The latest in a lengthening line of excellent collections edited by Jonathan Oliver, Five Stories High finds several of speculative fiction’s best and brightest riffing on the same literary instrument: the haunted house. Not just any old haunted house, either, but one—Irongrove Lodge—shared by every player:
The house, like its surroundings, seemed quietly respectable, the largest and most prominent among a number of Georgian properties in the vicinity, flanked on one side by a ruddy-faced Victorian terrace, on the other by a 1930s mansion block built from the familiar yellow-grey London stock. […] I could not rid myself of the idea that the house had, in some peculiar way, itself created the ramshackle and disparate landscape that now surrounded it, drawn the cloak of modern London securely about itself, to conceal its true purpose.
The particulars of its true purpose differ dramatically depending on which of the five authors involved in Five Stories High you ask, but although Nina Allan, K. J. Parker, Tade Thompson, Robert Shearman, and Sarah Lotz diverge on the details, all agree that Irongrove Lodge is a home most hellish.
The aforementioned anthology puts its best foot forward by way of Nina Allan’s “Maggots,” the longest of the five works of fiction featured, and the least traditional. Herein, the writer of The Race follows a boy who becomes convinced that one of his relatives has been replaced:
On the 23rd October 1992, my aunt, Claire Bounsell, nee Wilton, briefly went missing in York during a weekend anniversary trip with her husband David. She reappeared again just minutes later, apparently unharmed. My aunt and uncle came home to Knutsford and went on with their lives. The incident has been mainly forgotten, but the person living as Claire Bounsell is not my aunt. She looks like my aunt, she speaks like my aunt. She has my aunt’s memories and to any outside observer it would be impossible to tell the difference between my aunt and her replacement. No one, including her husband, family and twin children, appears to have noticed that anything is wrong. And yet there is no doubt in my mind that my aunt has been replaced by an impostor.
Whether Willy’s conviction that Claire isn’t herself—that she is, in fact, no more than a maggot—is symptomatic of a sickness of sorts or not, it dogs our narrator for ages. It ruins his first real relationship; it makes a decade of Christmases difficult; and going forward, it’s foundation of a fascination that hounds him from the family home into the workplace and leads him, at the last, to Irongrove Lodge, where he’ll have answers, if he wants them—albeit at an awful cost.
Sensitive yet unsettling, Allan’s superlative story of simulation, of someone pretending to be someone else, is seamlessly succeeded by K. J. Parker’s “Priest Hole,” in which a shapeshifter living in Irongrove Lodge does whatever he can to get by following the loss of the lady he loved. “Priest Hole” has all of Parker’s particular watermarks: a noncommittal attitude to magic, an obsession—with “insides, outsides and the third space in the middle,” in this instance—a sly sense of humour and a nonlinear narrative:
I’m not being the perfect host, not making you feel at home in this narrative. Too much coming and going, and the soup served after the casserole. I really ought to respect other people’s prejudices, world view, perception of sequence of events, linear time, that sort of thing. The truth is, I haven’t been myself lately. But I’m better now.
There are shades of House of Leaves in the impossible spaces the narrator of Parker’s novella eventually investigates, just as there are in “Gnaw” by Tade Thompson, the Golden Tentacle Award-winning author of Making Wolf. “Gnaw” concerns a family of four who move into a bit of a fixer-upper—an apartment in Irongrove Lodge, obviously—only to find their children… changed. At first Harry and Tara put their wains’ strange behaviour down to the stress of being uprooted, but when Adrienne starts speaking in tongues and they see the sinister stuff Cory has been scrawling all over his school books, it dawns on them that there may be something more going on.
“Gnaw” is perfectly fine instance of haunted house fiction, but surrounded as it is by such startling takes on the topic, Thompson’s tale is the most forgettable of the five. Forgettable is not what I’d call “The Best Story I Can Manage Under the Circumstances” by Robert Shearman—though I kind of wish I could forget it. It’s a phantasmagorical fable about a baby born without a body: a head, essentially. But the baby’s mother loves her head, so for his first birthday, she gets him a torso; then the next year, a job lot of limbs.
Shearman’s story switches gears here, to tell of a boy fascinated by a door in the floor that’s only ever appears when he’s celebrating that same occasion. He doesn’t want to go through it, but before long he has to, and on the other side he finds a perfect replica of his own home, complete with a fake father who raises him on retinal fluid and a sister-of-sorts he has to sleep with repeatedly. “The Best Story I Can Manage Under the Circumstances” reads like a nightmare factory’s attempt to clone Coraline from inherited memory, and I can’t get it out of my head, much as I might like to.
Though this novella starts strong, I dare say it goes on too long; Sarah Lotz’s “Skin Deep,” however, knows just when to quit it. The shortest of said collection’s variously twisted fictions concerns the case of the Butcher: an older woman who supposedly slaughtered her boy-toy before wallpapering parts of their new apartment—nudge, nudge—with his flensed flesh.
The story of “Skin Deep” is told, to begin with, through a series of tangential perspectives. We hear from the Best Friend, the Co-Worker, the Cleaner, the Juror and a bunch of others before we’re treated to a few words from the Butcher herself. Given how patient she seems to have been, when she does speak, we listen, and the tale she has to tell is an wonderfully messed-up way to end a wonderfully messed-up collection.
In Five Stories High, the unsettling is nestled next to ungodly geometry; the grotesque is presented in partnership with the picturesque; there’s body horror in one novella and bumps in der nacht in the next. Editor Jonathan Oliver has assembled an anthology of stories that are connected, yet separate; in matter, in form and in voice, each has something to say, and each has a different way. What unifies them all, aside from the imposing presence of Irongrove Lodge, is their ability to take something mundane and inane—a house—and make it darkly magical, and even meaningful.
Five Stories High is out now from Rebellion Publishing in the U.S. and Solaris in the U.K.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.