Map of Blue Book Balloon

26 October 2021

#Review - The Twelve Even Stranger Days of Christmas by Syd Moore

Design by Andy Allen.
Against a blue/ back ground,
alternating holly leaves
(in neon green) and skulls
(neon blue) surround
the title.

The Twelve Even Stranger Days of Christmas
Syd Moore
Point Blank, 28 October 2021
Available as: PB, 277pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781786079794

I'm grateful for an advance copy of The Twelve Even Stranger Days of Christmas to consider for review.

Syd Moore is a favourite author of mine, so it was a a delight to see this collection of short stories following up her The Twelve Strange Days of Christmas which I see was only published two years ago but 2019 seems much more remote to me! This collection of new stories is appearing just in time to be an indulgence for the dark winter nights - if you can't bear to keep it for Christmas, that is.

I should mention a couple of things about the collection. First, while The Twelve Even Stranger Days... does feature some stories set in Adder's Fork, home of the Essex Witch Museum, most aren't. While this may disappoint some, Moore's writing is always to be relished and it's great to see the range she covers here. Secondly, while there is indeed a story for every day of Christmas, many are not explicitly Christmas themed.  Again though, that range is shown off: here you'll find transformed fairy tales, folk horror, an enigmatic glimpse (I think?) of earlier generations of the Strange family, detective stories (including a winter themed story from a pre-Great War Adder's Fork), classic ghost stories, tales of supernatural, and of perfectly natural, revenge - and, yes, the plum in the pudding, Christmas Day at the Essex Witch Museum, updating us on how lockdown has been affecting our friends there.

At the centre are three linked stories, Journey of the Magi: a Triptych. The separate parts of this make excellent use of the Essex topography, locating an eerie story amidst the lonely marshes and remote communities to be found there and documenting Maggie's journey on Christmas Eve to visit friends. We see what happens in a little world which seems a long way from the comforting and the modern. Combining Essex history with a vein of folk horror, Moore operates in the shadows; between what's spelled out and what we guess, between our fears and our hopes. Taking loops into history and with a dark mystery at their heart, this triptych would make excellent reading by the fire on a dark evening.

Another story with a folk horror motif, Rogationtide, could in my mind almost be set in the same community. It's not a Christmas tale - Rogation, the blessing of the community's crops and animals, takes place several weeks after Easter - but has the same preoccupations as the Triptych: the stubbornness of an inward-looking, remote rural community, its capacity to apply a weird logic that resists incomers' attempts at change, and the lurking possibility that picturesque ceremonies and beliefs may suddenly take us somewhere very dark indeed. Moore creates an atmosphere of menace hanging over what are apparently some rather jolly celebration, the unease that goes with the reign of the Lord of Misrule. While not perhaps so explicitly seasonal, this is a very fitting theme for Christmas itself, I think, as is the first story in the book, Pantomime, whose opening sentence turns expectations on their head: 'Nobody ever realised that the Seven Dwarves were female.'  Upturning received hierarchies is of course the essence of pantomime (even if paradoxically it's done according to hallowed conventions) and Moore sets about that with relish, mashing together the conventions concerning the Dwarves and those of the noir in a story narrated by a straight-talking Doc which gives us all the inside secrets of  what really went on in that cottage.

Moore returns to the detective story, but more conventionally, in The Over-Winter Harrowing of Constance Hearst, which opens with the melting of the snow and the discovery of a preserved corpse in the churchyard at Adder's Fork. This is pre First World War, and the story is narrated by the delightfully stolid Inspector George LeGrand who flits about the county in pursuit of a solution, staying now in this, now that, grand house, making use of motor cars and telephones loaned to him and generally having a fine time before finally grasping and exposing the details of a crime as devious as anything encountered by Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. 

Moore sticks with the detective theme in the much more modern Two Minds, which sees the underrated Inspector Drew Oates, victim of sexist assumptions, come through to the solution when a woman is found dead in a pool of blood.

Another highlight of the collection is Thirteen (a number that is something of a theme in this books as you'll have spotted - what could be more fitting given the witchy background) which takes us far from Essex, to a paradise Mediterranean island whose history has, however, been far less than heavenly. This is a lovely ghost story in the best MR James style - however primed you are for the horror, you won't I think spot it coming: Moore slants reality ever so slightly to give us a satisfying and oh-so chilling vignette of the weird beneath everyday life.

After the Party Comes the Bill is a story it might be best not to say too much about, to avoid spoiling the gentle ramping up of unease that builds up as an unappealing City boy narrator makes his way home from an office party on Christmas Eve. Repellantly un-selfaware, sexist and bullying, he is somebody it is very hard to like and I for one was delighted when he got the runaround from C2C Rail...

Christmas Dates has at its centre a similar figure, a self-styled pick-up artist who's used the loneliness and isolation of lockdown to prey on women. On the last day of 2020, he's determined to get his "score" up to 52 for the year. Again, Moore magnificently portrays this unpleasant, unsympathetic man is what feels like a very of-the-moment story.

The two remaining pieces in the book both intrigue, albeit in very different ways. In String of Lights, young Rozalie recalls her youth before the Great War, and her mother's stories of her youth, in particular her dalliance with a certain Archduke in an ancien regime world of dazzling balls, gowns and uniforms. A world that's gone now, but is there a tantalising possibility that this is a glimpse at the past of Rosie's own family? And in Thirteenth (that was a formatting challenge!) the volume as a whole meets a fitting conclusion in a poem describing the coming of the Four Housewives of the Apocalypse - who are naturally working even harder over the Christmas season than they do the rest of the year.

Overall, a gorgeous collection (and it would be an excellent gift too, I'll just plant that thought).

For more about The Twelve Even Stranger Days of Christmas see, the publisher's website here

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