1853 - Various Authors (Chapbook, published by Pornokitsch/Pandemonium Fiction)
1853 is a chapbook published by the lovely guys over at Pornokitsch, featuring 3 stories set in the same universe as their major anthology of last year, A Town Called Pandemonium. The brief, as detailed on the Pornokitsch website, was for slightly alternate histories set in the same year as A Town Called..., which, you guessed it, is 1853. The book feature 3 short short-stories; 2 by first-time published authors in Laura Graham and Marc Aplin (the guy behind the fantastic Fantasy Faction), and one by multi-published Jonathan Green. As the stories are small, and there are only three of them, I thought I'd review them singularly, before setting out my overall impressions. As I have yet to read A Town Called Pandemonium (its on the shelf, on the TBR), my impressions of it with regard that anthology can't be said, but suffice to stay it stands alone well.
The Gunslinger - Marc Aplin
The chapbook opens with Aplin's tale set in the Taiping Rebellion of Hong Xiuquan, a southern Chinese who claimed to be the brother of Jesus Christ. An interesting tale of human conscience, Aplin's battle between an unnamed gunslinger and his actions resonates with all of us who have stood before a difficult choice and had to pick. While the prose is at times stilted, the mark of a first time author, the backdrop of the scene is given to us neatly in broad brushstrokes, and creates an oriental air with ease - perhaps reflecting the author's experience in the Far East. It is also the most subtle of the stories when it comes to the fantastical or supernatural events. The only reflection upon such events is the ending, an intriguing and mystical turn that begs its readers to ask questions, to both believe and disbelieve the central premise of Hong's rule. In terms of story, this, I felt was the best.
Bat out of Hell - Jonathan Green
Ridiculously cliche and unnecessary title aside, Green's novel is clearly the work of an already-published author, though one would hope his editors change his titles usually if they are all that bad. His prose is impressive, sweeping the reader through swiftly, with dialogue and description functioning well within the limited space of the short story ( a mere two pages of my kindle-for-iPad). And yet, the story as a whole just didn't draw me in. Well constructed, well devised within a framework of legend-action-'normal' perspective of aftermath, yet the plot as whole didn't feel appropriate to a short story, but elaborating in a longer piece. Even then, the ideas felt old, cliched; the awakened legend demanding life in return for salvation. Further, while the other two stories within the piece had a feeling of 1853 within them, this didn't feel like the past, but rather the present: the journalistic aspect, as well as the MCs voice coming across as far too contemporary for my liking. Despite this, as I've said, the execution was good, and it is a worthy addition to the chapbook simply through its writing style, which is excellent.
Islands to Auld Reekie - Laura Graham
The standout of the chapbook for me, Islands to Auld Reekie is a heartbreaking letter from a young daughter in Edinburgh to her mother on the Isle of Skye. Again, the work of first-time-author is evident at times through the prose, but Graham pulls off a great piece with the sheer humane aspects of the story. As well as contextualising the expulsion of 'peasants' from the Isle of Skye, Islands to Auld Reekie also touches upon a horror that lurks in the outskirts of newly industrial Edinburgh. It is the naivety and softness of Graham's main character that captures the heart and the hope-against-hope that what is obvious to the reader has not actually occurred. The format as well is a masterful stroke, the letter giving just enough of a glimpse into the life of the MC for the short short-story format, but at the same time giving her nature away without excessive need for backstory: Aplin's first person narrative strives toward this deftness but doesn't quite reach it.
1853 is a very nice publication, and won't take you at all long to read (I read it on a bus journey...). The biblical quotes at the end of each story give an idea of continuity, and shared-world, without being overly forced. However, given the nature of the biblical quote in Aplin's story (brilliantly used within the constraints of having biblical quotes at the end of each), I'd have like to have seen it placed at the end of the anthology, as opposed to the start, to give the reader a sense of completion & understanding.
Further, while I enjoyed Jonathan Green's piece (though, as said above, I found it to be the weakest story-wise), and don't question its worthiness to go in the chapbook, I'd've like to have seen 1853 as an attempt by the Pornokitsch bunch to introduce to never-before published authors of the manner of Laura Graham and Marc Aplin - these anthologies are perfectly placed to give promising young authors both a leg up and a much needed confidence boost for their writing.
Overall Rating: 4*s