It’s been a while since I found myself able to *read for pleasure, and the purchases I make at conventions have (perhaps) become emblems of support for people I like and admire, more than an active pursuit of new and exciting work. It’s not that I don’t genuinely want to read them, more that the damned things build up too fast. As we’ve converted various parts of our home, I’ve started donating much of my **hoard to charity, yet the stacks that remain still mock me. All of which is my roundabout way of saying that I’ve decided to kick the book-buying habit for a while and get back to actual reading. I’m starting with slender volumes – short stories for preference – to build up a routine, then moving up to novellas and on to chunkier things.
Enough waffle. Let’s get to our first book:
Ten Minute Warning, by Em Dehaney.
There’s something quietly devastating about Em Dehaney’s second collection. The blurb doesn’t lie when it speaks of ‘darkness and horror’ within, but – with one exception – it is the type of horror born of humanity, recognisable, resonant and real. Readers new to the genre will not find the collection sadistic or mean-spirited. It does not revel in its monsters, nor is it devoid of hope or warmth. A deeper strand of humanity pulls us through to the other side, shaken perhaps, but stronger for it. I found it an oddly comforting if variable read with occasional flashes of brilliance and beauty.
Five out of the ten pieces collected here have already seen publication in anthologies from ***Burdizzo Books. We also find the unpublished prologue to Dehaney’s debut novel, two new (and very different) stories written during lockdown, a bespoke story written for a competition winner, and a final, spiky poem which was published by Nothing Books. I’m pretty much new to Dehaney’s work, so I can’t compare Ten Minute Warning to her first collection, nor to her novel. If you’ve got broader insights, or if your responses to these stories differ to mine, feel free to post them in the Comments at the end.
Caravan of Love kicks things off in a vibrant but slightly confusing fashion, alternating third- and first-person perspectives as it tells the story of Jack Collins, a boy with a foot in two worlds: those of ‘the Brick’ and the Romani ‘Way’. The third-person strand focuses on a craftsman whose livelihood is earned by carving wood but whose artistry comes in the cutting of flesh. The first-person narrative forms the bulk and the heart of the tale, harking back to forbidden love and its consequences. This is a striking meditation on the wounds of the past bleeding into the present, but it didn’t quite land for me emotionally, or with respect to the culture depicted.
Five Gold Rings is shocking in the cold, conscienceless way its narrator relays his crimes. Dehaney neatly accomplishes the feat of illustrating the revolving door of self-deceptive justifications and an outright ownership of evil acts by people who deem themselves untouchable. The depictions of domestic abuse are not relayed in great depth, thankfully, yet this piece of writing evoked the strongest sense of horror and disgust in me, for all its brevity. (Consider that a content warning for anyone who’d prefer to skip this particular one.) It’s a sour series of vignettes that ends with a deeply satisfying bit of retribution. I shall say no more about it.
The title story is a sweaty little potboiler which shifts the acidic fear, frustration, and claustrophobia of the early covid lockdowns to a small, sealed nuclear bunker. I’d like to have seen a bit more of a journey for the family trapped inside – a few more paragraphs of tension building before the cracks appear – and perhaps more of a sense of the characters. It felt more like the outline of a story than the story itself, if you understand me. Nevertheless, there are some powerful moments; one in particular sent a knife of fear through me as I registered its implication. It was perhaps all the more powerful for the way in which the author skates over that moment with barely a pause, leaving us to digest the full horror as we scrabble to catch up.
The Rape of Ivy House is one of the most accomplished pieces here. Dehaney sketches out her characters and setting with swift economy, bringing us to the rotting, overgrown door of Stan Gonputh – stubborn relic of a bygone age – whose isolation leaves him vulnerable to the forces of progress. One of the things I loved about this story is the way the author reveals and then questions our assumptions. In combination, Stan’s determined stand against ‘electrickery’, his colloquial language, and the distaste with which his home is described all lead us to think him a laughable figure, harmless but clearly wrong-headed. However, as we see how he’s treated by those professing to help, and as we learn of his past and his pain, we find our sympathies and frustrations very much shifting in the other direction. Outstanding work.
The Tiger & the Lamb eluded me, and I would do a disservice to Em by attemptingh to review it at length. The structure hops between (and thematically connects) the minds and the stories of Marilyn Monroe, Beth Short – ‘the Black Dahlia’ – and a murderous man. It will doubtless hold more impact and meaning to those familiar with the lives, crimes and conspiracies associated. Unfortunately, I’m ignorant of all but the most basic tabloid histories, and even then, I’m pretty hazy. Moving on.
Herring Girl is the prize story, previously unpublished, and it is astonishingly vivid. It depicts a woman’s life in the herring industry, the rituals and monotony, the sheer mundane cruelty and horror of a poverty-ridden life without choice or hope. Dehaney fills her prose with sensual descriptions, from the tangible stink of fish guts to the bitter cold of the wind, from the pits and whorls of a fingertip to the horse-hoof bangs on the wall that signal the start of another hellish day. Her story is small, but we never feel it is anything less than important on a human level. Its triumph lies in how firmly and fully the author places us in this woman’s plight, allowing us to feel all she feels, to know in our bones what drudgery is, what helplessness feels like, and then to give us something that feels like… hope. I found myself pondering the ending long after I’d finished, wondering whether a literal, transformational escape was intended, or a metaphorical one, and if the latter, whether we should celebrate or mourn her final feelings. It struck home hard, that one, for deeply personal reasons.
Hannah’s Story is a peculiarity, being the unpublished prelude to Dehaney’s novel, Searcher of the Thames. Whilst its title may hold true in that context, the focal character here is definitively not Hannah, but an Algonquin woman called Matoaka, known to history as Pocahontas. We learn of her earnest but misguided hopes for peace, accompany her to England with her kidnapper, witness her being stripped of innocence and optimism, then follow her through to a bitter end. Hannah only really appears at that point, leading us on into the novel, but although that thread lends hope to an otherwise grim tale, our hearts and our thoughts stay with Matoaka. Her story is one that has been mythologised – most egregiously by Disney studios in their animated film – but Dehaney forces us to face the truth: she was a human being, taken from her home, abused and reshaped to fit English whims. She survived as best as she could, but would surely have retched to see her experiences romanticised.
Little Miss Colorado Dream Queen is the only piece in this collection that I had read previously. It was written for Welcome to a Town Called Hell, forming part of the unfolding apocalypse. (Along with my own story, Hell’s Teeth.) The ‘dream queen’ in question is Frankie Mackenzie, a hack journalist who’s groping her way up from a hangover when the urgent calls start coming. The characterisation is good, the humour wry, but the plot here is pretty slight. Essentially, we get a sense of the broader chaos before homing in on her workplace and the predatory boss she’s been dealing with for the past 20 years. It’s fun and gross in ways reminiscent of Reanimator and the Troma milieu, but very much a snapshot rather than a story. The core of horror is feeling fear for the characters, getting drawn into their situation, empathising with them, imagining what you would do. I just didn’t feel it here.
Elvers – the final story – is magnificent in its own right but shines all the brighter by comparison to its predecessor. It is subtle, alluring, mythic, and deeply satisfying on both an artistic and emotional level. Juno is a lonely girl, raised by her dad who runs a fishing-tackle shop. Theirs is a loving but fragile relationship, marred by the tragedy of her mother’s death. Paternal over-protectiveness causes Juno to grow up ‘a frigid freak, a virgin at twenty-eight’, but when Guillaume arrives on the scene, something unlocks inside of her. There is excitement here, a sense of raw nature – beauteous and horrifying – which leaves conscious thought, guilt, and existential crises almost anomalous. Given the tropes of the genre, we expect there to be some kind of punishment for their passion, yet the denouement had me punching the air for joy. This is top quality stuff.
There is a poem to wrap up the collection, called Fire Escape. I’m not steeped enough in poetry to confidently comment on its structure, meter and the like, but I found it an affecting piece, more so with repeated readings. It holds weight and value, taking us to a place of utmost and chronic pain, but unfortunately in doing so, it takes us out of the high Elvers left us with. I think it would have served better as the beginning of our journey, leading us into the Caravan of Love and the torments therein.
By and large, Ten Minute Warning does its job, showcasing the range and depth of its author’s work. They may not have all been straight hits for me, but Dehaney’s definitely got something here. I recommend the collection on the strength of Ivy House, Herring Girl and Elvers alone, and others will undoubtedly catch your heart and your imagination depending on your personal tastes.
That’s about it for me for now. I’ll get cracking on the next book for review, which will either be The Woods or Trying to be so Quiet, depending on my mood. That’ll be coming your way next month. In the meantime, have a good one.
* This is partly because my concentration span’s been wrecked by telephone notifications, and partly because I read for a living. Oof. Even as I write this, my ‘pleasure’ reading has effectively morphed into research for reviews. Ah, well…
** Saving just 3 waist-high cases of ‘books I definitely want to read’ and some personal favourites you can tear from my cold, dead hands. Try it. I dare you.
*** For the sake of transparency, Em Dehaney is Burdizzo’s ‘editor and whip-cracker’. In that capacity, she has published two of my short stories. I’ve earned no money, and she and I have never met, but I do acknowledge the… perception of vested interests this might give. I think I’ve been pretty even-handed, but consider this footnote a pinch of salt with which to take my review.