A new publication from Undertow is always a treat. With books like Laura Mauro’s wonderful Sing Your Sadness Deep and the Year’s Best Weird Fiction anthologies Michael Kelly has made the imprint into a go-to for modern weird horror fiction. Thin Places is Chronister’s debut collection, blending stories previously published in places like Black Static and Kelly’s own Shadows & Tall Trees with a handful of previously unpublished works, so she faces the double-edged sword of being amongst excellent company. Thankfully, she faces it with aplomb.
Thin Places opens with “Your Clothes a Sepulcher, Your Body a Grave”; a mournful piece of gothic horror that both sets the tone of the collection – riddled as it is with sinister childhoods, mournful adulthood and the stranger times between – yet stands alone as a perfectly once-removed prologue. In it we are told of a young man’s love for an ailing woman; a “misguided episode” as one character refers to it, although the unnamed narrator calls it “a blade held to my throat”. Here Chronister draws from many gothic tropes – a hazily European setting, shadowy cathedrals and whispered tales of bleeding nuns – but also shows a deep understanding of the genre’s concern with corruption and the abject. There’s a suggestion of inherited illness – breaking the distinction between self and other that, as the nameless woman explains, is like “seeing yourself in a mirror that doesn’t work right” – but also the collapse of linear time into a morass of memory and reminiscence that ultimately, inevitably begins to spiral and repeat.
As with many Undertow collections, every story in Thin Places is a fine work but a handful struck me as worth deeper investigation.
In “Roiling and Without Form” we encounter Molly, a young woman working to keep her remote motel business functional after, it is implied, some kind of apocalyptic event has twisted her residents into monsters. And this is where Chronister works her magic; everything here relies on implication and insinuation. Is Molly a reliable narrator, desperately trying to stay sane in an insane world, or is she weaving a story to herself in order to rationalise the twin horrors of staying somewhere she hates and leaving to go somewhere she fears. She sweats blood, perhaps literally, to keep her invalid mother alive but at least she is wanted, needed. Yet when Molly is asked if she is lonely she responds with “Oh, I’m not. Alone I mean.” Perhaps she is unaware that being alone and being lonely are not necessarily the same. I have a suspicion, though, that perhaps she is.
“The first woman to live in the four-gabled house fermented her unborn children in the wine cellar”. As first lines go, this must be up there with Ballard’s “later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog” for sheer, visceral impact. Thankfully, “The Fifth Gable” maintains this power as we’re introduced to the three other women who live in this dank, shunned house when Marigold – a young woman desperate for a child – comes to them for assistance. Chronister uses the sequences and repetition of fairy tale logic here but inverts them; one of the women, “comfortingly”, reminds Marigold that “Whatever else you do, dear, remember to blame yourself”. Like the best, darkest faith tales, “The Fifth Gable” has us following Marigold along a path that, no doubt to her eventual regret, leads her to exactly what she wants most in the world.
The final tale in the collection is the eponymous “Thin Places”. In the coastal village of Branaugh – a “thin place” where “the barrier between the clay and the mist is more fragile” – the inhabitants wait for the mysterious change that comes over the town in early Spring. Is this Branaugh shifting endlessly between clay and mist? How does it involve the newly-incumbent lighthouse keeper and his daughter Lilianne? What decision will Miss Augusta, the school-mistress make, or be forced to make, as she searches for the meaning to her “living between”? “Thin Places” is far less about answering these questions than it is about the impact simply asking them has on orthodoxy. Allowing this – and the story’s concern with place, intrusion and legacy – “Thin Places” could well be considered a piece of folk horror. And a very fine one at that.
The only real criticism I can offer for Thin Places is that a handful of stories feel more like prologues to larger works. This doesn’t mean they don’t work on their own and I’m fully aware that to say something is too short feels like a harsh criticism of short fiction. Yet stories like “White Throat Holler” and “Russula’s Wake”, which also uses the same sketched-in technique of “Roiling and Without Form”, stop just as they start to get going. Maybe that’s not even a criticism as to want more is certainly preferable to wanting less and Chronister’s powerful, restrained technique of not letting the reader see the whole picture is a powerful one.
Again, as always with Undertow Publications, I should note the book’s wonderful presentation. Kelly always has an eye for an aesthetic that reflects each book’s contents and Stephen Macley’s haunting artwork – a veiled woman, halfway between bride and mourner –- is complemented beautifully by Vince Haig’s gaunt design layout.
A powerful first collection and hopefully the first of many more.
Thin Places by Kay Chronister is published by Undertow Publications. Buy the book: US.