Looking for a Good October Read? Here’s TWO from Michelle von Eschen [Book review]

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Over the course of this site, we’ve raved of Crypticon so often those of you not from the Pacific Northwest are likely tired of it. Sorry, not sorry. Feel free to ignore the title of our local con and replace it with the mid-level local convention of your own: the conventions that aren’t the massive hundred-thousand attendees Okay, shall we continue? One of the great things about this size of convention is the localness of the vendors room. Area artists, craftspeople, and small press authors selling their wares and books to friends and neighbors. Every year, I’m glad to meet more and more of these local awesome people and buy their books and other works. This year (2019), I was glad to meet (for the second time after a brief meeting at Pet Semetary in April) local author Michelle von Eschen and pick up a pair of her books: the short story collections Once Upon a Time When Things Turned Out Okay (2019, edited by Jonathan Lambert) and When You Find Out What You’re Made of and Other Stories (2017). While I know Michelle, the following book reviews are just as honest notations as if she were any other random author.

I’ll go into a quick look at each of the individual stories, but let me be general to start. von Eschen crafts haunting short stories of quiet horror through the lens of loss and grief. There is a sense of unease in many stories found in movements just bigger than the protagonists, with the help they may need just outside their reach if there is any at all. That’s not to say each of the tales within these two volumes are the same idea with different window dressing. That is not true at all. The stories are very diverse in plotting, horror, and style. von Eschen has a fantastic sense of pacing in these stories as well. Each is sated to their story. Nothing drags, but neither do they feel under written. Her writing is clear and precise, but also creating a solid tone to each story. She world-builds very well, without over-explaining, creating an uneasy feel but still feels real. No excess prose, but not lacking in description either.

Let’s take a look at the separate parts. Fear not, I’ll not spoil the whole of each of the stories. I want to entice you to say “I want to know!” and go buy Michelle’s books now!

Once Upon a Time When Things Turned Out Okay is comprised of five stories, all but the last clock in to about 25 pages. Twenty-five very quick pages. 

“Firesick” fits the first four words of the collection title. With the feel of a dark fairy tale, a farmer investigates a strange fire in the local village at the same time oddly acting people arrive at the farm to entice his family to look into the flame. One can feel the empty quiet of the inescapable closing fire as each of the still-living attempt to avoid the fate of their neighbors. It simmers. A great way to start the collection, setting the tone of the remainder very well. I’m very glad this was the first of her stories I read. A great gateway.

“The Hands Resist Him” takes its title from the famous “haunted painting” on Ebay from 2000. Haunted or not, the painting does have a creepy vibe. This is it for context:

A young boy and his family move to a new home. There he finds the titular portrait upon the wall. The boy and the doll may have insidious plans for the narrator and his sister. As is the case for the other stories, there is a heartbreaking helplessness for the young boy as he receives no help from the horrors presented thanks to the painting. The described visuals of the events are creepy and disturbing – this would be a very well done short film if someone wants to take it on. I’d watch it. 

“Takers” forces the reader to reflect upon the importance of control in their lives through the things and people present in many ways. When these start to be taken away, by way of metaphoric mysterious aliens who appear at random, we feel the loss of control as our lives are taken away from us one item or person at a time.  “Takers” is a tale of forced isolation even among the masses experiencing the exact same thing. No one can cope, no one can help through our sadness and loss. 

“Pain Management, Inc.” reminded me of a Phillip K. Dick concept. I first wrote “a Dickish idea” then realized that would be read incorrectly. Here we see a day in the life and death of a company in the not-too-distant future which, as the title suggests, managers your pain. The Dickish (keeping it this time) element comes in the employees take people’s pain themselves so they can live pain free for a little while, as long as it is paid for. There is talk of how we take on our pain and get through it  and ethics of forcing others to experience pain like prisoners. I really loved this concept. The story itself is self-contained but I wouldn’t mind revisiting the company for a new story in the future.

“The Opportunity” is short (3 pages) and heartbreaking. It’s too short to get into details, as its a quick turn. But I will note I loved this story. I’m afraid to say it felt personal and all too real in what may be the darkest and most direct of the five. 

When You Find Out What You’re Made Of And Other Stories is made up of thirteen stories over 154 pages.

The titualar story leads off the collection, presented in the form of a transcription of a psychologist and a patient discussing a clearance yard sale she is having. On the surface the patient seems to be describing a severe depressive state, but it soon is revealed to be more than this, in a form of body dysmorphia of a different sort than expected.  It is interesting to try to figure out the hook as the story moves through, as the teller is patient, lending to an aloof unreliable narrator. Thus leading the reader to suss out for oneself the truth.

“Wildflower” uses a child-affecting/transforming virus to delve into the feelings of a mothering concern of watching a growing child change of losing that connection of single-digit youth. “And he’ll become someone I don’t know. A human I don’t recognize” (p20). It is heat-breaking to read as a mother diaries out watching her only child began to slip away despite her best efforts. Everyday, parents experience this whether in extreme cases of disease or the mere march of puberty. Giving voice through horror allows one to place themselves in any place on that spectrum as one desires from experience. (or none at all. I have no children).

“Side Effects” meets a large, hulking man on trial for an unspeakable crime lead possibly the side-effects of the bulking up medication he took – stuff worse and bigger than steroids. Through the lens of the fantastical-horror, one can see a story of abuse and toxic masculinity. 

In a reversal of “sci-fi/horror speaking for mental illness “The Madness Coil” digs into an ultimately horror concept on the guise of mental illness. As a story, it may be a tad too long, but I can’t fault it too much as it was great to read. Perhaps I was just accustomed to the shorter stories above. I loved the reveal, it honestly took me by surprise in the truths of the matter. 

“Mr. Reaper’s Ghastly Boutique” is my favorite story of the two books, hands down. Likely for many of the same reasons I love Hellboy and other stories featuring arcane lore and artifacts. A young man gets an offer to work at a strange shop. The shop is filled with all sorts of mystical, possibly deadly, wonders. I am intrigued by the shop, its owner, and the customers. I hunger to know more about these, and to follow the young man after the story ends. Give me MORE! MORE! Michlelle, I commission you to write more about Mr. Reaper’s shop and Alexander’s adventures. For this I’ll give you a shiny nickel and a one-man performance of a Twilight Zone episode (original series only) of your choice.   

“Still Life” is a take on the “I can’t move but I’m conscious” story many short story writers get to at some point in their careers. But in a refreshing take as there is no looming threat or unneeded surgery or autopsy. Instead, the terror of forever silent and immobileunknown of why, unable to interact with all those who look at and talk to or about you. The ultimate awkward  introvert experience, transferring to the fright of being felt as if gawked at by a room of strangers, unable to return conversation or just communicate at all. Terrifying. 

“Skeletons” is a short but powerful poem. We all have skeletons in our closets – more metaphoric than literal unless the police stop in. I hope you haven’t felt the pain of someone with power over you ripping those skeletons out when they need that edge. But if you haven’t the poem will give you the sensation. The speaker of the words has, and through von Eschens simple phasings, you feel their frustration and belittlement. 

“The Chimera Project” finds a woman meeting with a mysterious government agent in her home. Threat looms as her past begins to be uncovered. The truths of this past hint at a weird world of the story, and I’m intrigued. Her own existence is an interesting concept, and I like how it’s not fully expositioned as the two characters know this world. 

“Nothing is Promised Us, But Death”

This tale reminds me, for some reason, of Ursula K. Leguin along with the stories in the first book, of a nigh unstoppable force which the manner to survive is just out of hand. On an unnamed island, the dead the has taken have returned with anger to give their former loved ones to the sea as well. Michelle gives this a quiet, building horror as the attack takes hold, but also gives a surprising light and salvation, turning horror into loss and remembrance. 

“The Anniversary Gift” contains a line I just adored, about ugly china patterns:: “We’d sit at countless dinner parties, slowly uncovering the ugly design, staring as it stared back at us, daring us to replace it.” Looking to avoid this issue, a man on the “china” marriage anniversary looks for an alternate gift. A gift that makes a foodie’s mouth water. Quite a …delicious… short story. 

“Friends” isn’t the story you think it is after the first paragraph. We’ve seen imaginary friends may be real stories before. Hell, not just stories. I’m a paranormal investigator – it happens in real-life where imaginary friends can actually be ghosts (very often deceased relatives). But after the opening, no one told me “Friends” was going to be this way. (clapclapclapclapclap), as I was very pleasantly surprised a the story of a mom, a 13 year old son, and his two imaginary (?) friends moves into unexpected territory. Another favorite of the collection, I really appreciate how tight it was, accomplishing a great deal in a mere six pages.

“Vadleany” Sometimes in a bad situation, trying to fix it can only make it worse. Much worse. With much more blood than you’d like. As a lover of folk-lore, this story got me. I was reminded of the centuries-ago stories Hellboy gets filled in on before he fights his enemies. As I noted above, I love me some Big Red. So yeah, it worked for me.

“When You find Out What They’re Made Of” closes the collection. It’s a good choice to finish the book. Less horror, more a sad fantasy. But most importantly, a love of books – real-life physical books you can hold in your hands and smell and feel them. Last I read bookstores are on the upswing, which is good, but one still can’t help but mourn physical mediums as they give way to digital.  I want to touch and it and own it sort of guy for my book and films. I digress, but the story has made me feel and think about these things.

Throughout the multitude of stories and poems in these works, von Eschen never feels repetitive or even using the same voice. Each narrator and character stands on their own. Many times, even from world-famous authors, I can hear the same speech from story to story, so it’s refreshing for variety. 

So go buy Michelle’s books. Go to your local conventions and other gatherings with local and small-press writers (your local bookstore, even the chains, will host these events. Know them, read them, support them. 

Both collections are published from When The Dead Books. These and other books can be purchased from their website www.WhenTheDead.com

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