Days Pass Like A Shadow
Paula C. Readman
Bridge House Publishing
Paula R.C Readman first came to my attention when I reviewed her novelette The Funeral Birds, a murder-mystery with occult undertones that was recently released by Demain Publishing. I thoroughly enjoyed it, finding it to be smoothly-paced and tightly-plotted, with an energy and focus that lifted it above many of its competitors in such a crowded genre. As such, I looked forward to reading more titles from Readman, and was therefore delighted to be offered the opportunity to review her newly-released collection of short stories, entitled Days Pass Like A Shadow. The cover art was well done and engaging, and I was curious to see what Readman would produce using the themes of death and loss that were mentioned in the back-cover blurb.
The collection opens with The Meetings, in which Readman demonstrates her mastery of both atmosphere and twist endings. A gardener recounts how he once witnessed the courtship between a young woman and an older man over a number of years, taking solace in the obvious love and affection between them as they wandered around the park that the gardener dutifully maintained. But in the last few paragraphs of the story, a beautiful twist makes us see the reality of that relationship, and the hidden meanings behind the courtship and age difference.
Burning the Midnight Oil sees our protagonist attend the lonely, isolated funeral of his late mother, the only person to attend apart from the vicar. He quietly laments his mother’s isolated nature and generally reserved attitude towards life, one that smothered his opportunities for life as much as her own. There’s an underlying sense of resentment at the way in which she dominated his life and failed to let him flourish as an individual; as the story progresses, we get some incisive and thought-provoking insights into the stifling relationship between mother and son, ones that resonated uncomfortably close for this reviewer and his experiences of childhood. Eventually, a determination to uncover the truth about his absent father leads our protagonist to a sudden and unexpected encounter that throws his entire life into turmoil and presents him with a radically different view of his mother and the nature of love. This was one of the highlights of the collection – stunningly written, and with a deeply affecting emotional core.
In The Newcomers, Readman gives us a radically different tale, a highly-charged and atmospheric story told from the point of view of a family of lions that are fleeing a bloody massacre and desperately searching for sanctuary. Readman demonstrates that she can work with animal characters as adroitly as human ones with this tale, using some beautifully poetic language to bring to life the highs and lows of the natural order, and each animal’s place in it, before the coming of the titular Newcomers. Those newcomers walk on two legs, drive noisy vehicles and employ fire-sticks and vicious hounds to protect the cattle the lions feed off, and the inevitable clash between the two sides leads to the massacre – a heartbreaking scene which Readman describes in potent, near-poetic language. But where there is the darkness of death, it is also accompanied by the lightness of love, with an upbeat ending that I appreciated and stayed with me for quite some time.
The Kite takes us to the blood-soaked trenches of the First World War, using grimly poetic language to evoke the devastation of the landscape and the suffering of the combatants. Harry, a young British soldier, contemplates his new life in the hellish reality of the trenches in comparison to the idyllic life he led before he joined the Army, and wonders if he will ever see his home in the same way ever again. Readman expertly evokes a blend of nostalgia and loss – of a more innocent time lost forever more. An encounter in No Man’s Land with an enigmatic kite, is the catalyst for an epiphany about the nature of conflict and brotherhood between men. Meanwhile, On the Streets of Kabul features another British soldier, a century ahead of the previous combatant, serving his last day on the dusty streets of Afghanistan’s capital. Yet another another semi-anonymous soldier serving the whims of the near-mythical ‘War on Terror’, a flurry of bullets and explosions leads him to witness a brutal demonstration of the costs of the endless fighting in the Middle East.
Shadow Clock is one of the longer stories in the collection, and brings us into the world of twelve-year old Jonathan during the Blitz in wartime London. The death of his grandmother sees he and his mother inherit a distant estate, one that seems to have some link to the mysterious ‘Noonday’ that his grandmother mentioned as she lay on her deathbed. What is the ‘Noonday’ and why is Jonathan now its ‘Keeper’, and how does it all link with the awful pain he felt in his head and heart when she died? Arriving at his grandmother’s old house, it soon becomes apparent that there is something strange and mysterious about the building and the surrounding area; strange carvings cover the walls and furnishings,objects appear and disappear, and the repeated motif of the Shadow Clock hints at something waiting to be uncovered. It’s an intriguing set-up for a delightfully adventurous and highly imaginative fantasy tale, one that could easily be spun out into a novel given the fascinating characters and settings Readman develops throughout the course of the story.
Moving into the middle of the collection, To Wish Upon A Star takes into the realm of science-fiction and the planet Beltane. Readman presents us with the intriguing scenario of a race that doesn’t have the concept of family – until inquisitive Estella discovers vague references to the family unit in ancient records. Curious about the idea, she explores further and also wishes upon the stars that shoot overhead during Candlemass, all with the hope of being with child and therefore being able to form a family. It’s another thought-provoking concept with a surprising twist ending, all supported by intriguing characterisation and some fantastic world-building by Readman that goes into interesting detail about the colonisation of the planet and how the colonists live and work. It’s then followed by Shelved, a short but darkly amusing story about the care that should be given to books, both in general and especially those borrowed from a library; for as the unfortunate Mr Logan discovers, returning books after their due date could lead to something far more significant than a mere monetary fine.
Perfect Justice follows office administrator Brenda as she has to deal with the sudden imposition of a new secretary into her domain, an all-too perfect younger woman who seems to have the favour of her male boss, and who seems determined to usurp Brenda from her position. Funneling her anger and disappointment into writing, what at first seems to be a simple writing project soon becomes a full-blown novel – a murder-mystery that ends up having entirely unexpected consequences both for Brenda’s life, and the lives of those around her, with an ending that had me quietly smirking in satisfaction. By contrast, The Chimes of Midnight is a far more chilling story, short but highly potent, and charged with fierce emotions as a spectre returns to her once-welcoming home, in an attempt to warn her successor of the dangers of being married to the man of the house.
Of the final three tales in the collection, the first is The Gardener, another lengthier story about the darkness lodged in the heart of the titular gardener, a young botanist who lives with her elderly parents, including a neglectful father more interested in plants than his family. When both parents die under rather suspicious circumstances, our protagonist is lead into a life revolving around life, death and plants with an enjoyably dark plot that is rather reminiscent of a P.D. James novel. It’s then followed by the penultimate story, Rat Trap in which a prisoner is interviewed by a mysterious woman who arrived in his cell in the middle of the night, slowly but surely revealing his fractured childhood in a damaged family home, and what drove him towards the crimes that saw him imprisoned. This collection has demonstrated that Readman is particularly talented at writing dark and morally dubious characters, and the protagonist in this particular story is no exception. The collection then closes with Roofscapes, set in an art gallery and told from the point of view of Tina, a professional picture hanger tasked with setting up various exhibits. The arrival of new artist James Ravencroft and his dark, eerie paintings of haunted rooftops leads to Tina becoming intimately acquainted with Ravencroft and his works in a particularly terrifying manner; Readman here creates a story that showcases her impressive talent for evoking dark imagery and a gothic aesthetic, and which acts as a fitting end to the entire collection.
Days Pass Like A Shadow is a deeply impressive accomplishment, bringing together a series of short stories and vignettes that comprehensively demonstrate Paula Readman’s undoubted skill as a writer of intense, thrilling and often darkly gothic horror and mystery stories. Readman is highly skilled at depicting unique characters in just a few sentences, getting to the very heart of their motivations and portraying them in such a way that the reader cannot help but be drawn in and become enthralled. She is clearly a skilled observer of both life and its inhabitants, incorporating these observations into short stories and vignettes written with haunting prose about love, death and life, and the intimate manner in which they intertwine and dovetail. Days Pass Like A Shadow is an incredible collection that I thoroughly enjoyed reading and reviewing, and it provides ample evidence that Readman is an author to watch with great interest to see what she writes in the future.