Skein and Bone by V.H. Leslie
Published by Undertow Publications
One of the great joys of being a fan of the horror and weird genres is the diversity emerging in our field—the diversity of authorship, voices, tones, and literary influences are not confined to operating within a specific channel of canonical reference or mode. Neither are the aspirations of these authors.
V.H. Leslie’s recent Skein and Bone demonstrates that a collection with the words “terrors”, “haunts”, and “shudders and delights” on the back cover can be something just as focused on the craft of image, the depth of characterization, and the greater questions of human frailty as it is on good scares, old dark houses, and cosmic dread.
Now, this is not a horror collection, but most stories are certainly weird. All possess some element of the fantastic within them, but several present these elements as insubstantial, or possibly illusory. Other selections more outright tread the paths of the bizarre and the horrific. If you choose to read this book, understand that it represents Leslie’s impressive range as a writer—and that includes more conventionally-crafted tales (for lack of a better description) wherein the emphasis is on emotion, evocative imagery, and not on the fantastic or terrifying. Stories like “Time Keeping”, “Preservation”, “Senbazuru,” and even “The Quiet Room,” among others to varying degrees, have hints of the fantastic strewn about (or, in the case of “The Quiet Room”, conclude with such a reveal) but are much more subdued, and employ what sparse genre tropes they do as symbolic devices.
Even in the stories with stronger horror-weird elements, the characters are more important than any spectre or bump in the night. But the shorts that I enjoyed the most combined characterization, existential and physical dread, and outright horror in equal measure: “Namesake”, “Skein and Bone”, “Ghost”, and “Making Room” (the opening stories of the book). I consider these the highlights of the collection, but that is more due to personal taste and expectations—I like me some monsters, mutants, ghosts, and scares. My literature professors could never quite train that out of me, despite their best efforts.
This is not a book I would recommend to readers looking for a purely horror or weird experience. I would recommend several of these selections to readers new to or cautious of weird literature, who may be interested in a transition from realistic (that’s a nicer word than “mundane”, isn’t it?) fiction to that which embraces elements of magical realism or the fantastic dark.
Every story in this collection contains vivid imagery, impressive writing, and emotional depth. If this collection does not feel consistent, it is not for a lack of quality—Leslie can make even the most seemingly-gray characters or settings striking and memorable over the course of a story—it is because she is an author who is clearly comfortable branching out into the different modes, who is comfortable challenging boundaries. This is Leslie’s CV, showing us she can bring depth and vivid characterization to any literary venue.
Here stories and characters are defined not by trope or conventions, but by brokenness, by struggle, by the phantasms of characters’ unrealistic expectations about their lives and the lives of others. V.H. Leslie is a fantastic writer, in both senses of the word.