Guest Post: Dark Short Stories Cast a Long Shadow by J. Ashley-Smith

THE ATTIC TRAGEDY by J. Ashley-Smith

GENRE: Dark Fantasy / LGBT / Novelette

BOOK PAGE:  https://www.meerkatpress.com/books/the-attic-tragedy/

Sylvie never called them ghosts, but that’s what they were—not that George ever saw them herself. The new girl, Sylvie, is like a creature from another time, with her old-fashioned leather satchel, her white cotton gloves and her head in the clouds. George watches her drift around the edge of the school playing fields, guided by inaudible voices.

When George stands up for Sylvie, beating back Tommy Payne and his gang of thugs, it brings her close to the ethereal stranger; though not as close as George would have liked. In the attic of Sylvie’s father’s antique shop, George’s scars will sing and her longing will drive them both toward a tragedy as veiled and inevitable as Sylvie’s whispering ghosts.BUY

BUY LINKS: Meerkat Press |Amazon | Indiebound | Book Depository | Barnes & Noble

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  J. Ashley Smith is a British–Australian writer of dark fiction and other materials. His short stories have twice won national competitions and been shortlisted six times for Aurealis Awards, winning both Best Horror (Old Growth, 2017) and Best Fantasy (The Further Shore, 2018). J. lives with his wife and two sons in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires.

AUTHOR LINKS: Website | Twitter

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DARK SHORT STORIES CAST A LONG SHADOW

From the briefest burst of flash fiction to the stately novella, there is something about the short (and not so short) story that is perfectly suited to the dark and the weird. The best of them are incandescent, flaring brightly within our darkest spaces, burning shadows onto our vision that change how we see the world, see ourselves.

The list of my favourite short dark stories could have been much longer, but here I’ve chosen seven that made a deep and lasting impression on me. Stories that still burn brightly inside me, even years after I first read them.

No Matter Which Way We Turned – Brian Evenson

I stumbled across this story, and Brian Evenson, by accident, an internet search for something else that ended on a most unusual photograph, with this flash piece beneath. It’s so short, I read it in just a minute or two, but the effect it had on me was instantaneous and abiding. Every time I’ve read it since, I’ve been as surprised, bewildered and delighted as the first time by its maddening, nightmarish imagery. “No matter which way we turned the girl, she didn’t have a face.”

The Intoxicated – Shirley Jackson

This is another short one, the opening story to Shirley Jackson’s classic collection, The Lottery and Other Stories. A drunk man at a party stumbles into the kitchen, finding the daughter of the household eyeing him from the table. What follows is their conversation, nothing more. The daughter is doing her homework, an essay on the future of the world. She shares with the stranger her vision of civilisation’s inevitable collapse – it seems she is looking forward to it. Nothing happens. The stranger drinks his coffee. They talk, uneasily. And yet, this story is perhaps the most creepy and unsettling in the entire collection.

Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen – Robert Aickman

One of the first Aickman stories I ever read, the dreamlike oddness of Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen has clung to me like some terrible, psychedelic parasite. Housesitting for a friend, Edmund St Jude is tormented by the apartment’s telephone. Odd calls, wrong numbers, and a strange hissing silence at the other end. As Edmund’s isolation increases, he falls in love with a woman he has never met but who he speaks with over the dreaded phone. The tale of Edmund’s hallucinatory depression segues into a technophobic ghost story. The final image is so weird and terrible, it burned into me like a brand.

A Good Man Is Hard To Find – Flannery O’Connor

Growing up in the UK, I never read Flannery O’Connor at school, but only came to her later in life, and was introduced to her extraordinary humour and brutality through this perfect short story. It’s another of those tales that seems to be about something else, about the mundanities of a family drive, depicted with a surgeon’s precision. And yet, throughout there is this mounting dread, the seemingly unresolvable suspense of the everyday in the foreground and the mysterious and terrible ‘Misfit’ in the background. The chilling conclusion is made all the more terrible by omission – because it occurs offstage, we are left to imagine it ourselves.

The Town Manager – Thomas Ligotti

It was Ligotti’s 2006 collection, Teatro Grotesco, that got me back into horror fiction. It completely reconfigured how I thought of the genre and seemed, at the time I read it, a kind of pinnacle, the apex of nightmares rendered in type. Of that collection, the story that struck me most, and which still plagues me, is The Town Manager, which begins weird, gets weirder and, by the end, has descended into utter madness. The story revolves around the appointment of the new Town Manager, a process that occurs by surreally unusual means, and with each new appointment, heralds increasing disturbance, degradation and debasement of the town’s inhabitants. I will be forever scarred by the barely-literate brutality of the new Town Manager’s scribbled proclamation – DUSTROY TROLY. And, of course, by what happens next…

Dead Sea Fruit – Kaaron Warren

The genius of this creepy short is the source of the terror: not an image, not a sound, but a taste – or rather, the absence of taste. One kiss from the Ash Mouth Man and everything you eat tastes of ashes. This is just perfect for the dangerously anorexic patients on Pretty Girl Street – “skeletal, balding, their breath reeking of hard cheese“ – for whom extreme weight loss by any means is a laudable aim. This was the first of Warren’s stories I ever read, and the unique mood – that almost playful bleakness, the willingness to dance across the edge of any taboo – acted like a gateway drug to all the rest. I’ve been broken on the wheel of Kaaron Warren’s horrors, but this is the story that haunts me.

Strappado – Laird Barron

Of all the tales in Barron’s extraordinary collection, Occultation: and other stories, the one my frightened mind returns to again and again, often without my bidding, is Strappado. Named for a form of torture where the victim is dropped from a height by a cord, their hands lashed behind their back, Strappado follows the occasional relationship of two successful arts yuppies, meeting for the first time in five years in an Indian tourist town near Mumbai. Swayne has heard that the infamous guerrilla art collective Van Iblis have a new installation nearby, and he and Kenshi and others from their group go to a private viewing. If I were to say any more it would ruin what comes next. Suffice it to say, I’m still traumatised from the first time I read it, and multiple re-readings have only served to deepen the effect. Barron is renowned for his cosmic horror, and yet this story, which has no supernatural or otherworldly elements, left me with a profound sense of the arbitrariness of all our decisions, of the smallness and pointlessness of our existence in the face of universal indifference.

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