Whether or not our school days turn out to be, as the saying goes, the best days of our lives, there can be little doubt that they leave formative, potent memories behind. Positive or negative, unique or mundane, even the most latent recollections can have power.
This is the notion that underpins Clint Smith’s The Skeleton Melodies. Each story in this collection sees its main character haunted, and eventually confronted, by an aspect of their school or childhood in a way that makes for some compelling and genuinely disturbing horror. From the resurrection of a long-dead high school romance to a terrifying incident on the bus ride home, all manner of ghoulish and unnatural scenarios are captured in stories such as “Lisa’s Pieces”, “By Goats Be Guided”, and “The Pecking Order’. The haunting nature of high school influences is, in this book, manifested in frighteningly tangible ways.
There’s a pervading atmosphere of decay running through these stories, right from the moment we meet our first protagonist. It’s noticeable in the stories’ various locations: the old, crumbling school buildings overrun with ivy and sealed away behind chain-link fences; rural towns nestled alongside old forests and disused railways; vast, deserted cornfields and roadside graveyards and abandoned suburban lodgings. These are small, cloistered settings that seem ripe for eerie encounters and at the same time often function as places to which characters can retreat from contemporary urban life. But after a while, we start to see that the internal lives of our characters are as ruinous as the places they inhabit. In “Lisa’s Pieces”, a toxic childhood friendship reawakens old wounds and a residual guilt that is bound to turn deadly. “The Undertow, and They That Dwell Therein” sees a fragile mother-daughter relationship finally pushed to its violent and tragic breaking point. And “Haunt Me Still” tells a story of second meetings, second chances, and grudges that were never quite laid to rest. In this way, The Skeleton Melodies possesses a sense of psychogeography, and part of the appeal is that it never quite becomes clear whether it’s the characters influencing their locations, or the other way around. As such, moments of horror are artfully heightened by the uncertainty as to whether the threat is coming from without, or from within.
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In each story, the horror is visceral: supernatural at its core, but having less to do with ghosts and phantoms than with perversions of the flesh. “Lisa’s Pieces”, “Fingers Laced”, and “The Undertow” are among the main highlights. “Lisa’s Pieces” is entertaining in its embracing of old school horror tropes: the charming, almost sociopathic doctor making a reappearance in our protagonist’s life accompanied by his strange, unkempt lackey reminded me irresistibly of Dracula, Renfield, and their pursuit of Mina Harker. “Fingers Laced” uses particularly striking imagery, of dark, twisted monsters lurking on the fringes of desolate cornfields and makes effective use of a frame narrative to explore a terrifying event and the scars it leaves behind all at once. “The Undertow” is notable mostly for its narrator. As a single mother whose story revolves largely around her relationship with her own mother, Gwen stands out among the other leads as a character with a unique perspective.
In this vein, there are times when the tight focus of this collection results in some of its tales blurring together. The similar circumstances of many protagonists means that not all of them succeed in remaining distinct, and later on, as themes of female sexuality and its effect begin to emerge, it’s hard not to wish they could have been exanimated from more diverse points of view. Indeed, the stories that I enjoyed the most were often those that avoided the theme of sexuality altogether, given that its examination elsewhere felt one-sided, as if it were being used less as a storytelling device and more as a crutch that props up a significant number of its female characters.
Nevertheless, The Skeleton Melodies is an intriguing collection that will more than satisfy readers who crave a bit of body horror, sinister cults, and the American rural gothic in their fiction. This is a book that’s at once comfortably strange and unnervingly familiar, a study in the uncanny and an experiment in half-forgotten memories where even nostalgia can be a catalyst for fear.