Small Towns, Dark Places

There’s a kind of Bermuda Triangle here in the Midwest, an area that stretches from Unseemly Lake, Minnesota, to Endless Travails, Iowa, on to Misfortune, Wisconsin, and back again. Here, in what we’ve come to call the Tractor Triangle, the crops come in every year and the people appear happy enough, but the breeze off of the lake doesn’t put anybody at ease and the shoppers are home and locked in tight by nightfall. The sun burns a little too brightly by day, and the long, dark shadows it casts across these small towns never seem to leave. (From the Prologue)

I’m a great fan of Tansy Undercrypt’s microfiction, and avidly anticipated Small Towns, Dark Places, her debut collection of short stories. I downloaded the eBook as soon as it became available last summer, and read it right through with a thrilled greediness. And have read it twice more since, as I waited for RIP season to review it in a setting worthy of its dark delights. Alert readers will note that we are many weeks deep into RIP—that there is, in fact, very little RIP left to us. I am remiss in posting this review, I admit; some of that is due to life events demanding much of my time and attention. Part of it, however, is a curious reluctance to review the book, no matter how very much I want every single one of you to read it, whether you think you dislike horror stories, or short stories, or lady writers, or whatever. Whatever your prejudice is, I don’t care–read this book!

Upon reflection, I find the reluctance boils down to, “Me no find good words tell you scary-pretty book,” more or less. There’s something so fine in these portraits of sturdy Midwesterners facing down the unspeakable horrors visited upon them, that I really don’t want to get my clumsy, fawning praise all over them. Tansy writes about terrible things with a dainty touch, the horror cushioned by warmth and humor. She’ll lead you down some dark roads, but you’re safe enough with her. I love the way her pragmatic characters react to vampire infestations and zombie uprisings: there’s very little screaming for help from divine or temporal authorities, and whole lot of digging in and Doing What Needs Done. I’m thinking of “Salt”, especially, my favorite story in the book, and also “Barn”, which will rip your heart right out as it scares you silly. (Did I say you were safe with Tansy? Well…you’ll live, but you might not come out unscarred. Which is fine; the point of literature is to change us, right? And anyway, scars make you more interesting.)

It took me a while, but I finally realized what Tansy’s writing reminds me of. Do you recall the story of those dear ladies who gave me such a fright one Halloween when I was young? Tansy’s stories have that same twinkle, that sense of mischief in frightening the guests, but not too much. The tone of her work fits in perfectly with my notions of Halloween—so much so, that I made Small Towns, Dark Places my selection for All Hallow’s Read this year. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.

(Full disclosure: the author is a personal friend, although it seems important to say that I encountered her writing first and Herself somewhat later. In fact, it was my admiration of her writing that made me want to make her acquaintance socially.)

Reviewed for RIP VII, Peril of the Short Story.

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