Reviewer: Paul Burke

Point Blank, paperback,     28th October 2021

ISBN: 978-1786079794     PB

Every once in a while something off the wall is just the ticket. I missed The Twelve Strange Days of Christmas When it came out in 2019 but two years on we have a follow up collection of even stranger tales from CWA shortlisted author Syd Moore. These are indeed unusual and whacky little stories, a treat for anyone looking for an antidote to the usual saccharine Christmas fayre. Whisper it softly but there are thirteen tales here in defiance of the accepted taboo.

Moore leads with a definition of strange and it applies perfectly; these shorts are curious, uncanny, mysterious, deviant, freakish and surreal. I’ve seen this collection defined as crime fiction, some of the stories certainly are, but there are elements of horror and humour and genre bending here too. The most common theme is sexism and misogyny but there’s a bit of everything so don’t be put you off if you’re not a crime fiction fan. These stories are inventive and original and very entertaining.

The opening story Pantomime is a correction of a common misconception. The seven dwarves were in fact all women and they shared a house in the forest, a kind of refuge from the world. Take Happy for instance, always laughing and smiling, she was the first woman to take Valium, but curiously the need for it seemed to evaporate when her abusive husband left and she moved into Doc’s big old farm house. Each woman has a story, Bashful, naturally  was a showgirl, rumour has it she shared a dressing room with Barbara Stanwick before she was Barbara Stanwick! Anyway they have this crop which has a magical effect on the customers and it’s popular and they get by. Then Whitey comes along telling all sorts of tales about her wicked step mom throwing her out after turning her father against her. She’s not very helpful with chores and sending her to the market is a big mistake because she meets this silver tongued devil from Princeton, a right charmer! A little fun at the expense of a well known fairy tale and a neat tilt at ingrained sexism.

Thirteen is a darker tale about family and contentment with one’s lot in life. While String of Lights considers what might have been. A woman remembers the evening she stood in for her friend at a grand ball and met a young man, a bitter sweet tale of fate and what might have been. Rogationide is set on a small island of Northye where a religious festival has survived the culling of traditional rites in the wider world. Christmas Dates is about a predator getting his due, while Two Minds is a reflection on coincidence or the lack there of. Christmas Day at the Essex Witch Museum is a nod to Moore’s mystery series based at the same institution. Thirteen is a perfect book end story, balancing, as it does, the opener.

I was charmed and beguiled by the inventiveness of these tales. They are a little spooky because they reflect on isolation and dreams, and seem more potent in a time of covid. For those looking for something a little challenging but entertaining and off kilter here it is.