Skein and Bone V. H. Leslie, 290 pages, Undertow Publications, undertowbooks.com, $23.99
Since 2010, Undertow Publications has been a champion of weird and slipstream short fiction — a genre not often given its proper due. Their most recent release is V. H. Leslie’s debut collection Skein and Bone. Leslie has produced an elegant collection of fourteen sorrowful, occasionally supernatural tales that skirt the line between the horrific and the surreal.
In “Namesake,” a woman with the surname Burden seeks the means to shrug off her family’s unfortunate legacy. The young boy at the heart of “Family Tree” must deal with shifting family dynamics as his father, having grown feral, abandons his natural role, forcing his son to grow up faster than he would have liked. “Bleak Midwinter” offers readers a different glimpse at the end of days, twisting childish symbolism — snowmen — into dark, oppressive entities. And the lonesome mapmaker of “The Cloud Cartographer” ruminates on the loss of his sister while traversing a cloudface that doubles as a Limbo of sorts.
The strongest stories in the collection also happen to be the most lyrical and imagistic. The titular “Skein and Bone” follows two sisters who, while travelling through France, enter a mysterious Renaissance chateau filled with impossibly corseted mannequins perpetuating an alarming “moral rigidity.” The short but devastating “Making Room” opens a window into a young relationship and the monsters under the bed — the skeletons of boyfriends past. And then there’s Dulcie, the beleaguered star of “Preservation,” who takes to bottling her emotions like preserves in a pantry, including “a whole row of jars filled only with profanities.”
From a bruised blue room embodying one woman’s idea of Hell, to a man lost in the wallpapered forest of his child’s nursery, Leslie’s writing is saturated with loss — not only in terms of death but also loss of control, of identity, and of purpose. To this end, Skein and Bone is a beautiful collection as heart-wrenching as it is strong. Leslie’s shorts are like personalized tragedies, gift wrapped and served alongside a lavish feast. (Andrew Wilmot)