In among shiny novels, novellas, and even multi-author anthologies, single author short story collections often get overlooked. I’m admittedly biased since they published my two collections, but Lethe Press, publishes some really standout collections, and there are a few recent releases I want to highlight.
Forget the Sleepless Shores by Sonya Taaffe is hot off the presses this month. It’s a gorgeous collection, echoing with themes of loss, longing, and separation. Many of the stories either draw from mythology and history, or create their own, giving them a timeless, fairy tale feel. As a result, the characters have a sense of lives extending far beyond the page, as though the reader is merely peeking in on a slice of their lives. They feel familiar and strange all at once, giving the stories a haunted, and unsettling feel, in the best of ways. Another common thread tying the collection together is Taaffe’s meticulous use of language. Not only is the imagery striking, but sentences are constructed with a unique sense of rhythm that shakes the reader out of complacency and makes them carefully consider each word, its placement, and what Taaffe is saying. There’s a poetic quality and a flow to the language that only increases the dreamy, magical feel saturating the collection.
His scream shocked silence into his mouth, brought him scrambling upright in bed as though he could climb out of his flame-ridden flesh: plaster cool against his sweating spine, late moonlight in watery bars across the wicker-backed chair draped with his pants and Niko’s socks and somebody’s under-shirt, and Niko in the darkness beside him, slow with sleep and sharp with worry, saying “Blake? Blake, love. What’s wrong?”
–Little Fix of Friction
There are ghost stories, a father trying to reconcile with a daughter born of the sea, a dybbuk carried inside a lover’s skin, restless spirits, bodies buried in peat, and a monster born from the weight of history and science and the atomic bomb. Each story is unique, but again connected by that timeless feel and a beauty of language. In an overall strong collection, the stories that stood out as my favorites were “Little Fix of Friction”, “On the Blindside”, “The Boatman’s Cure”, “The Dybbuk in Love”, “Like Milkweed”, “The Salt House”, and “The Creeping Influences”.
Not Here. Not Now. was published earlier this year, and contains both short stories and novellas. The settings are far-ranging in both geographical location and time period, from historical to contemporary, and from the Greek isles, to the streets of New York, from a desert island, to the canals and opera houses of Venice. Jeffers adapts the voice of each piece to suit the setting, and does an impressive job of it. In the introduction to “A Handbook for the Castaway”, the author admits to inventing a “faux-seventeenth-century dialect”, however it feels authentic, perfectly suited to the piece, making the characters’ words come alive so the reader hears the cadence of them as they go along. Some of the same themes encountered in Taaffe’s collection are here as well, in particular myth and history, but they play out very differently. There’s less of a fairy tale feel to Jeffers’ pieces, but again, the language employed for each makes them feel grounded, imbuing them with a sense of place and history.
Hunger drove me out at dusk. I followed the trail my brother had made dragging what was left of our sister. I began to smell fresher blood and to hear noises, horrible noises, chuckles and coughs and chirps. Peering between a rock and a leafy bush, I saw a wake of black vultures squabbling over the corpse of my small brother and our sister’s few disjointed bones.
— The Hyena’s Blessing
While there are ghouls and sirens to be found in the collection’s pages, many stories do away with the fantastical element altogether, or touch on it very lightly. Alongside the fantastical creatures, there is also a castrato singer, and a young boy suffering terrible migraines and obsessed with the Harry Clarke illustrations of the work of Edgar Allan Poe. There is love, both unrequited and reciprocated, lust and sex, hearts broken and hearts mended. It’s a deeply human collection, one that elegantly straddles worlds real and unreal. The stories that stood out to me in particular were “You Deserve”, “Seb and Duncan and the Sirens”, “A Handbook for the Castaway”, “The Hyena’s Blessing”, “Captain of the World”, and “The New People”.
Acres of Perhaps by Will Ludwigsen, also published earlier this year, just happens to be part of the special sale Lethe Press has going on right now, so it’s the perfect time to snag a copy. It’s a slender collection, but one with an interesting conceit. Many of the pieces are fragmentary, describing episodes of a non-existent, Twilight Zone-like TV show, called Acres of Perhaps. Like The Twilight Zone, Acres of Perhaps occasionally pushes boundaries to make both political points and artistic ones, while other episodes are straight up campy sci-fi. All of this is established in the opening story of the collection, appropriately titled “Acres of Perhaps”. The story focuses on the fictional show’s writers, each with their own vision for the series. The “tortured genius” of the bunch, David, believes he’s had an actual encounter with the supernatural, after falling through a hole in a massive stump in the woods, and emerging in a weird mirror-world where everyone is almost, but not quite like themselves, and where he is more creative and productive than he ever could have been in the reality where he belongs. The story plays with and deconstructs the idea of genius, and the creative muse, and what counts as an acceptable sacrifice in the name of art – health, family, friendship, love? The story blurs the line between reality and fiction, never fully answering the question “of whether anything supernatural is going on, and it’s all the stronger for it.
It was dark, just as David had described. There was a slight intimation of a breeze, breathing also like he’d said. My eyes couldn’t focus on the bottom, black and speckled with something like stars. It might have been night on the other side, where David Findley was still writing in an attic somewhere with a bottle of gin beside him.
–Acres of Perhaps
The story feels true – the rivalry and affection between the writers, the struggle against budget constraints and studio notes, David’s battle with alcoholism, and Barry and his lover having to live a closeted life due to the attitudes of the time, yet still being able to enjoy support and acceptance within their writers’ circle. The snippets of episodes interspersed with the other stories in the collection add richness to the opening story and vice versa. While the other stories are not directly connected to Acres of Perhaps, they do have the uncanny feel of stories that could take place within the series’ universe, with many exploring alternate timelines – particularly “Night Fever”, which places Charles Manson in the era of disco, and “Poe at Gettysburg”, which imagines Edgar Allan Poe as president – and asking the all important question at the heart of that type of science fiction show: “what if”.
To close things out, I’ll include a shout-out for two slightly older Lethe titles – A. Merc Rustad’s wonderful So You Want to Be a Robot, and Livia Llewellyn’s Engines of Desire. Both contain stories that are simultaneously brutal and gorgeously written, delivering gut-punches and breathtaking prose in one go. Many of Rustad’s stories explore the complexities of gender and humanity through the lens of the fantastic, while Llewellyn turns that same lens on sexuality, desire, and violence. Llewellyn’s collection skirts the edge of horror, and indeed was twice-nominated for the Shirley Jackson award, while Rustad’s collection spans genres, from rich, secondary world fantasy, to contemporary science fiction, and all the interstitial spaces in-between.
I’d highly recommend browsing Lethe’s catalogue, especially now with the aforementioned sale going on. The press also publishes novels, novellas, and anthologies, all worth checking out. In addition to the content of the collections being top-notch, Lethe’s books look and feel good too, with striking covers and excellent layout and design. As always, I remain a firm believer in there being no such thing as too many books in a TBR pile. Happy reading!