A Twist in the Eye by Charles Wilkinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I love the candor of Mark Samuels' introduction. He introduces his "impartial bona fides" then proceeds to heap praise on Wilkinson's work convincingly, stating that "A Twist in the Eye is the most exciting collection of weird fiction (or strange fiction, if you will) that I have read for many years."
I am in whole-hearted agreement. This collection ranks up there alongside the best of short-story collections, including that of Mark Samuels himself, The White Hands and Other Weird Tales, Thomas Ligotti's Teatro Grottesco, and Brian Evenson's The Wavering Knife.
Truth be told, I ordered this book on Samuels' endorsement, the cover, and the fact that the incredible Egaeus Press (who had published another favorite of mine, Stephen J. Clark's criminally under-known In Delirium's Circle) had published the book. Yes, it was a gamble. I previewed one of Wilkinson's stories that I found online (not collected in this work), so I hedged the bet a tiny bit. But really, I took a chance with my money, and I won yet again. I'm beginning to think that Egaeus is totally incapable of producing a bad book.
Now, regarding the stories themselves, I leave you my notes, with a short addendum at the end:
"Returning" is a melancholy ghost story that I had felt, at first, "cheated" the reader by allowing the narrator too much knowledge right up front and beating the reader on the head with foreshadowing. I was wrong. Wilkinson does an admirable narrative twist that slips past reader expectations or the careful readers' notion of plot "rules" and then slides up behind him with an emotionally-impactful "soft surprise". 4 stars, and we're off to a good start.
Recently, I watched several short films by one (actually two, though they are identical twins) of my favorite directors, The Brothers Quay. As I read "The Human Cosmos," I am struck by unspeakable aesthetic similarities. The line between banal reality and the superluminal universe beyond our own is smeared. What seems like forgetfulness might be an apotheosis. This story is beyond brilliant. 5 stars!
"Hidden in the Alphabet" has echoes of Poe's "Cask of Amontillado". I have to admit that the third person present tense often threw me out of the story, as did several obviously missing words throughout. Auctorial trick or just error? I'm not 100% certain, but it bugged me a great deal. Still, enjoyed this excellent 4-star story!
"Line of Fire" is a story about discovering one's familial roots and thus knowing oneself. This story drips with atmosphere and grey obfuscation. 5 stars.
"In His Grandmother's Coat," a story about minks, yes, those scrappy little creatures, provides a devious bait and switch on who the real monster is. Brilliant. 5 stars.
"Night in the Pink House" is one of the most disturbing stories I've read where most of the horror is evoked by implication, rather than representation. Reminds me of a story I read years ago in Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, vol. 9, "Redacted," by Joyce Carol Oates, where redactions were used to great effect. Sometimes, it's not what you see that produces the terror, it's what you don't see! Another 5 star story.
"Cold Plate" was the weakest story thus far, but still a 3 star story. While the writing could have pushed it to 4, the utter predictability, the gift of too many foreshadowing winks and nudges by the author, holds it back. I'm not disappointed, per se, but not thrilled by it either. Yeah, a solid 3.
I have a friend who's a "car guy". When I say that, I do not mean the same thing as the main protagonist in "Petrol, saved", though I could use those exact same words. This story did not spin the way I thought it would. The overall mood changed from one kind of creepy to another kind of creepy, but still held enough coherence for this reader. 4 stars.
"The World Without Watercress" is more of a mood than a story. The prose is rich and luxurious. In some ways, it's evocative of "The Shining," but far, far more well-written. 5 stars.
"Gold in Ash," loosely founded on Welsh folklore, is surprisingly tender and sweet, yet does not feel out of place in this dark collection. Five stars to this grim and beautiful story of love and family. Yet another 5 star story.
"An Invitation to Worship" focuses on the (very) old folk fertility cults, at first in a roundabout way. Then it cuts to the chase! 4 stars, dragging the modern domestic into the ancient mystic.
"The Investigation of Innocence" was unexpected. After a series of stories centering around folk horror themes, for the most part, this dystopian future folk noir (yes, that is what it is) was a nice change of pace. Still fantastic writing, though, and a twist in the plot and several twists of character that I'm finding is the hallmark of Wilkinson's work. 5 stars.
"Choice" is a ghost story unlike any you've read before. The twist in this one telegraphed a little, but I can forgive that. The voice of this story is compelling and, frankly, exciting, but not in a shoot 'em up kind of way. Thrillingly subdued, I guess. Yet another 5 star story from Wilkinson.
"A Lesson From the Undergrowth" shows, with great literary panache, that grudges and vengeance have a price to the holder and avenger, as well as the victims. Though it is a bit of a slow start, in the end, it really gets under your skin. 4 stars.
"Watchers in the Wood" is a moody tale about trees and people, outcasts and society. It is not quite as atmospheric as the other work in the volume, yet it is still a good, solid story. 3 stars. I do, however, have to point out one issue, and it's throughout the book: line editing. "Gwyn" turns to "Glyn" in one instance in the story, and other stories are missing small words: "to", "is", etc are missing or repeated.
"Hands" caps odd this excellent collection with a fitting denouement, a quiet tale hovering in the interstitial zone between creepy and comforting. The perfect story to end on.
As noted in a couple of places above, there are some slight difficulties with the book itself, namely, the line-editing. Several stories (more than I noted above) were missing small words ("it" or "to" seemed to be commonly AWOL). At first, I thought this was some sort of game on the part of the author, then I realized that these were just plain mistakes that were not caught in the editorial process. Not a "deal breaker," by any means, but noticed. That said, I'm still giving the book a full five stars. These (admittedly trifling) errors leave the book imperfect, but nearly unblemished. The strength of the fiction, with its many twists and ethereal mood, combined with some of the highest production values from any existing publishing house, ensure that this work, this work of art (on several levels) will hold a prominent spot among my chained books!
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