Crowded House & Other Stories (Short Sharp Shocks! Book #46)
S. J. Budd
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 47: Crowded House and Other Stories. This is a collection of three short stories by author S.J. Budd, 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.
We begin with Until I Go, which immediately impresses with its harsh, staccato and fervently evocative language that stands out on the page and also in the reader’s head. As she heads towards a distant, isolated hospital, we find our unnamed, anonymous protagonist tasked with a painful and deeply personal journey: meet with her dying birth mother, with whom she hasn’t met or communicated with in a very long time. It’s obviously a difficult, stressful and even fractious task, one that brings up a whole host of anxieties as a result of her abusive and uncaring upbringing; and that is reflected by the language, style and tone used by Budd, drawing us in while slowly building up the tension for the confrontation that must inevitably come. It certainly resonated with me, for my own personal reasons – how do you meet with an abusive and controlling mother who never provided the love, carer and affection that any child needs to truly prosper during their formative years? It’s a genuinely terrifying thought, and Budd’s skill at putting that all into the story is a true credit to her, all the more impressive for the fact that this is one of her first published stories. And then, as if this wasn’t an engaging enough story, and you think that you have the story nailed down and know roughly what to expect, Budd pulls the rug out from under you with a terrifying, ethereal and absolutely stunning twist that caught me unaware and floored me with its emotional weight and resonance.
Crowded House, the collection’s title story, sees a young woman as the protagonist inheriting the house of a distant uncle who has recently passed away. A strange man who she only met once at a party during her youth, and who was isolated from the rest of her family in what appeared to be a deliberate manner, his story is intriguing enough that our protagonist immediately investigates her new property. Though only remarked upon in passing, there’s an intriguing and indirect horror concept early on when we consider how difficult it is for people my age and younger to actually own property, rather than continually renting; and it does seem like that’s part of the reason why the house is able to lure her in so easily. But she’s also conflicted by the notion of inheriting an entire house and its contents while barely knowing the man who used to own them, as well as being uncertain why she was chosen amongst all others in her family; as such, she deems it their task to remember the man even after his death.
As the house is slowly explored, fighting through rot and decay and its seemingly-shifting dimensions, we once again see Budd’s distinctive writing style come to the fore, relentlessly drawing you into the story and bringing the grim secrets of the property to life. The author makes the house feel like its own distinct and deeply sinister character, the real star of the story: something that had patiently been biding its time until a new owner/victim arrived. There’s this fantastic air of predator and prey that underlies the whole story, which reminded me of the old ‘Dionaea House’ CreepyPasta from the early years of the internet, though Budd imbues it with such a different energy and views it from such a unique angle that it comes across as entirely distinct and original. Indeed, Crowded House is such an intriguing and memorable story that it absolutely begs to be expanded into a novella or even a full novel; sometimes as a reader you get the feeling that the author was holding back due to space or word-count limits, and this feels like one of those stories. If it could be expanded upon by Budd – perhaps published by Demain – then it would be at the very top of my reading pile.
The intriguingly titled A Bubble of Friendship Will Keep Us rounds out the collection, with Budd providing a story that’s distinctly different in style and tone to its predecessors, though it continues the underlying theme of exploring the complexities and ambiguities of family relationships that runs through all three stories. Here we have a deeply lyrical and emotive tale of the bonds of young friendship, and the cruelty of the changes that are wrought by the relentless move from childhood through to becoming an adult. It’s a moving and weighty story of the perils of attempting to cling onto something that no longer exists; or perhaps (willingly) failing to realise when a relationship has changed and refusing to adapt in order for that relationship to survive in some manner. Once again Budd introduces something more to the narrative, an unsettling mythical element that expertly blends with the inherent horror of a friendship mutated and then denied, and makes the rather sudden ending all the more grim and unsettling when Budd unleashes it on us as readers.
I think that Crowded House & Other Stories might be one of the entries in the Short, Sharp, Shocks! imprint that I enjoyed the most, and which truly resonated with me as a piece of horror fiction. All three stories in the collection are superbly written, perfectly paced, and most importantly imbued with a deeply unsettling, almost existential form of horror – the kind that seeps into you and gets under your skin and won’t let you go for a long while afterward finishing them. Although there are supernatural elements in each story, all three are linked together by that underlying theme of family and relationships – of the all-too human horrors that can be inflicted by your relatives and loved ones, whether deliberately or unthinkingly, and the damage that can be inflicted as a result. It doesn’t happen very often, but all three of Budd’s stories resonated with me on a deeply personal level, and thoughts about them are still catching me unawares even now, days after finishing the collection and putting it aside for the next. For me, that’s the mark of a truly skilled horror writer, and I suspect that before long Budd will be leaving an indelible mark upon the genre as a whole.