees, especially the King Oak. Jack won’t have to wait long to steal from the couple, as he’s already lost. The problem with this is that I prefer trees. I am essentially on the antagonist’s side, as I hate to see people tear up or cut down trees. I would say that an arrogant couple received their deserved retribution. Oh well.

Despite, or maybe because of, her fascination with churches, Coleman manages to include a healthy scepticism about religious folk and their motives. In ‘Lamassu’, the oh-so-holy Abbess Elene of Benestone, who is certainly above reproach in moral matters, commits a sin of theft, which she perceives as a holy appropriation on behalf of the church. She then pays a heavy price, as the slightly stronger pagan faith transforms her into a monstrous protector of her abbey.

A special mention needs to go to the stories without supernatural influence. Of these, ‘The Magic Trick’ by Boz Boole is probably the best. It deals with the darkly nefarious lengths a stage magician might reach to horrify and entertain his audience. Indeed, it mildly invokes some of the sinister feeling of Christopher Priest’s ‘The Prestige’. The title story, ‘The Glasshouse’, tells the story of a righteous protagonist, indignantly stalking what appears to be a horrible old man who is capturing wild birds and keeping them in cages in his glasshouse. A misguided attempt to release all the birds turns the entire story on its head, leaving the protagonist personally horrified by their actions. I’m not sure this works as well as ‘Magic Trick’ because, in the first person, the reader can always scream, ‘But that is not what I would do!’ The first person requires a deft touch to pull off in a short story, and I’m not sure Coleman quite hit the mark.

The final story that technically does not feature a supernatural hit is the final one in the volume simply labelled ‘Untitled’. This is another tale told in the first person, but here we are fleeing the witchfinder. The protagonist’s gender remains unspecified, yet the underlying emotion suggests a feminine viewpoint. Then we get the last line, revealing it was a dream. Ho hum!

Regardless, I can see the promise in Coleman’s writing. There are some good ideas here, and I feel Coleman might benefit from trying a longer form of writing, as the longer pieces in which she can explore the motivations of the characters are certainly more effective stories. Furthermore, while the rural setting is initially refreshing, I cannot help but feel that Coleman might benefit from widening out her focus a little. Maybe the stories in this book have satisfied her ‘villages and churches’ phase, and now she can move on. If Coleman can bring herself to explore more settings and in more depth, then she may well be worth watching. As things are, this book is a glimpse of a new writer who is tentatively figuring out her way forward. If you can tolerate a few undeveloped tales, then it might be worth reading this to see the fresh ideas that are trying to peek through.

Dave Corby

April 2024

(pub: NewCon Press, 2023. 236 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £13.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-914953-62-0)

check out website: www.newconpress.co.uk

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