A Unitarian hymnal from 1901 contains the lines, from a T.H. Gill offering: "Shall things withered, fashions olden/ Keep us from life's flowing spring?"
The decay of various aspects of everyday life informs these short stories by Winnipeg-born and raised horror author Susie Moloney. Ranging from vaguely eerie to hallucinatory, Moloney's little worlds find various ways to make the reader's skin crawl.
Moloney lives in New York with her playwright husband Vern Thiessen, also originally from Winnipeg.
She has published four novels, including Bastion Falls, A Dry Spell and The Thirteen. The Dwelling, from 2003, involves a real estate agent who sells the same house over and over, to different luckless buyers.
The first and last stories in Things Withered are also real estate-themed. The Windemere is narrated by a struggling realtor whose own building contains the key to her resurgent success. The Neighbourhood, or To the Devil With You focuses on the longtime tenants in a generally quiet suburban setting.
Throughout Things Withered, seemingly mundane settings and incidents gradually turn out to be dangerous, macabre, or downright horrifying.
Moloney rarely resorts to graphic violence or gore for impact. Hints of things not quite being right, as well as often-understated but effective prose, bring the reader along until it is too late to turn back.
Terry is sure that rottweilers are "absolutely a universally misunderstood dog," according to the pet-friendly I '* Dogs, in spite of the "true menace in his growl." The Human Society also involves pets, but is also a nightmarish examination of alcoholic desperation.
Moloney is particularly adept at detailing people's inner thoughts and desires. Most of her characters, presented in first or third person, are hiding some degree of inner turmoil, with varying success.
Everyday horror like a tax audit, or a trip to the local petting zoo take unexpected turns in Moloney's competent hands. While some of the plots are clearly supernatural, others are not, while a few may or may not be. The ambiguity serves to increase the ghastliness of the experiences.
Recognizably or explicitly Canadian settings are especially enjoyable for those who live here. Also of note are the stories involving some level of apocalypse, albeit usually very limited in scope, and only involving a few people.
Reclamation on the Forest Floor begins with Sharla's jealous murder of her friend Hilary, whose skull she has smashed with a new MacBook. Justice will be done, but not by any human agency.
Truckdriver follows a directionless university grad who decides to start a delivery business to the disdain of his sister. His business plan doesn't survive the process.
Several of the stories reserve their twists for the last page, recalling some of Shirley Jackson's stories like The Lottery. Still, the knowledge that everything is not what it seems informs the stories and results in a delightful emotional gruesomeness that usually gives way to an alarming ending, even when the reader is expecting to be startled.
People who like their supernatural horror served in genteel helpings that don't resort to gorefests will enjoy Things Withered.
Bill Rambo teaches at The Laureate Academy in St. Norbert.