Skein and Bone by V H Leslie – a review by Gary Fry
Before picking up a copy of V H Leslie’s debut collection of short fiction, I’d read only one of her tales, the opener here, called ‘Namesake’, which first appeared – and deservedly so – in Best British Horror 2013. Its artful combination of solid storytelling – yes, Leslie does plots! – literary mechanisms, cool prose, and emotional material persuaded me to seek out what I hoped would be more of the same.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Skein and Bone is a uniformly excellent collection, addressing an impressive range of subject matters and offering some poetically striking imagery. Each tale feels very different, and yet all are bound together by the same confident vision, the same sharp writing, and the same dark vision. Let me take a number of the tales in turn and discuss what I admired about them.
The titular story ‘Skein and Bone’ has clear echoes of Aickman (‘The Trains’ springs most immediately to mind), as two young sisters take a railway journey into off-the-beaten-track France and chance upon a refuge packed with baroque and beautiful artefacts. There is sibling rivalry at work from the off, with a variety of symbolic episodes dramatizing the woman’s relative attitudes to selfhood, appearance, style. A dream sequence – a common technique used with strategic skill by Leslie – will heighten the Biblical flavour of the place, until its conclusion hardly pulls any macabre punches. It’s a memorably grim piece, but one which also finds beauty among its human horrors: the power of beauty and its capacity to become toxic when tempered.
‘Ghost’ feels like more of a black joke, with its grotesque final lines elevating this kind of creature-focused fiction to a cruel gravitas; it’s certainly one of the strangest ghost stories I’ve read, if indeed it can be described as such. ‘Family Tree’ feels like a similarly comic dark tale, with a boy’s unconventional family providing a scenario in which the common youthful problem of fitting in and making social connections is heightened considerably; the conclusion, expected and grim, feels cold and yet true.
In ‘The Blue Room’ – perhaps the most conventionally structured ghostly tale here – a woman’s colourless life is given shape and vigour by a brief stay in a hotel. The room in which she stays plays host to a sequence of supernatural events, all focused on the colour blue, and which eventually spread into the rest of the building, along with territory around the place. Leslie’s depiction of dispirited female experience is cloying and moving, allowing the spooky episodes to gain psychological resonance. The whole piece put me in mind of much classic supernatural fiction, particularly the occasional ghostly tales of Edith Wharton and other female writers.
‘Ulterior Design’ is similarly inspired by classic dark fiction, in this case surely Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. And yet here we have a male character placed in peril by such a routine decoration, as his masculine sense of control and order is jeopardise by his lover’s pregnancy, her modifications of his home, and all the responsibilities that simply must follow. The guy’s increasingly alarming visions of natural interference in his ruthlessly manmade life take on tangible form, with (at first) peripheral damage, and then far worse, and then…oh God, that last line is a real killer.
Other tales I admired in this collection included ‘The Cloud Cartographer’, which moves surreally to a cosmic finale; the developments – the way the backstory relates to latter-day events – feel right here, building to a final few paragraphs which move and stir. The plot of ‘Preservation’ rests upon a gimmicky notion, and in less artful hands than Leslie’s it could all have been a bit mediated; but again, the quality of characterisation, Leslie’s skill at getting behind her people’s surface relations and into their private lives, leads to a fantastic closing scene and a very appropriate last line. Similar tricks are at play in ‘The Quiet Room’, which puts more of those carefully located dream sequences to work with merciless force: the figure on the piano is vivid and scary, and its final transformation all the more convincing after this preparatory material. ‘Time Keeping’ revisits the logical world of men, with a strident image of a partner rendered mechanically predictable, under his quantifiable control.
There are other stories in the book – the short and chilly ‘Bleak Midwinter’, with its cast of unlikely stalkers; the weird ‘Wordsmith’, in which a man plants and grows words; and the exotic ‘Senbazuru’, with its war-haunted couple and their deceptively playful game – and, having discussed so many fine ones above, that’s just testament to the range of quality on display here. Indeed, I felt as if I gained something from every tale and genuinely enjoyed each for very different reasons. And that’s what I call a fine collection.
Sometimes tender, often shocking, frequently moving, and commonly beautiful, Skein and Bone is a remarkable book, the work of a writer in full command of her craft and with apparently quite enough preoccupations and curiosities, both domestic and global, to inform what I hope will be much more to come.
You can buy the book from Undertow Publications here: http://www.undertowbooks.com/issues/