The Other World, It Whispers
This is a truly remarkable debut collection of short stories by Stephanie Victoire. The tales are strikingly original, refreshing and absorbing. They transported me into the delights and complexities of modern day fairy tales and contemporary folklore, mixed with elements from the classics and bold references to modern-day social realities. All of these elements combine to deliver a magical dimension which hovers mysteriously at varying distances and times away from the familiar.
Dark and chilling, the stories are more Grimm than Hans Christian Andersen. But they also have a lightness of touch which contrasts well with some essentially sombre undertones. And so they are fun, and frolicking even. Humans, other beings, animals, flowers, all coming together in natural and supernatural settings. There is tremendous beauty here, but we are also led into a shady and disturbing other world, which appears gloomy and all engulfing, with dangerous and inevitable consequences for the human soul. Most of the stories are unsettling to varying extents.
The characters find themselves hovering between two worlds. Alone or accompanied by the undead. They are prepared, mentored and hastened into crossing over to the other side. There is a touch of Ghost Whisperer at times, but without the great bright light to walk into. There is also a link with Goethe’s Faust and the selling of one’s soul.
Some of my favourite tales from the collection:
The Animal Ball presents a glamorous cast of costumed guests, not all of them beautiful, including owl, peacock, raven, butterfly, stag, boar, toad, raccoon, rainbow fish, and the hosts, swan and cardinal bird. The feast is dominated by a tower of peppermint macaroons. There is also, a rose with perfect petals and thorns carved in ice; a thing of rare beauty but one which will provide the weapon for a murder to come.
The Cemetery Pilgrimage introduces us to Clyde Abrahams, a complete loser in all aspects of life, who embarks on a tour of the graveyards of Paris. Here he absorbs the creative geniuses of famous writers and artists buried within. Every creative dream of his own will come true. But he has signed a harsh contract, and his earthly joys will not endure for long. There is a delightfully bizarre touch as a party of Halloween revellers includes a Marilyn Monroe, complete with white satin dress billowing in the breeze, roving the streets in the company of zombies and witches. A fine juxtaposition of conventional glamour and supernatural horrors.
The Bouquet Witch brings us ever more beautiful flowers. Roses, peonies, carnations, Japanese cherry blossom. But as the story develops, the flowers come with an unwelcome surprise. They are the stock in trade of “Bella Donna Floristry and Other Services”, and form the means by which devastating vengeance can be exercised over those who deserve it most. Or do they? Anastasia is a chilling force to be reckoned with.
The Earthbound Express
A ghost train, conveying the undead to their next lives, provides rest for the wicked and a temporary sense of warmth and comfort. Earl Grey tea, roasting coffee, mouth-watering cakes, wine-coloured velvet curtains, and the smell of leather. But at some point, when they are ready, the passengers have to come to terms with their previous lives and disembark again. One depressed fellow traveller is a man who has lived so many miserable lives, never going beyond the age of 35, that he now desires nothingness.
In Dark Arts and Deities, Carla, a lost young woman, brings havoc to the town of Red Oak. To help her she invokes a host of deities, with some surprises including Chang’e (Chinese Goddess of the Moon), Raijin (Japanese God of Thunder and Lighting), and Freyja, the Nordic goddess of sexuality, beauty and love. Carla has always especially enjoyed reading about Freyja’s "provocations and seductions".
This tale reminds me a little of Stephen Kings’ Needful Things, where the people of the town have their deepest desires satiated but ultimately find themselves torn to pieces by a dark and terrifying force. There’s also a link with Midsomer Murders, where retribution comes to all those who behave despicably and immorally.
In contemplative mode: contemporary and historical
Striking and recurring themes in the tales include the contrasting sense of being looked after and ushered into an afterlife, but also tricked and misled. The idea of searching deep within and beyond, and grasping what seems like a better life, but getting more than you bargained for. Getting what you wanted, but not in the way you expected, and not in the world that you know.
Sex and romance play a powerful role in the lives of many of the characters in these tales. This frequently involves the inability to resist compelling influences and agents of change. Sexual abuse is also a notable theme, and is dealt with skilfully within fairytale scenarios but with links to social evils that plague the modern, real world.
The issue of gender assignment and self-perception is explored in Shanty, a tale of a boy born in the wrong body. He dreams of sprites, fairies, sirens and yearns to become a mermaid. Above all, he despises the colour blue.
“Blue was the colour of the bruises I punished into myself for being born into the wrong body”.
Stephanie Victoire at her book launch in Waterstones, Gower Street
This is a fabulous collection of stories, and one of the best reading experiences I have ever enjoyed. I found myself having to slow up, to read one story at a time, and then to read it again, because I didn’t want to get to the end of the book too soon, or miss any of the delights within.
I found the stories both thrilling and scary. Life enhancing at times, but morbid and troubling to the soul at others. Stunning and captivating overall. I still wish to uncover more. To read the stories yet again, and to further explore the natural and the supernatural worlds and the interface between them: the other world. I want to hear more whispers.
© Eddie Hewitt 2016
The Other World, It Whispers is published by Salt
www.stephanievictoire.com The author's website