Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Old Knowledge and Other Strange Tales

The eight stories in this first collection by Rosalie Parker, co-proprietor of Tartarus Press and editor of that publisher's Strange Tales anthologies, tend, at least on first glance, toward the traditional end of the supernatural fiction continuum.  Two stories feature contemporary city dwellers running afoul of the traditional ways of rural villagers; another deals with the possibly haunted house a group of siblings inherits from their late father; two more may, or may not, feature infamous creatures from literature and film.  This air of familiarity, and a tendency toward sudden, vague resolutions, leaves some of the stories feeling too insubstantial, but the total effect of the collection is pleasantly unnerving.

Ambiguity in the supernatural tale is itself a phenomenon of ambiguous value.  When well-executed, it can capture and reflect the fearful uncertainties of human existence, generating an unease greater than any form of explication could achieve.  Less successful attempts lead to stories that seem to stop just on the point of becoming interesting, or to have chosen ambiguity because neither a supernatural nor a non-supernatural explanation would be particularly interesting.  The Old Knowledge demonstrates both these virtues and these faults.

"Spirit Solutions" is for much of its length a well-written story of four siblings, the subtle tensions that separate them, the snow building up outside the house whose fate they must decide, and the signs of a presence haunting that house.  The enigmatic e-mail messages from the titular detective agency are especially effective.  But the story's conclusion is a shade too abrupt, too evasive, to pay off the atmosphere that's been generated.  "Chanctonbury Ring," on the other hand, has a satisfying plotline, but despite a fine description of encroaching mist reveals too little about its ancient monument and the unexpected person met there for those events to acquire the necessary weight of atmosphere.

Other stories may at first seem unsatisfying, but on further consideration show hidden depths and demonstrate the particular type of covert effect for which the less successful tales also strive.  The first and longest story in the volume, "The Rain," initially reads as a stock effort: a vacationing urbanite, taciturn locals, signs of an imminent threat.  It is only on further consideration that one can see how subtly Parker undermines those tropes, producing a story in which straightforward, unassuming prose belies a keen psychological insight.  "The Cook's Story" likewise plays with readers' expectations, leading to a climax that, while not a million miles removed from what would have occurred in a more traditional story, attains surprising force simply by the roundabout way in which it is reached, and the suddenness with which it arrives.

Two shorter pieces, "In the Garden" and "The Supply Teacher," are not so much ambiguous as slyly ironic, demonstrating anew how the most innocuous subject can provide cover for darker impulses.  That is, perhaps, the keynote for this slim collection: the trickiness of expectations.  Sometimes, classical stories of the supernatural provide just what they promise.  At other times, events play out on terms one would never have suspected, leading to a very different answer, or no answer at all.  Old knowledge is never without its secrets and mysteries, and neither is The Old Knowledge.

Out of print from The Swan River Press, The Old Knowledge and Other Strange Tales is now available as an e-book from Tartarus Press.

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