Thursday 4 October 2012

REVIEW: The Blue Landscape and Other Stories by Stewart Sheargold

Regular readers (yes, both of you) will know that I’m a big fan of Obverse Books, the small press publishers of Iris Wildthyme, Faction Paradox and other far-fetched fiction. Well, Obverse are branching out in a slightly new direction, and have created a new subsidiary site that sells what they term ‘modern pulp.’ Manleigh Books provide not only e-book copies of Obverse’s titles but also exclusively electronic new fiction with a distinctly pulpy texture. I’ll be reviewing some of their latest releases over the next week or so.

The Blue Landscape is a brand new short story collection by well-regarded author Stewart Sheargold, a name that should be familiar to readers and listeners of Obverse Books and Big Finish Productions. He’s a name to watch in Doctor Who-related circles, but be warned that the thirteen stories of The Blue Landscape are not the kind of thing you may be used to from the author. The only tale to enter the world of Doctor Who in any way is ‘Siens Fikshen,’ the final story in the collection, a gorgeous little story about a very young fan’s love for his favourite programme. The bulk of the volume is of a far more adult nature, focussing on sex, heartbreak and obsession.

A couple of the stories could be described as fantasy, and also as horror. The opening piece, ‘The Beautification,’ gets the collection off to an affecting, emotional and chilling start, while the later entry ‘The Eyes of the Day’ takes a perverse journey to a snowbound winter kingdom. Beautifully written if rather stomach-churning, it’s one of my favourite stories from the book, despite playing on a nasty idea that I’m particularly phobic to.

Several of the tales take place at the shoreline, the metaphorical border of two worlds. ‘Charlotte Imagines the Sea’ is a poignant tale of two friends walking by the sea, disturbing old memories, while ‘A Cool, Calm Place’ is a strange, sad tale of love and lust at the sea’s edge. The most heartbreaking story of the collection, ‘Painting Medusa Pink,’ is a tale of tragedy that also takes place mainly along the shore’s edge. A beautifully written tale of dreams and loss, it’s one of the highlights of the book.

Sex, both gay and straight, is the dominant, ever-present core of the book, and many of the stories either revolve around it or feature it prominently. We are, as a species, obsessed with sex, and Sheargold finds no shortage of ways to explore it. ‘The Sunday Lover’ skirts between eroticism and tragedy, while ‘Lemon-work’ uses sex to explore the mundane reality of our everyday lives. The one story I didn’t enjoy was ‘Hobbies,’ a tale of rape and a twisted version of female empowerment. Undoubtedly well-written, to me it’s unpleasant and rather offensive. Others may disagree, but it’s certain to provoke a powerful response from its readers.

‘The Blue Landscape’ itself is most obviously about sex and sexuality, but also about the inevitable loss of the imagination and innocence of childhood, and is another beautifully written piece. Other stories, ‘The Winter Tower’ and ‘The Garden,’ ruminate on death, or more specifically its lead-up and the desire for it. My personal favourite of the collection is ‘The Tea Party,’ a sexually charged, powerfully written and deeply philosophical meeting between God and the Devil. Exploring the true nature of sin and forgiveness, it’s an uncompromising dissection of supposedly modern Christian values.

The Blue Landscape is not quite what I was expecting from its author, and that is a rare and unexpected thing in itself. A collection of powerful short works which will surprise, horrify, entice and offend, it certainly makes a bold impression.

Buy The Blue Landscape in both ePub and Kindle format here.

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