We’re reading STARDUST by Nina Allan

9 Oct

Clowns, carnivals and halls of mirrors have been used in horror stories often enough, but rarely to such effect, says Liz Sourbut

PS Publishing, HB £11.99

Stardust: The Ruby Castle Stories is a collection of beautifully written stories, tenuously linked by largely fleeting mentions of the actress Ruby Castle, and by various themes of illusion, carnival, failure and loss. The stories are carefully-observed reflections on human nature, each with a macabre or horrific twist. The settings range from London to post-war Germany to a future Russia following a range of characters all of whom, in their own way, are chasing ghosts.

The tone is often claustrophobic. In “Laburnums”, a frustrated poet who lives with her ageing mother is haunted by apparitions of her old school-friend Amma. But is Amma dead, or is she in fact a successful actress, who escaped the dreariness of everyday life? In “The Gateway”, a letter from an old friend sends Andrew chasing down memory lane to the day when he took young Claudia to the carnival and allowed her to enter the hall of mirrors alone… Don’t look for closure in these stories. Most of them end on an ambiguous note.

In the opening story, “B-Side”, a young chess-player, obsessed by a fear of failure, is on his way home through a night-time park when he is accosted by two of the villainous characters from Ruby Castle’s movies. This fantastical and frightening incident offers the reader the first of several sparse glimpses into the actress’s life. As the protagonists of these stories grasp at fragments of the lives of others, so the reader will find, scattered through the stories, fragments of the life-story of Ruby Castle: just often enough to justify the book’s subtitle, never quite enough to satisfy.

Allan’s clean, spare prose lends her stories an immediacy and authenticity that is spine-chilling. Ambiguous ghosts surface repeatedly, haunting the narrators of almost every story. But are these the ghosts of the dead, or manifestations of people who are still living and only lost? Perhaps it is the narrators who are lost, and the ghosts who have moved on with their lives. Because in the end, for all their fantastic elements, what is truly spine-chilling about these stories is Allan’s pitiless exposure of human frailties, our capacity for self-delusion, betrayal and cowardice, and the degree of courage it takes for us to overcome our failings.

Also on the blog:

Liz Sourbut tends Neptune’s Brood

M. John Harrison takes a psychotic break with J. Robert Lennon’s Familiar

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