Archive for April 25th, 2010

April 25, 2010

Glass Coffin Girls (and the boys who know them)

Paul Jessup’s Glass Coffin Girls is a collection of eight surreal short stories (with an introduction by Jeff Vandermeer). I’d had this for a while and finally decided to read it last week. I’m glad I did; Jessup is an intriguing writer.

“Secret in the House of Smiles” is the first story in this collection, about a man who cuts bits of women out of magazine pictures in an effort to piece them together into an image of the perfect woman. It’s also about his vampire hunting friend. It’s a good story intellectually, but the point at which it really grabbed me was when the two main characters are walking through a forest being followed by a vampire who until now has seemed not much of a threat. This is nightmare logic (at least the logic of my nightmares), and it’s real, and it works.

“Glass Coffin Girls” has at its centre a story that is more domestic drama than anything else – a rather weak male protagonist caught between two women with stronger personalities than his own. But it’s also full of fairytale elements; glass coffins, giant walking dogs, birds caged and otherwise, all made weird.

My two favourite stories in the collection have some similarities. The protagonists of “Stone Dogs” and “Red Hairs” start their respective stories in schools where they don’t quite fit in. Both stories also contain mysterious foxes. “Stone Dogs” is wonderful. A school is snowed in and all the students are trapped inside. Books are weirdly powerful, everyone is having sex, and a purple haired boy (part anime character, part fox) arrives to warn our narrator that the world is ending. It’s hard to explain just how awesome this story is – there is fantasy fandom, there is teenage angst, there is anime, there is an apocalypse. There are ice giants.

“Red Hairs” is rather less straightforward and I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. The early sections reminded me a little of a very different sort of writer, Laini Taylor’s “Goblin Fruit”.* It’s fascinating to see that Jessup’s writing can also be very sensual – my experience of this story is wholly tied up in colour and smell. It has a warm, autumnal feel to it, and it’s accompanied by the smell of ink which Jessup accurately describes within the story. This is of course a very personal reaction, and I don’t know if it would work this way to another reader, but I hadn’t realised that this kind of writing could evoke this mood.

I was equally unsure of what to make of “The Drinking Moon”, though in a less pleasant way. I suspect I’m simply not the sort of reader this is for – it felt like weirdness piled upon weirdness with nothing else to it, and it simply did not work for me. I didn’t particularly dislike it, but I didn’t get anything out of it either. “Wire Rabbit” was interesting for the shift in language, and “Jars of Rain” probably requires a whole post to itself. I still don’t know how much I like it as a story, but I’m fascinated by how much is going on in it and how much one could do with it.

“It Tasted Like The Sea” is the last story in the collection. It balances things out quite nicely – where the first story had a man cutting up magazine pictures of women, this has a character who cuts up real women to turn their dismembered limbs into art. (Similarly, “Stone Dogs” and “Red Hairs” are the third stories from the beginning and end respectively). Again, this story draws on the language of fairytales, particularly the Bluebeard myth. It also draws on some of the themes of the previous story: mermaids and dismemberment among them. It’s the strangest story in the book, and the most horrifying.

This is a collection of stories about women, but the men, and their attitudes to the women, are one of the most interesting things it explores. There are a number of connections between the men of different stories, and I think I’m going to be going back to this again and thinking about it more.

Glass Coffin Girls is not all brilliant, but it’s fascinating enough to keep you thinking and wanting to write. It’s an impressive collection on the whole, with a few moments of pure joy.

[For the sake of transparency: I received an advance eARC from PS Publishing. Also, I've talked to the author a bit over twitter since I started reading]

*In the comments here, the author says that this collection has received some good reviews among readers of paranormal romance. That would fit.