Cabala
  Edited by Adam Lowe

Dog Horn Publishing
2011
Paperback

Event: 25th March 2011, Cabala launch at Waterstone's, Manchester, UK. More details here.






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" It is Earth now that is a mysterious, magic place lost to all. A source of much speculation and ever-growing myths and legends. I am particularly fond of the Earth as Heaven idea. I rather like the idea of our souls returning to their original planet. "


Reviewed by Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau

Cabala brings together the best "weird" fiction from students of the 2009 Dog Horn Masterclass series. Thirteen stories from five authors, each with a distinct writing style.

The book opens with the shortest of the bunch—Half Life, a flash piece by Richard Evans, who also penned Trick Machine, Girl Absorbed and Freak of Nature. All of Evans’ stories are set in the technology-driven future, and all examine the what-ifs of living in such a world: What if we could stay "young" forever? What if robots had feelings? What if we get more than what we bargained for? Evans writes fluidly, and though I wasn’t surprised by their twist endings, Trick Machine and Girl Absorbed were among the stories I enjoyed the most.

Then there’s Everybody’s Got Talent, a blend of pop culture satire and macabre fantasy. Written by Jodie Daber, it’s as weird as weird can get—think bald and bejeweled eunuchs shaping swans from their shit while singing arias, for instance. Then add more of the same. Lots more. The premise is certainly interesting (common folk are "summoned" and forced to perform in an often gruesome talent competition), but I was distracted by the sometimes too-rich descriptions and alas, didn’t really feel much sympathy for the boy protagonist, whose story ends just as it gets interesting.

From A.J. Kirby, we have the superbly titled The Milky Bar Kid is Dead, as well as Flat Thirteen and Son of Preacherman. The first is about a cowboy (or at least, that’s what I thought) and frozen celebrities, the second is supernaturalist, and the third is a modern retelling of a classic Bible story—Joseph, the dreamer. While I wasn’t that convinced by the narrator’s voice in The Milky Bar Kid is Dead, Kirby’s writing was the one that resonated with me the most, and I liked the flashes of insight sprinkled throughout his pieces:
But knowdin’ how this dang country is now, knowdin’ how maudlin we all get, an’ how we all gotta show our grief in big black strokes just to show we alive, everyone’ll go all out crazy like I says about the national day of mourning an’ that. Even though they take piss outta him when they think he’s alive.
(The Milky Bar Kid is Dead)

I knew what would happen if I looked too closely behind the scenes of the shiny new development. It was all about surface, and a very thin surface at that. It wasn’t built to stand the test of time, just that instant moment of now.
(Flat Thirteen)
Rachel Kendall shows her wide range by writing a thriller (Elsbeth Schultz), a horror story (Stain), a gothic fairy tale (Bird-Girl of Belomorsk) and a fable-cum-erotica (The Fox and the No-Moon). To me, her writing comes across more assured when set in modern times—as in her first two pieces—and I suspect that in The Fox and the No-Moon, the point was to let her imagination run wild and to have fun, more than anything.

Finally, The Mythical Christine by Jacqueline Houghton wraps up the anthology. It’s the longest of all, and follows a narrator whose views have been influenced by the mysterious and metaphorical "Christine Ying Xiong"—a dissident who refuses to join the corporate-driven movement to abandon a troubled Earth for other planets. Like Evans, Houghton paints the future with somber strokes. Her depiction of how most of humankind is persuaded to migrate to the "New Worlds" not only seems plausible, but also more imminent than one would hope:
With the rising sea levels, the droughts, the floods, the storms, the famines, the wars, there was not much to stay for. But a democracy cannot force people to act against their nature. There were no democracies left at the end of the Emigration and we have brought that same authoritarian corporatocracy with us to the New Worlds.
Overall, I found the many different "realities" explored in Cabala downright intriguing, but whether it’s because I expected more from "masterclass" work, or whether it’s because I’m more used to reading literary fiction, the overall effect left me a bit underwhelmed.

But it also left me with something unexpected—an appetite for genre-bending stories, and for that, I have the book’s "cabal" of five writers to thank.


Win a copy of this book! See the Competitions page for details.


Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau wants to explore the world by foot, pen and lens. Raised in Manila, she lived for a time in Los Angeles before moving to France. A Pushcart Prize nominee and 2008 Sean O’Faolain Short Story Competition finalist, she has stories in places like the Humanist and Southword.

Michelle's other Short Reviews: Matty Stansfield "Donut Holes: Sticky Pieces of Fictionalized Reality"

Stephen Shieber "Being Normal"

"Discovering a Comet and More Microfiction" by Various

Sefi Atta "News from Home"

The Penguin Book of New Zealand Contemporary Stories
                     
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Authors Jody Daber, Richard Evans, Jacqueline Houghton, Rachel Kendall, A J Kirby.

Editor Adam Lowe is Editor-in-Chief of Dog Horn Publishing and Polluto, and author of Troglodyte Rose.