Out of Water
Trepidatio Publishing (November 1, 2019)
Reviewed by Gordon B. White
Sarah Read is an author who fans of quality dark fiction likely already know. She’s been writing and editing superb short dark fiction for a while now, although 2019 alone has seen her solo author publication debuts. Her first novel, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard, came out earlier this year, and while that was a gruesome Gothic treat mixed with more than a little body horror, it’s her first collection – Out of Water – which really showcases Read’s many strengths.
That title – Out of Water – should give readers a hint of what to expect. For starters, it’s mysterious and tantalizing. It conjures up both the dark plane of the ocean’s surface, and also the abyssal depths below, ascending like a bubble from the pressing darkness to a rippling surface, hinting at – and maybe even threatening – the wonders which might emerge. The stories collected here draw up from those hidden reaches beneath the everyday, and the Weird treasures Read brings forth are superb.
As the surface of the title Out of Water hints, sometimes the water here is literal, although it is never merely that shallow. For example, the stories “The Eyes of the Salton Sea,” “Underwater Thing,” or “Tall Grass, Shallow Water” feature bodies of water that conceal secrets and obscure the past, but beneath which dark new aspects grow unseen, until finally they emerge out of the water, seeking …. Well, I won’t spoil them, but these are dark tales.
Out of Water also suggests a thirst. It conveys the dry, parched feeling of missing something vital – some element necessary to live, or at least to live in peace. That thread is here, too, in characters who desperately, achingly search for something they’re missing, whether it’s an artist’s struggle to find the perfect inspiration in “Still Life with Natalie,” or a storm chaser’s need for validation in “Crosswinds.” Often, however, that vital element is the bond between parents – specifically mothers – and their children.
Because life, too, comes Out of Water. The water could just as well be the primordial sea as the water of the womb that breaks before birth. The number of deeply-felt stories here about mothers and children range from the straightforward relationships of stories like “In Tongues,” “Grave Mother,” “Thorn Tongue,” and “Magnifying Glass” (although these are really only “straightforward” in the most relative sense) to the strange, new configurations of progeny and progenitor in “Through Gravel,” “Making Monsters,” or “Golden Avery.” In these, as in all of her stories, Read draws deep emotional connections that make her fantastical and Weird elements resonate all the more.
Finally, Out of Water also connotes a survival. It’s the emergence onto the shore after the metaphorical shipwreck of a life or a relationship, perhaps. This is present throughout the collection, but most notably in the closing original story, “Renovation.” It’s that gasping for breath, desperate to break through, to make it to shore. It’s a vitality that’s present in all of these pieces.
While this collection covers a wide thematic range, there are a number of different modes, as well. From old-fashioned stick-to-your-ribs horror that would be right at home in the best episodes of Tales from the Crypt to brief, shimmering prose poems of loss and longing, through grounded contemporary realism to the baroque and misty realms of fable and myth, there’s no place here that Read reaches for which exceeds her grasp.
Above all, what unites Read’s work as she takes these imaginative leaps and slips through these stylistic borders is her impeccable writing. She is as deft at painting the picture of an underground world of faeries as she is a desert road haunted by a ghostly RV or a graveyard covered in wildflower blossoms, but throughout Read is always capable of creating genuine emotional connections between her characters – and her readers – so that each of these stories is a polished gem. That they can all be so different, yet still all have that same luster, is a testament to Read’s skill.
Sarah Read’s Out of Water is a wonderfully varied, superbly executed treasure chest of horror, the Weird, and even a little bit of the fantastic. It’s a collection that plumbs the hidden depths of the heart and soul to draw forth new, vivid life.