By Ben Cooper
Jessup, Paul. Glass Coffin Girls. PS Publishing; Limited: Hornsea, England. 130 pages. ISBN: 978-1-848630-24-6.
Paul Jessup is not a name I’m familiar with, but a quick look at his website confirms that he has been building a name for himself with his short fiction. He has placed stories in venues such as Clarkesworld, which is impressive stuff.
This collection of short stories is prefaced with a short foreword by fantasy author Jeff VanderMeer that lets the reader know that Jessup isn’t one for cliché plot-lines or two-dimensional characters, but that this collection is all about the disconnect we experience in our modern life. Too often, forewords seem to be used as a seal of approval: if Big Name Author A thinks this book is good enough to write a few hundred words about it, then it must be good. Though this is one function, they sometimes fail to let the work stand on its own merits and go through back-flips to convince you that, hey, you should read this book because I say so and I know what I’m talking about. VanderMeer, to his credit, avoids this.
People often forget that the world of speculative fiction is really the world we live in now but twisted and extrapolated on logical (in the case of SF) or fantastic (fantasy) lines. When we read the books of Philip K. Dick or William Gibson, we come to realise that we are living in their dreams every day, and our world is, by turns, more amazing and more mundane, than they could have imagined. However, surreal fiction of the sort that Jessup presents here is difficult to review at the best of times, and it comes down to a matter of taste. Unfortunately, I’m not one for surreal works of literature; surreal art I find appealing, but surreal literature always seems a step to far for my tastes. There’s nothing wrong with dense prose, full of allusions and layers to be peeled back and explored, but the surrealist literature I have read has left me cold, and this is something to be borne in mind while you read my review.
“Secret In The House of Smiles” is the anthology’s opener and succeeds in fulfilling VanderMeer’s promise of disjointed, disconnected characters. The protagonist Jack is an obsessed character, obsessed with recreating from magazines the image of his perfect woman. He hunts them out, cuts out small parts and tries to create this montage in the hopes of resurrecting her, while his friend Alice takes him along on her vampire-hunting expeditions. The two friends, with their two obsessions, are on a course for conflict, though they don’t know it.
Jessup’s attention to detail vividly brings the characters to life and he evokes a genuine feeling of disconnect between the characters and the world they exist in. His prose is equal parts clean, direct, lyrical and opaque – but it wasn’t a mixture that I found very appealing. I didn’t find the characters to be particularly well-drawn, or interesting, with Jack in particular feeling like the typical monomaniac from a Poe story, mixed with an idiot-savant of not-quite Rain Man proportions. Or is he just a slacker college student bombed out of his face on drugs? Either way, I didn’t care enough to dig deeper. There are flashes of brilliance in Jessup’s writing, but they seem to be drowned in a desire to be wilfully indirect. The story was too nebulous for my liking and felt more like a snapshot in the lives of the two characters rather than a complete story. Of course, as surrealist fiction it could be argued that such effects are to be desired.
The title story, “Glass Coffin Girls”, is the second story and a much more interesting piece. The opening paragraph is a real “grabber” and sets up the coming conflict between the main characters beautifully. One thing that Jessup does extremely well, in this story and throughout the collection, is use sentence length and rhythms to propel the stories along. At times, his writing feels like free verse poetry, and he likes to use repetition and short lines for emphasis. Unlike in the previous story, the characters of Lewis and Emily are expertly drawn. The relationship between them is complex and multifaceted. Lewis’ obsession with cannibalism, seemingly rooted in childhood denial and secrets, dominates his very being and his obsession with the seemingly-suicidal Emily leads to him becoming increasingly dominated by her, having obviously been dominated by his mother before her.
It’s a story that has more narrative drive than “Secret In The House of Smiles”, and Jessup employs some characteristic fairytale tropes (an evil hound, wicked mother figure, glass coffin, wannabe princess) to new and freakishly-unusual effect. As the story moves along, the imagery becomes more and more bizarre and there is a real sense of claustrophobia built up as Lewis loses control of everything around him. It’s certainly one of the more accessible stories in the collection, thanks to cleanly-delineated characters and a cohesive structure, and I genuinely enjoyed it.
This was a hard collection for me to review, hence my lack of focus on many of the stories. Such writing has to be experienced first-hand, and I don’t think it lends itself to analysis, at least not by myself and not within the constraints of this review. I would be doing the work a disservice. As I stated at the outset, surrealist fiction does very little for me and I often have the feeling that it is wilfully obtuse, designed for an in-group to enjoy and pat each other on the back at how clever they are. However, there’s no doubt that Jessup can write; he has genuine skill and I didn’t get the feeling that these stories were written to exclude readers, but instead to try and open their minds.
Should you buy it? In my honest opinion, it depends solely on your taste. If you like this kind of fiction, then you would do well to check this collection out; if you’re open minded enough to give such work a try, then, like myself, you’ll find several stories in here to enjoy, but if you have to have your fiction clean, direct and straight up (and that’s nothing to be ashamed of), then I’d recommend you steer clear.