The Birthday Girl & Other Stories (Short Sharp Shocks! Book #46)
I’ve come to the conclusion that Demain Publishing are an unstoppable juggernaut of genre fiction, as we’ve barely entered 2020 and they’re already publishing another tranche of titles under their iconic Short Sharp Shocks! imprint. These are the final five books in Series 1 of the imprint, though fortunately the publisher has announced that there are plans for a Series 2 in the near future. After these final five shorts have been published, Demain will be focusing on some of their other imprints, including the crime-focused Murder! Mystery! Mayhem! under which Alison Faye’s brilliant noir novella Maggie of My Heart was published recently. I’m extremely excited to see what Demain Publishing release over the rest of the year, both in terms of their imprints and also the independent releases such as Dave Jeffrey’s upcoming novella Finding Jericho, which I’ll be reviewing in the next few weeks here on the blog. So with that all coming up on the horizon, I decided to take a look at each of the final five releases in Series 1 of Short Sharp Shocks!
One of the things that impresses me the most about the Short Sharp Shock! imprint is the publisher’s obvious willingness to take chances and publish authors new to the Horror genre, infusing new blood into the genre and allowing each writer a chance to flourish while supported by an excellent illustrator and editor. That policy has been reflected in previous releases and continues with this latest tranche of titles, starting with Book 46: The Birthday Girl & Other Stories. This is a collection of three short stories by author Chris Beck, and continues an interesting format that Demain Publishing has been using on a regular basis for the imprint. When I first encountered the format I was sceptical that there was a sufficient word count for three fully fleshed-out stories in each Short Sharp Shocks! entry that used it, but I’m happy to admit that time and time again the authors and editors have proven me wrong! Each story, regardless of content, tone or style, has always been the perfect length both for itself and to ensure it fits within the three-story format, and I look forward to it being used once again in Series 2.
The collection opens with The Missing Child, which is a fascinating look into the fears faced when entering into a relationship with a single parent who has a child from a previous relationship. Beck deftly tears open the barely-sealed wounds of the stories protagonist, who entered into such a relationship and formed an emotional bond with his partner’s young daughter, and lays bare all of the pain to be found there. That bond, and the love the protagonist feels for the daughter, becomes a rock that weighs them down as the relationship suddenly disintegrates; there’s the slow, grinding horror of not fully understanding why two people slowly fall apart, and then eventually losing access to a child they consider their own. It’s a slow-burning, ethereal tale that builds up the horror of enforced loss and loss of agency, as well as darker hints of jealousy and possessiveness, and which ends with an ambiguous and deeply bitter ending that resonates despite being slightly clichéd.
We then continue with the titular The Birthday Girl, which is a radically different story to the first in both content and writing style. A young girl wakes up the day of her birthday, excited to play with her presents and her beloved mother, only for mum to be strangely reticent at getting up and celebrating with her. What at first appears to be a celebratory lie-in soon becomes something far worse, leading to a distinctly grim and quietly shocking scenario that only gets tenser and more heart-breaking as time goes on. This is by far the most accomplished story in the collection, and indeed the ending had me putting down my Kindle and taking a walk to clear my head, something that very few horror stories have managed to accomplish.
Finally the collection closes with The Trash Can, which impressively once again changes direction in terms of tone and content. Here we have a darkly humorous slice of domestic horror, as a housewife discovers that a newly-purchased humble kitchen appliance is apparently not content to perform its assigned role. Instead it becomes animated with a particularly malicious spirit and turns on its human overlords, leading to a game of cat and mouse that becomes surprisingly tense considering the fact that the evil object is just a motorised trash can and should theoretically be easy to defeat. It’s a grimly amusing tale, and a great way to round out the collection.
The Birthday Girl & Other Stories is a fantastic debut by author Christopher Beck, demonstrating some real talent as a horror writer, including a particularly vivid imagination and a distinct knack for being able to reach into the very core of deeply emotional subjects and then moulding them into harrowing, memorable stories that stay with the reader long after the book itself has been finished. I look forward to seeing what Beck can do in the future, particularly if it’s in association with Demain Publishing, who once again highlight just how crucial a platform they’ve become for new horror writers taking their first steps into the genre.