Red Spikes is a short story collection. Each story is set in a world tinged by fantasy, but, as the GoodReads summary states “each one illuminates what it is to be human”. The subject matter is often dark and unsettling, but the collection also has overcoming of fears and personal growth as uniting themes.
I am not always a fan of short story collections. They can leave you unsatisfied, feeling that the stories should not quite end where they did. In the case of Red Spikes I definitely wanted more, but this time, the feeling was not one of disappointment, but one of enjoying these stories so much that I longer for more.
I felt not all of the stories were as strong as others, or perhaps I should say that not all of them spoke to me as deeply. However, all of them were well worth reading, which is not how I commonly feel about these collections.
I should warn that when I say dark and unsettling, I do mean dark and unsettling. There are a lot of themes here that you might not find in regular YA fiction. There was something so entirely unsettling about the stories “Monkey’s Paternoster” and “Winkie”, that I wonder if I would not rather forget some of the images called up in them. Because of that, those stories were not my favourites.
Favourite stories include:
- Hero Vale: About a boy who learns to overcome his fears and stand up for himself and his friends at a boys’ school through an adventure in one of Lanagan’s fantasy settings.
- Under Hell, Over Heaven: A story about the afterlife, inspired by the Catholic teachings about Limbo (though I think there are elements of purgatory as well?). We all know I love stories in which religion is a grand theme. I especially liked how Lanagan managed to be both respectful to religion, as well as evoke the darker feelings that come with worldviews that include a place like hell, or the underworld.
- Forever Upwards: Oh, Margo Lanagan. To include a story that combines elements of colonial settlement, Christianisation, “indigenous” religion, the relationship between class, gender, power, and religion. The loss of power and the empowerment through religion. The personal agency and growth through tradition and standing out from it. This story was simply perfect.
- Daughter of the Clay: A story about a girl from the Clay who is caught in the world of humans.
One of Lanagan’s particular strengths is, I think, her ability to evoke different personalities and worlds in such a short story-span. At the beginning of each story, through the difference in prose and the accents of her characters, you just know that you are in an entirely different place, dealing with an entirely different set of people. Another thing I loved is how, in particular in the latter half of the collection, Lanagan manages to evoke both the overwhelming sense of oppression the world can have on you, but also how each person has an agency and voice of their own.
After reading Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan last year, I knew I had to read everything she published one way or another. I, of course, still need to tell you about my utter and complete love for Tender Morsels, but at the end of this post about Red Spikes, let me tell you that reading this collection did not change anything about that assessment. I may, in general, enjoy novels more than short stories, and I don’t think this quite tops what my first experience with Lanagan’s prose made me feel, and what I still feel and think about today, but Lanagan is definitely on my list of “The Complete Works of..” authors. And Red Spikes is definitely my favourite short story collection to date. All I need to do now is make that dedicated page.