By Joshua Reynolds
Gardner, Cate. Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits & Other Curious Things. Strange Publications, 2010. $11.99. ISBN: 9-780982-026649.
Cate Gardner has a way with titles.
The 24 stories which make up Ms. Gardner’s first collection, the aptly named Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things, each have a title which is at once both evocative and intriguing. Luckily for the reader, the stories attached to those titles do not disappoint. They are a frothy mixture of reprints and previously unpublished works, but the various themes remain constant throughout.
The stories which fill this collection are all, each and every one, a phantasmagoria of odd scenes, odder occurrences and the oddest conversations. Long or short, there is a sense of unreality to each of them, as if they take place in an area sideways of more stable climes. Water fills buildings and wolves prowl back alleyways. Men crouch in suitcases and steamer trunks, and fairies battle robots. Authority figures are the merest projections, or monsters in disguise. Lovers chase each other through funhouse worlds and the dead bang out arrhythmic tunes with pot lids.
In Cate Gardner’s world, nothing is certain and everything is fluid, including (perhaps especially) genre. Anything can, and often does, happen, with little to no explanation, and horror, fantasy, whimsy, and the psychotically scientific blend together in a pleasing bouillabaisse. Too, each story carries the unspoken caveat that what you see isn’t necessarily what you get, and what you know is almost always wrong. That said, readers are encouraged to simply allow themselves to be swept away by Gardner’s vision without worrying overmuch in which direction it’s taking them.
Taken as a whole, of the 24 pieces included herein, there are certain stories in the collection which resonate more strongly than others. Some of these are swift punches to the adrenal glands, while some act to stir deeper wells of thought. Then there are those which bypass the conscious mind and dive directly into the subconscious, teasing the reader with dreamlike imagery which blurs the line between reality and the fantastic. The six stories discussed below best illustrate the overall tone and tenor of this particular collection, in my opinion.
The collection opens with “Dandelion Fluff”, a brief, emotional piece that at once evokes feelings of loneliness and yearnings unfulfilled in its depiction of the secret interactions of flowers and aliens. As a lead-in to the rest of the book, it’s a pitch-perfect choice. In a few simple lines, each of Gardner’s favourite themes are touched on, giving the reader a taste of what is to come. In a way, “Dandelion Fluff” is every story in this collection, boiled down to the bare essentials. As I said, the perfect appetizer.
With the next story, “The Graveyard of Dead Vehicles”, wolves wander invisibly between the gray-clad legs of wonder-blind humanity, carrying the protagonist to her final fate as Gardner explores the malleability of reality with a deft touch, interweaving the strange and the mundane. It’s a form of writing she plays with often, never giving readers stable footing, forcing them to constantly reassess what they know to be real. The story is by turns disturbing and reassuring, and its conclusion is strangely uplifting.
“Burying Sam” is one of the few out-and-out straight works of horror in this collection, but it’s not without a dark veil of whimsy. The dead have risen, but society is dealing with the inconvenience in the most efficient way possible. But efficiency and tact are often opposing values. Like “Dandelion Fluff”, this is another example of Gardner’s way with flash fiction. Again, sadness dominates and a lingering hopelessness, though of a different kind, is what the reader is left with. A chillingly effective story.
Less chilling, but no less effective, is “Uncle Eric’s Leather Bound Tale” which involves melting men, mysterious trunks and hidden secrets. And, of course, the man in the blue shoes. One part crime story, two parts horror fable, this piece is a lunatic dream ride. Reality is once again a slipshod thing, buffeted about by a series of unpleasant occurrences that entangle the protagonists in an inescapable web. As with most of Gardner’s stories, the fun bit is watching her characters wriggle on the hook she’s set for them, deserving or not.
The moon-bound ghouls of “Black Heart Balloon” certainly fall into the former category, deserving their poetic fate at the beaks of the oppressed, feathered masses. A dark gem, “Black Heart Balloon” stands as an example of Gardner’s charming disregard for explanations. The reader is launched into a fairytale from the bad side of town, and Gardner cheerfully refuses to slow down for those readers who might be lagging behind. Like “The Graveyard of Dead Vehicles”, “Black Heart Balloon” is an extended dream-sequence-gone-feral, stalking its way to a conclusion before the reader even has a chance to process what’s going on. What’s impressive is that Gardner never stumbles in this maneuver, successfully projecting a fully-realized world onto a limited number of paragraphs.
“Trench Foot” is perhaps the most well-known of the stories in the collection, having recently appeared in Fantasy Magazine. Involving a war between garden fairies and mechanical insects, it plays with the preconceptions of both the protagonist and the reader, forcing them down the crooked pathways of fantasy politics. Like the other works described above, “Trench Foot” treads the line between the fantastic and the realistic, carrying the reader back and forth with it on a swift ride to an explosive, intentionally-unsatisfying, ending. As with all of her stories, Gardner is loathe to leave her audience with a neatly tied-up conclusion, preferring the haphazard messiness so prevalent in real life. Stories end, but life goes on and Gardner’s characters, whatever else they might do, certainly live. At least, until they don’t.
In the end, these six works are a microcosm of the collection as a whole, displaying both Gardner’s strengths as a writer and her flaws. And there are a few of the latter on display. Certain stories meander to an abrupt conclusion, with no set climax or cathartic release for the reader. Others display a tendency towards the self-indulgent in regards to pacing and plot. One or two might have made better poetry than prose.
However, taken as a group, this collection is a strong one. The themes remain constant and the rhythm of the stories is never jarring, allowing you to lose yourself in Gardner’s world-within-a-world, where men can creep out of suitcases and fold up like origami shapes, and women can run with wolves to a better world than this one. If that sounds like a world you’d enjoy visiting, then this collection should suit you nicely.
Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things is available for pre-order from Strange Publications. You can learn more about the book, or its author, at Cate Gardner’s blog.