Eric Schaller’s latest anthology, Voice of the Stranger, starts with a foreword exploring the birth of its title. Deftly put Schaller explains, “The title for my collection is taken from the song ‘Green Pastures’. The relevant lines read, “We will not heed to the voice of the stranger, for he would lead us on to despair.” Schaller’s anthology of 14 unsettling short stories explores questions of morality, the “other” and the desires of the Id. Each story is tinged with a sense of foreboding that’s masterfully crafted through the weaving of metaphor and an acute understanding of the conventions of gothic and folk tales, of which are turned on their head and played with. In turn, the stories lead the characters, and the readers, down the encroaching path of despair, into the arms of the devil, The Stranger.
Voice of the Stranger delights in disgusting the audience with its array of uncanny creatures, from a Djinn intent on revenge, an animatronic automaton, scientific experiments and advances that have gone awry, aquatic life-forms, and the spirit of long-passed family members being possessed in woodland creatures. Each of these stories poses the question: who is the real villain? Whose morality is tainted beyond saving? Is it the uncanny beasts that roam the pages, or is it their hubristic creators?
A clear synergy between the morality questions that dominated Victorian gothic literature and folk tales is mirrored in these stories. With one such stand-out story being ‘A Study in Abnormal Physiology’, in the Writer’s Story Notes Schaller credits Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes as being an inspiration. However, it’s clear the influence of R.L. Stevenson’s questions on scientific advancement and Mary Shelley’s lamentation of the brutality of man also come into play. Schaller is able to transport the reader into Victorian gothic and mystery stories through the artful enmeshing of sentence structure, vocabulary, and metaphor that reflects the stories of the 19th century.
Each story spins a modern take on classic folk tales and I found myself entranced and comforted by this. I recognised the inspirations, some of which include the tale of Ali Baba and Red Riding Hood yet they were transformed into something new and fresh, which made the reading experience unique and entrancing. Schaller juxtaposes beautiful language with his unnerving tales, in ‘Wildflowers’ Schaller uses his in-depth biochemistry knowledge to tell the tale of a deformed fetus and writes, “Milky saliva dribbled down her engorged breast. Her newborn’s mushy lips puckered with embryonic lust, dank as rotten fruit.” The confident command of language creates an incongruous and abject feeling to the story between the innocence, purity, and joy of new life being poisoned by a monstrous decision made by one of the characters, concluding in a bitter ending.
Although the anthology is sectioned into collections titled ‘ I. Past Tense’, ‘II. Present Tense’, and ‘III. Future Tense’ indicates a difference between the themes, they seem interconnected, stacked inside one another like Russian dolls, speaking and interacting with one another, with threads of philosophical questioning that are woven through them all. The story of The Watchmaker in Past Tense is referenced in Automata in Future Tense, and the themes of robotic engineering and AI are expounded upon further. Ideas surrounding dreams and memory are interconnected between the story Smoke, Ash, and Whatever Comes Next in Present Tense is built upon in Hell and a Day. This creates harmony and symbiosis with all parts of the anthology and gives the reader a greater understanding of the themes at play. Whilst this helps to make sense of the stories, the endings are often ambiguous and you are left to ponder upon the true meaning of the tales.
Voice of the Stranger was an engaging and thought-provoking read. The structure of the book made for an easy and enjoyable experience as the short stories provided an impactful punch in their pages and was just long enough to feel fulfilling whilst also making it an extremely easy book to read through. I enjoyed how interconnected the stories were and the eloquent imagery and language used to evoke a myriad of emotions. This is a definite must-read for all fans of psychological and philosophical stories with hints of horror splashed throughout, Schaller has crafted a beautiful and poignant anthology that adeptly explores what it is to be human, or what it is to be inhuman.
Voice of the Stranger is available to purchase from Lethe Press
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