by M. Rickert
“Memoir of a Deer Woman”
“Journey into the Kingdom”
“Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account”
“Was She Wicked? Was She Good?”
“You Have Never Been Here”
“War is Beautiful”
“The Christmas Witch”
Reviewed by Richard E. D. Jones
Holiday, the new collection of short stories by M. Rickert, is the perfect book to curl up with as the actual holidays approach. Provided, of course, your idea of a holiday is something in which you’re battling constant, overwhelming feelings of dread as the inevitability of crushing horror sneaks up next to you with a large, spiked hammer dripping red and gooey.
Which is to say, this is not a collection for the weak. It is, though, a collection for those who enjoy meticulous stories, full of engaging characters coping with the appalling horrors lurking just out of the corner of their eye.
“Holiday,” the short story that gives this collection its name, provides a taste of what’s to come. The protagonist (and I hesitate to call him, or, really, any of the characters in these pages, hero) is a survivor of childhood abuse. The story charts his seemingly inevitable slide into the terminal velocity of a vicious cycle of abuse and horror until, at the end, he stands revealed in a Gacy-esque clown costume, smiling at the distant laughter of children. It is, without a doubt, one of the creepiest stories I’ve ever read. And I haven’t even mentioned the ghost of Jon Bennett Ramsey.
One of the things I liked best about Rickert’s stories is the way in which she conflates the mundane with the magical. Things go along, not well, but they go along, until we get that one line, that simple sentence that sets the hairs on the back of your neck rising on their own in a dance of warning.
In “The Christmas Witch,” the long story that closes out the volume, we have the following: “She uses a skull, and a long bone that might be from a fish, the small shape of a mouse paw, and a couple of chicken legs. She sucks her thumb while she waits for it to do the silly dance again.” The story of a troubled little girl who becomes caught in a web of her own half-truths and evasions as she deals with a new town and the death of her mother, “The Christmas Witch” is creepy, scary and more believable than I wanted it to be.
Included in this book also is “Journey into the Kingdom,” her World-Fantasy-Award-winning short story. In “Journey,” Rickert explores the nature of ghosts and how we can create our own without even meaning to do so. It’s one of those stories I just can’t stop thinking about, remembering the ease with which the protagonist makes a certain choice to act. To say more would be to spoil and I don’t want to do that.
“Was She Wicked? Was She Good?,” the story written expressly for this volume, is another example of one of Rickert’s recurring themes: victimization by and of children. Following an obscure, violent incident in the big city, two parents move with their little girl to the country where the little girl amuses herself by torturing fairies. The sweet, laughing little girl leaves the fairies’ mutilated little bodies in horrible poses on the front porch. “. . . in a way, we have become her victims,” the father thinks. The steps he takes to make his daughter a “normal” girl and the reasons behind it are truly horrifying.
The story that stuck with me the most, though, would have to be “Traitor.” In a future America, citizens are waging unconventional warfare against the government. A mother and her daughter live alone in a small apartment that holds a secret room the daughter isn’t supposed to see, while the mother builds very special backpacks that the daughter has to deliver. And one backpack filled with wires and clay the mother straps to her daughter, locks it around the young girl’s body, and then sends her daughter off on a specific route. That line? The one that really made me shiver? It’s spoken by the daughter to her mother: “I’m not stupid.” The almost inevitable climax combines the horrors of war with the longing of a child for her mother, no matter the circumstances. It’s one of those stories that I continue thinking about long after reading and that’s a high compliment.
With Holiday, M. Rickert managed to seriously creep me out. Her greatest skill lies in making the depredations people will sink to when they believe they’re doing the right thing seem plausible, almost normal.
The inclusion of no less than 22 interior illustrations (plus the cover) by Thomas Canty puts a beautiful finishing touch to an already handsome book. This is not only a collection you need to read but one you’ll be proud to own.
[Editor’s Note: This is being added on October 27, 2010 following a notice from the publisher. The cover artist for Holiday, Thomas Canty, has produced a trailer film promoting the book which showcases the interior art to be found therein. Simply put, it is a beautiful 3:32 production (replete with haunting vocals and score) and can be found here.]
Holiday by M. Rickert
Golden Gryphon Press
Nov. 2010, hc, 164 pp., $24.95