Self Published and available on Amazon
This Christmas week will lend itself to countless Christmas TV specials (who will get what’s coming to them in this year’s Eastenders?), Christmas films (Santa Claus: The Movie being compulsory watching), Christmas carols and songs (relentless), Christmas stories (wholesome), Christmas presents (socks, anyone?). Christmas Christmas Christmas. Bah humbug.
If you feel like you’re being smothered by cheerfulness, stuffed to the brim with jocundity, simply killed by kindness, and wish to take a well earned break from the festivities look no further than 13, a collection of short, spooky stories from Cúirt short-listed Galway author AM Shine.
Guaranteed to dispel any holiday merriment, the compendium is chock full of deliciously eerie and delightfully chilling yarns from days both gone by long ago and strikingly close to hand; of the sort that are both comfortingly supernatural and vexingly plausible. Luckily for we Scrooges this year’s stormy weather is the ideal backdrop to settle into a large armchair by a roaring fire, howling wind in the background and hot port by your side to begin a journey into destiny unknown, glimpses into the inner workings of madmen’s’ minds and to face up to the terrible repercussions of avarice and greed, and not knowing what you’ve got until it has disappeared into the murky ether.
Number One starts with a murder, as every good horror story should. A man has had his future mapped out for him by a devastating visit to a fortune-teller and happenstance, not to mention a sinister black dog, dictates a dire ending to his sorry life. Another tells of an orphan who has turned to a life of cruel crime following rejection after rejection by the relatives he has been passed down to. A run in with a strange man who seems to mistake him for one of his other aliases leads to a party of the most mysterious kind, with a climax like no other.
A running leitmotif throughout the stories is that of choice and consequence, which the author, through the artful if restrictive medium of the short story, draws out skillfully and with great control. Recurring entities are loners and hermits, angry mobs and sociopaths, those who accept their fate and those who fight to the end to deny it.
One of my favourites, and one of the shorter, is one that doesn’t have a paranormal element but a truly spine-tingling theme of double-crossing stemming from earnest revenge, spiraling out of all control to attack a spellbound innocent.
Another is that of a painter choosing the life of a recluse in a country castle bought for a curious steal, who finds himself at work in his sleep, thus discovering the dark secrets of his dream house. A reflection on the artist as social commentator perhaps, a person who can influence the surrounding world in the present and future, and even the past. The supernatural world too even, as shown by a character from a different story being a prodigious pianist who summons the dangerous dead.
The 13 ‘tales of ill fate and misfortune’, to reference the book’s subtitle, have a common link in that they are all told through old-fashioned, genteel language not unlike what you’d expect to find in Poe or a gothic novel of the 18th century. It’s a compelling devise, naturally, in setting an antiquated and other-worldly atmosphere, but it also means that each story tends to have the same male voice, regardless of narrator either first or third person. Additionally, some beautiful archaic vocabulary loses its effectiveness when it appears more than a couple of times.
While this is something of a drawback when reading the entire collection all in one go, it’s not at all a problem when picking up sporadically and reading from time to time, and being unique in this day offers itself up ideally to storytelling, being almost designed to be read aloud to others eager to revel in its thrilling, enchanting charm.
Enchanting additions to the book are thirteen corresponding illustrations by Italian artist Lara Luxardi. While based on the stories they accompany they are stand-alone works of art in themselves. Nevertheless they’re perfect for discovering clues as to what to expect from each tale by considering before reading and then delving deeper into the narrative and its possible interpretations by studying the pictures afterwards. Each story is numbered, rather than named and that too adds to the mysterious, sinister nature of each one. It’s no coincidence that there are unlucky number thirteen in all.
Self-published, this collection has limited availability from Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway. Separate sets of all thirteen illustrations can also be purchased in the clever packaging of black envelope with red wax seal, or individually as postcards to freak your friends out or bookmarks to give yourself an unexpected chill when you’re next halfway through some nice reliable, unterrifying autobiography.
It’s a work of considerable accomplishment by both the author and illustrator, the collaboration being ideal to suit their distinctive styles. It’s also something to go back to time and again, and its exclusivity makes it a great book to tell your friends who are always ahead of the curve about.
Best of all, if you are still too full from Christmas cake and Christmas spirits (the drinkable kind) to fully commit to a novel this is perfect for dipping in and out of, but be forewarned that it’s difficult to stop once you’ve started. Like the curse of the Pringles can, or, in this season, the USA biscuit tin. I do hope you have yourselves a merry Christmas, with all the joy of the season; just bear in mind there’s an alternative if you should need it.
– Aoife B. Burke
First Published in The Tuam Herald on 22.12.13