“The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.”
Though he likely wasn’t aware of the fact, William Faulkner summarized a good majority of horror fiction with this eloquent little truth. The artifacts of the past constantly surround us. They are buried in the soil of our land, the stone of our homes, the flesh of our minds, stubbornly refusing to relinquish their hold on us, grafting themselves to us with strings of impenetrable scarlet thread.
A more recent narrative trope popularized by film is of the victim running away from the inescapable horror giving chase to them, the hulking hockey goalie and gigantic prehistoric reptile equally representing our timeless fears in spite of their diverse guises. These two themes form the emotional bedrock of V. H. Leslie’s Skein and Bone, a collection of stories greatly preoccupied with the notion of fleeing the darkness of the past in the hopes of reaching some golden tomorrow. The past in Leslie’s stories is something to be avoided, swept over, tucked away and forgotten. Her characters do not view their lives as obstacle-laden journeys from which they will grow and learn from but as the meandering, cancerous roots of a traumatic seed, roots that bind them to the ground and keep them from flying towards freedom like the copious birds that surface in almost every story, crushing wings and hopes without discretion.
These trauma-seeds come in multiple forms, from the seemingly mundane despair brought on by an unfavorable surname (“Namesake”) to the incomprehensible awkwardness of having to live with a feral parent (“Family Tree”). Trauma also occurs to characters attempting to maintain the rigid formality of their existences while having to contend with change, that most dastardly of encroaching terrors, as seen by the protagonists from “Time Keeping” and “Wordsmith”, meticulous gentlemen of varied disturbances who find their senses of self and satisfaction upended by the arrival of women into their lives.
Leslie’s prose and characterizations are always on point, reveling in subtle and overt forms of wordplay that reveal the author’s love of the language and the intricacies of her characters in equal measure. In some stories the words mean everything, full of portent and wisdom and even sentience at times, with characters obsessing over all their double meanings and limitless interpretations. In addition to the burdened heroine of “Namesake”, there is the possibly-immortal Vernon from “Wordsmith”, a man whose facility for the language and gift for literally bringing words to life is limited to writing single phrases on slips of paper and planting them in the ground in the hopes that they will take root. The diplomat’s wife from “Senbazuru” faces a similar inability, her go-to move of choosing “paper” in the life-deciding games of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” she plays with her husband made ironic by the fact that she can’t actually commit any meaningful words to paper when composing. The author shows us how our words hinder us as much as they help us, and how they almost always haunt us.
If the stories could be said to suffer from any one weakness it would have to be with regards to the endings. Many of the early entries in the collection start off full steam-ahead, as assured and graceful as anything else, but they tend to break down in little ways as they reach their climaxes. Some endings don’t feel entirely deserved, or deliver last-minute twists that compromise believability and investment in the characters’ plights. (The final section of “Family Tree”, for instance, asks us to accept a sudden, dramatic shift in a character’s mental makeup as a defined facet of their inner nature that had simply been dormant up until that very point.)
But even if a few selections seem to unspool at their conclusions, Leslie makes her natural gifts more than apparent in every story, ensuring that the reading of each is never without its valuable takeaways. Skein and Bone only seems to get better the further the reader advances in the collection, with the best of the bunch occurring right after the halfway point. (This halfway point seems to be yet another clever pun, as the seventh of the fourteen stories is a chilly anecdote of sinister snowpeople called “Bleak Midwinter.”)
Leslie delivers a great one-two punch with “The Blue Room” and “Ulterior Design.” Both draw from the long tradition of the ghost story in their own ways, the latter a direct recasting of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic study of deterioration, “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The former is noteworthy for the intense patina of colors that Leslie uses to sublime effect, infusing her eloquently-described passages with psychological resonance as a suffering wife attempts to recuperate in the shelter of the Hyde Hotel’s most sumptuous room and is haunted by both the shadow of all her failures and the crow-carrying spirit of a Picasso painting come to life. It all ends on a graceful note of hope perfectly delivered.
But Gwen could see her. She could see the way her shoulders hunched, the way she sat crumbled into the bench, a sense of sadness in her anonymity. How many invisible women were there in the world, sitting on park benches just like this one, their colour drained out of them by others, siphoned off so that they had none left for themselves? Slowly disappearing into a world that was too bright for them.
“Ulterior Design” is great for similar reasons, though its vision of triumph is decidedly bleaker than “The Blue Room”, detailing as it does the course of ever-deepening madness followed by a soon-to-be father as he becomes convinced that his wife is conspiring with the hummingbird-spangled wallpaper of the nursery room to knock him off his pedestal as family provider. Daniel, our beleaguered protagonist, has his insecurities literalized through dreams and visions that would leave Freud panting: cracked windows; cages fashioned from umbilical cords; chick-filled nests knocked down from branches “Rockabye Baby”-style.
The title story, “Skein and Bone”, pays homage to this spectral institution as well, kicking off with the tried and true setup of travelers in a foreign land–a pair of sisters here–getting lost and seeking shelter in an imposingly beautifully manse, here a French chateau from the Renaissance. (There’s even a callback at the climax that ghost story aficionados will recognize from “The Adventure of the German Student”, among others.) Leslie keeps the foreboding mood gently simmering for the early duration of the tale, raising the temperature with a patient hand as the light strangeness of the severe maid attending to the sisters’ needs and the room of mannequins dressed in incredibly preserved garments gradually increase until the horror becomes too heavy for the women to withstand, another pair of birds crushed under the weight of their dreams.
Moving on from the high of “The Blue Room” and “Ulterior Design”, Leslie shows she’s just as capable as navigating new and adventurous terrain as she is treading familiar territory. In addition to the aforementioned “Wordsmith”, the latter part of the collection gives us such poetic and surreal tales as “The Cloud Cartographer”, a story more in line with fantasy than horror but no less enthralling for its depiction of a navigator mapping out a New World in the sky while grappling with memories of his lost sister; “Preservation”, a poignant and marvelously strange account of a post-WWII happy-homemaker housewife literally bottling up her sadness and feeding her mentally- and physically-scarred veteran husband her evaporated tears when she suspects him of some kind of infidelity and he of her autonomic bid to displace him as man of the house (No doubt he’d see it as further testament to her not knowing her place, his semi-naked wife dancing around her cauldron.), even though the only thing they’re really suffering from is the quiet horror of emotional withdrawal; and the final selection, “Senbazuru”, another story of husbands and wives in the midst of the War, here delivered in a more oblique and refined fashion by Leslie, resulting in a piece of truly Weird Fiction that defies any other classification, a tale about sacrifice and cultural dissonance and the beauty of words, uniting Leslie’s fascinations for birds and the spark of hope that touches her best work to create a most satisfying end to her premier collection.
It can’t be denied that Skein and Bone represents a gathering of stories that are inextricably bound to their author, each fascination and passion of Leslie’s reprised time and again throughout the text, echoes resonating from the chambers of her mind. It’s said that as a writer one should know what their obsessions are, and Leslie is surely aware of hers. It’s a testament to her talents that she is able to use these themes and constantly reinvent and reinvigorate them in each story. They are stories that come straight from her heart, stories cut right from the bone.
Jose Cruz is the editor-in-chief of The Haunted Omnibus. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife, their very furry child, and a decent amount of books.