Six Dreams About the Train and Other Stories
Trepidatio Publishing (August 13, 2021)
Reviewed by Andrew Byers
Single-author collections from authors who haven’t yet achieved the name recognition they deserve are sometimes hit-or-miss: they can be forgettable or they can be treasure troves of stories you haven’t yet encountered but wish you had long ago. I am pleased to say that Maria Haskins’ new collection Six Dreams About the Train and Other Stories falls into the latter category. It is a genuine treasure. While Haskins was an author who was new to me, based on the strength of this collection, she’s been added to the short list of authors whose work I must read as soon as it comes out.
This is a meaty collection of twenty-three stories that defy easy categorization; Haskins effortlessly writes tales of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and everything in between. Her prose is utterly beautiful and enchanting. I’m going to discuss some of the stories in this collection that I found particularly engaging. One of Haskins’ strengths will clearly emerge: the sheer breadth of the settings and themes that she explores through her writing. This is not a collection centered around modern characters with modern problems in settings that are familiar to the reader; on the contrary, Haskins effortlessly traverses time and space to present historical tales, tales set in fantastical or science fictional settings, and stories with protagonists that are either nonhuman or that possess truly alien perspectives. There aren’t many other writers publishing collections like this.
One of the longer stories in the collection, “Deepster Punks,” was also one of my favorites. This one is set in a futuristic deepsea research/energy extraction that is crewed by two old friends, Becca and Jacob. They have worked together off and on, for decades; now, Becca has been asked by their employer to keep an eye on Jacob because his last partner—their shared friend, lover, and colleague—died under very mysterious circumstances and Jacob could be to blame. They both find themselves imperiled in ways neither had imagined in a fascinating, isolated aquatic environment.
Several of Haskins’ stories are clearly influenced by folklore, as in the case of “Silver and Shadow, Spruce and Pine,” which features Marika’s search for her missing grandmother who may have entered a fairy tale, as well as “A Strange Heart, Set in Feldspar,” which contains some traditional Swedish folkloric elements mixed with unruly teenagers going missing in an abandoned mine and their mother’s doubts about continuing to be their mother. These blends of traditional myths in more modern settings work extremely well.
I want to make a small point that may be relevant only to me, but Maria Haskins is clearly a dog lover, and I very much appreciate how her love for dogs comes through in the three stories that have dog protagonists (dogs appear elsewhere in the collection but are protagonists in three of my favorites). Nonhuman protagonists are very hard to write successfully, but Haskins succeeds admirably here. I am not ashamed to admit that two of these stories—“Mothers, Watch Over Me” and “Down to Niflhel Deep”—each brought a tear to my eye as I read them. (Maria, you made a grown man sitting on a train cry. I hope you’re satisfied.) In “Mothers,” Maya has just given birth to a litter of puppies in a post-apocalyptic wasteland; Maya and her kin are no ordinary dogs, and Maya will do anything to save her puppies’ lives, including a trek into a forbidden zone to seek the aid of God. And in “Down to Niflhel Deep,” Roan (remember his name) is a dog whose girl has been murdered and taken into the afterlife. Roan follows her there, trading away all that he has to try to bring her back. I think I found these stories so affecting because dogs have always seemed like creatures of pure love when it comes to their families; Haskins makes great use of that dramatic potential in both tales.
“Seven Kinds of Baked Goods” is an example of Haskins’ authorial breadth: nominally this is the story of an exiled dwarven crafter living in a fantasy city, but the reader’s expectations are entirely inverted when we learn that she specializes not in crafting magical weapons or arms or other traditional treasures, but in baked goods. A baker in a fantasy city wouldn’t seem to naturally lend itself to a fascinating story, but that all changes when she finds herself allied with a poison-wielding assassin. Another excellent story with a fantastical setting is “Blackdog,” which concerns a little girl who has been abducted for foul purposes; in order to survive and escape, she must grapple with both human and supernatural evils. This is a wonderfully dark tale of vengeance and justice—and love, a theme that shines through in most of Haskins’ stories.
Haskins has a unique way of painting an evocative setting—as critical to each of her stories as the characters and plot—in only a few sentences. As I read this collection, I dreaded ending every story and yet couldn’t wait to begin the next. There are many other stories I could have highlighted here to demonstrate the strengths of the collection, from Haskins’ diverse post-apocalyptic visions in “And You Shall Sing Me a Deeper Song,” which depicts a war between humans (and their posthuman descendants) with machines, and “Cleaver, Meat, and Block,” which explores how civilization can recover from a “zombie” apocalypse on individual and social levels; to the total transformation of society in “Long As I Can See the Light,” which may be an alien invasion that leads to the creation of a utopia, or one man’s mental illness; to the personal story of two girls in “The Brightest Lights of Heaven,” who play a game that takes place across the decades of their lives and that leads to their individual transformations and perhaps their deaths.
This is a wonderful collection of stories across a wide variety of themes and settings. Haskins is a true wordsmith who paints beautiful stories, characters, and settings with her words. Hers is a rare talent. Six Dreams About the Train and Other Stories was almost certainly the best collection of stories I’ve read all year, and I read a vast number of such collections. Highly recommended.