Electronic books may indeed be the future for publishers, but there's also a thriving trade in exquisitely-made physical books from independent presses. One such publisher is Tartarus Press, which creates books-as-artifacts that last and that accrue in value. One of their latest releases, Sourdough and Other Stories by Australian writer Angela Slatter, is also an example of how specialty presses provide an important outlet for great story collections. Slatter's created dark folk tales that have a vibrant and three-dimensional inner life. From the dust jacket: "In the cathedral-city of Lodellan and its uneasy hinterland, babies are fashioned from bread, dolls are given souls and wishes granted may be soon regretted. There are ghosts who dream, men whose wings have been clipped and trolls who long for something other. Love, loss and life are elegantly dissected in Slatter's earthy yet poetic prose."
Here's a short excerpt from my afterword to the collection...
You could call what she's created her "take" on folktales, but I think that's too limiting. She's not just riffing off of what's gone before but creating something new that's less stylized and more three-dimensional. The opener, "The Shadow Tree," is a glorious and complex start to staking out her own territory, with its examination of the deliberate and thoughtless cruelty of those with unlimited privilege. But Slatter's narrator isn't there to relay a story so much as to be her own true self"”someone in exile, in a difficult situation, using every advantage at her disposal. The queen and the sociopathic kids aren't out of your normal fairy tale scenario, either. They have a freshness and a specificity that carries weight without being weighty. This means that the narrative can accomplish more than lesser efforts that start out with the stale crumbs of "Once upon a time."
In short, these characters exist somewhere on the edges of our real world. They aren't just echoes of echoes passed down through oral storytelling"”they've popped out of the tapestry on the wall and into our lives. Slatter's narratives stay true to this fact by being firmly wedded to the concerns of the people in them.
As exciting for the reader is the level of invention, especially devilish invention. Slatter writes that gallowberries taste "without exception, of rotting flesh and spent seed"”their garden lies at a crossroads, under the gallows...The lives of such men shudder to a halt, their last breath and last pleasure simultaneous." What a wonderful/horrible line in the best possible sense!
But description without completion is meaningless, and the completion is as much of a joy as biting down on the flesh of a less ghoulish fruit: "She popped one of the gallowberries she habitually carried about in her pockets into her mouth. As she moved forward, she mouthed a word or two, bit down hard and blinked out of existence." Voila! For me, that's a blissful fictional moment.