Since February is Women in Horror month, I’ve decided to post the full review I wrote of Lynda E. Rucker‘s collection The Moon Will Look Strange (Karōshi Books, 2013). My piece was published in the Green Book journal last year.
I will note that Lynda is a friend of mine, but since my general policy is to avoid reviewing the work of those dear to me, this review should stand as an indication of how much I enjoyed her writing.
It is easy upon reading an author’s impressive debut collection to ponder ‘why on earth is she not better known?’, and search for conspiracy. The reality is that it is difficult to assess the ability of a writer when her work is published in disparate venues over an extended period of time. This can result in a lengthy stretch before a writer’s reputation is established simply because of the variety of markets, and the inability of most readers to keep up with all of them.
Despite these factors Lynda E. Rucker’s star has been on the ascent among those who enjoy a well-wrought supernatural tale for a number of years, thanks in part to a few savvy editors who spotted her talent and have been encouraging her work.
Thus we can now enjoy The Moon Will Look Strange, Rucker’s first collection, which features twelve of her short stories across a span of fifteen years. With these pieces assembled in one volume the reader can appreciate and admire the richness, depth, and interlocking themes of her early body of work.
Rucker writes the kind of effortless prose that reads easily, but is only created from careful, determined craft. Her stories describe conflicted, lost people, and dreadful situations you could never imagine, yet believe must have happened.
This is the mark of a superior storyteller, and points to Rucker as one of the most promising purveyors of the supernatural weird tale writing at the moment.
In her author’s note at the beginning of the volume Rucker mentions how the past persists with her, so she can summon memories at will. This is a trademark of her prose: past events are seamlessly interwoven with the forefronted narrative in a way that informs the actions of the characters without interrupting the story’s pacing. This is a difficult trick to pull off in an unaffected and natural fashion. If she depended upon first-person perspectives that might seem understandable, but those stories are the exceptions – three out of the twelve – and generally she favours a tight third-person point of view, where the reader is kindly, but firmly, forced to watch the terrible ruin that befalls her characters.
As an American living in Dublin, who has travelled extensively, some of Rucker’s preoccupations with identity, rootedness, and disconnection are evident in her fiction. Many of the people in her stories are adrift, or stuck, due to grief, loss, or defeated expectations. They slowly become cut off from the support of community or friends, and into these voids things creep in.
So, the broken-hearted Paul, a travelling backpacker in the West of Ireland, is ensnared in a honey-trap hostel of lost souls in ‘No More A-Roving’, or Kathleen, an English teacher in Czechoslovakia becomes prey to the ghosts of a past era in ‘The Chance Walker’, and Colin is made pay for his past mistakes as he runs away in grief to Spain in the titular ‘The Moon Will Look Strange’.
Evan, in ‘Beneath the Drops’, is unable to stop the dissolution of his relationship in the perpetual damp in Oregon, so it rises to consume what’s left in a palpable fashion. In ‘Different Angels’ Jolie returns to small town Georgia in defeat, only to be overcome by the very memories she tried to elude. There is a conundrum of identity at the heart of ‘In Death’s Other Kingdom’, where Grace is both the phantom of lost hopes and desires trapped in limbo, and the ‘real’ character she fights to overcome. At a tiresome party in ‘These Foolish Things’ Leon tries to find ‘his’ Carla in other women in an endless loop of thwarted love.
And there are monsters.
Such as the unique demon ‘Ash-Mouth’, folklore created by Ivy’s grandmother to excuse the disappearance of her grandfather, but which lurks in the family as a very real possibility in dark vents and passageways. The decrepit house and its child ghosts in ‘The Burned House’ are both manifestations of the imprint of past events and failed family bonds.
The two extraordinary stories in The Moon Will Look Strange are ‘These Things We Have Always Known’ and ‘The Last Reel’. Placed at the end of the book, sandwiched between the highly effective ‘Different Angels’ with its avatars of suppressed fears, it means the collection gradually builds to a crescendo of sinister dread.
‘These Things We Have Always Known’ is set in in the insular mining town of Cold Rest, high in the mountains of Georgia, on the borders of North Carolina – what is being mined, and why is everyone capable of conjuring strange creations? The married couple Sarah and Neil are mired in this town through family history and tradition, but there’s hope for their teenaged daughter Emma, and Neil’s returning brother Gary, to escape the chthonic forces that are finally returning to the surface of Cold Rest thanks to the invocations of the inhabitants.
This is a perfect example of one of Rucker’s strengths: her ability to depict believable, ordinary people assailed by dark forces, and for it to seem perfectly acceptable thanks to an escalation of small events executed with impeccable timing. In this way she draws clearly upon the legacy of 19th century horror fiction in which inexplicable forces gather momentum against unsuspecting protagonists to end in catastrophe.
‘The Last Reel’ sees Sophie visit the rural home of her newly-deceased Aunt Rose, which has been bequeathed to her. She’s accompanied by her boyfriend Kevin. The light, bantering tone between the couple as they drive up to the remote location transforms into menace as they enter the house and investigate its rooms, and dark, hidden chamber. Tantalising details about the odd connection between the niece and the witchy aunt are unearthed, and cemented for a horrible denouement.
The final noteworthy element of Rucker’s stories are her endings: they are terrible, and fragile, and often timed at unexpected moments. They open the reader to invasion by not throttling the mystery or offering easy solutions.
She releases her stories to continue to haunt you at uneasy moments, as all good horror does.
2019 Update: you can now get a fabulous limited edition hardback reprint of the collection courtesy of Undertow Publications.