Undertow and Other Laments
 by Michael Kelly

Dark Regions Press
2009, Paperback

"Sometimes, in her head, Eleanor would hear the music. It reminded her of her father and she always wondered how a man who butchered meat could perform such lovely music. How could the hands that cut the flanks of cows and the shoulders of pigs play Vivaldi’s concerts so expertly?"

Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

The true horror is life. That could be the bottom line of Michael Kelly’s extraordinary fiction. In his horror stories you won’t find vampires, werewolves, zombies. The real monsters are hidden in ourselves, gnawing at our souls. The scariest things in this world are the cruel passing of time, loneliness, failures and the inability to give and receive love.

In his Introduction to this collection Gary A Braunbeck  - a fellow writer who shares Kelly’s sensitivity and his melancholy view of human existence - points out the musical aspects of the author’s crystalline prose and the beautiful images he contrives to create. Thus, this book is a symphony, constituted by different themes and musical phrases.

Summer Ghosts is a gentle story about ghosts in an old mirror, unhappy childhood and solitude, while A Song of Knives is the vivid, compassionate portrait of a pathetically ugly, fat woman, the only daughter of a butcher with a passion for Vivaldi.

In the atmospheric A Haunt of Hammers, a spectral Prague is haunted by the spirits of the dead and in the exotic Basking in the White of the Midnight Sun the quest for everlasting life turns out to be a tragic joke.

A Blue Hand Reaching is yet another tale imbued with sadness and desperation, where life is a burden to carry day in day out, told in a superb narrative style.

The well crafted characters in Wolves and Angels are a dying old woman and her distant daughter , come to pay her a final visit. The story perfectly blends the intimate sense of sorrow with the chilly atmosphere of the Canadian countryside during the winter season.

Among a bunch of excellent tales, there are two veritable gems. One is Winter Birds an outstanding piece of terrible beauty, a story of tragedy and redemption graced by a perfectly measured style.
"The man stands, digs in his pocket and fishes out a ring of silvery keys. The keys jangle mutely, like frozen chimes. He wonders what they will unlock. A half smile creases his face. The man steps out on a icy path, walks towards his building, his new home, past the trees and their busy winter birds."

The other one is  the title story Undertow, a masterful tale featuring a man trying to come to terms with the grief and the guilty feeling caused by the tragic death of his little boy.
"Scotty’s hair, once fine and blond, was black and clotted with seaweed. His eyes were closed, but his mouth was open and a foul reek emanated from that grim rictus. His skin was spongy and peppered with pale pink bite marks, as if all the creatures of the sea had taken a piece of him."

As they say, life sucks and then you die. Is there anything more horrible than that? Yet, despite Kelly’s pessimistic view of the human condition, here and there you can perceive little sparks of hope, dim sources of lights which can brighten a little bit the darkness which surrounds us.

Read a story by this author in Flash Fiction Online

Mario Guslandi lives in Milan, Italy. Most likely the only Italian who regularly reads (and reviews) dark fiction in English, his book reviews have appeared in a number of genre websites such as The Alien Online, Infinity Plus, The SF Site, The Agony Column and Horrorwold.

Mario's other Short Reviews: Simon Stranzas "Cold to the Touch"

Cern Zoo anthology

Deborah Biancotti "A Book of Endings"

Joseph Payne Brennan "The Feaster from Afar and Other Ghastly Inhabitants"

Paulo Bacigalupi "Pump Six and Other Stories"

"Null Immortalis anthology"

Steve Redwood "Broken Symmetries"

Rosalie Parker "Old Knowledge and Other Strange Tales"
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Michael Kelly is the author of Scratching the Surface, a collection of stories, and co-author (with Carol Weekes) of Ouroboros, a novel. He  lives in Ontario, Canada and runs a small press Undertow Books.

Read an interview with Michael Kelly