The Heart Is a Mirror for Sinners and Other Stories, Angela Slatter (PS Publishing 978-1-78636-563-7, £25.00, 331pp, hc) April 2020.
British and World Fantasy Award recipient Angela Slatter’s writing is elegant, eloquent, evocative, and exquisitely disturbing; polished to the rich patina found only on the finest quality antique silver, it casts a spell on the reader. Luckily, the Australian author is nearly as prolific as she is talented. The Heart Is a Mirror for Sinners and Other Stories is her eighth collection (two of the seven previous ones were co-written with Lisa L. Hannett.)
This latest compilation offers a wide range of stories: mythic/folkloric, gothic, dark humor, Lovecraftian (both serious and not), even forays into science fiction and hard-nosed detective fiction. The women in Slatter’s stories tend to be cut from the same fabric: they may make mistakes, but they gain the strength to claim life or gain revenge or do whatever must be done. They are shrewd, brave, and usually triumph – not that they are always on the side of good or light.
Science fictional “Tin Soldier” is set in an England where the War on Terror is entering its 199th year. The narrator invented “an organic alloy that mimicked the growth of a living being.” Patents have made her rich, but she is disgusted that her work is used “to recycle humans so they could be sent back into war zones to be broken again.” She’s called upon to mend a former lover who once performed an unforgiveable deed.
Invoking Sam Spade and Dashiell Hammett, Slatter’s Evie Donnelly is the endearing, wise-cracking private investigator of “Egyptian Revival”. (Disclosure: this reviewer edited this story.) The worship of ancient Egyptian gods is the rage of the higher income mean streets of her vintage San Francisco. Fabulous fun from start to cinematic finish.
A student heir goes back in time in “Neither Time Nor Tears” to discover a forgotten truth about her antecedents. In “No Good Deed”, Isobel is taken in by a cad whose family business is rich brides: “We’re lambs to them, meat on the table, money in the bank, brides in caskets.” Girls and young women learn a “price for something you want desperately but should not have is always red” in “The Little Mermaid, in Passing”.
Robbie escapes small-town life and marries a rich producer in Hollywood in original “But for an L”. She gets “everything a girl could want if she hadn’t been able to get what she actually wanted.” Then a PI warns her she may be in danger. He’s right.
Novella “Ripper” is a brilliant Jack the Ripper story. Kit Caswell, a Victorian-era woman, disguises herself as a man to become a police constable and support her widowed mother and ailing brother. Young Kit gets involved in the hunt for the notorious serial killer.
The colletion includes three stories of outright, first-rate horror: A widow bests a reprehensible villain in “Better Angels”. Archie Norwood is a rare male protagonist in the original gothic gem “The Heart is a Mirror for Sinners”, and a black sheep brings gruesome secrets and murderous intent when he returns to claim his inheritance. But never fear, female revenge and rage reign in the end. As an impoverished child, social worker Tricia made a deal and promised to always help people. In “Our Lady of Wicker Bridge” she learns what happens when promises aren’t kept.
“Reading Off the Curriculum”, another original, is a delightful Lovecraftian romp featuring an Miskatonic University academic translating ancient papyrus scrolls of The Necronomicon that she unearthed in Egypt. A “large and very sleek and glossy-looking rat currently answering to the name of Cthulhu” and an ambitious lab assistant are part of the plot.
Eva “always clung to a sense of repeated order just as a drowning woman does to a scrap of floating debris,” but she transforms in “Change Management”. “Lavinia’s Woods” combines Southern gothic with the Lovecraftian character Lavinia Whatley from “The Dunwich Horror.” Lavinia discovers promises made by Yog-Sothoth and his like are never quite true.
Terrifying and terrific, novelette “Finnegan’s Field” is set in South Australia but based on Irish lore. Everyone knows “when children go under the hill, they don’t come out again,” but after three years Madrigal reappears. A cause for rejoicing, yes, but her mother knows Madrigal is not the same as he was before. And, despite the denials of others, she is proven completely and horrifying right.
The Heart Is a Mirror for Sinners is destined for “year’s best” lists.
Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron, Ohio, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.
This review and more like it in the May 2020 issue of Locus.
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