Lisa L. Hannett’s new short story collection Songs For Dark Seasons takes the reader on an unnerving journey to places, and into lives, that gleam and shimmer with beauty and horror, desire and sorrow. Dark, strange currents run deep beneath the thin veneer of the regular, everyday world here, and all that strangeness from beneath and beyond keeps breaking through the surface.
At first glance, the stories seem to take place in the world we know in something close to the present day, but in every tale, Hannett peels back the familiar to reveal the profoundly unsettling and dangerous magic hidden in the towns and villages, in the trees and forests, and in the people who live and die there.
Quoting the official blurb from the publisher:
Songs for Dark Seasons is Deliverance meets Pan’s Labyrinth; its stories read like a country music album played in the darkest corners of the imagination.
With a twang in its heart and a song for luck on its tongue, Songs for Dark Seasons takes readers back to the lonesome dream counties introduced in the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection, Bluegrass Symphony.
Trailer parks and graves are only temporary homes for souls in these tales, where gods dwell in churches and parking lot groves. Friday night football stars mingle with sirens; hunters’ wives help their kids not to shoot, but to fly; Chanticleers spar their way into local government; and rash-afflicted men take dryads for lovers. In backwater towns, some witches have the know-how to pin pageant queens pretty, while others relieve girls of highfalutin aspirations. Local crow-boys and bloodthirsty Ursines are the best miners around.
In these thirteen stories, forests are imbued with the deepest, saddest strains of country music, cornfield horizons stretch as long as a lone fiddle’s wail, and distant hills make mandolin promises: sweet and catchy and short-lived.
I’ve been a fan of Hannett’s writing for years. I think it started with “A Shot of Salt Water“, and then it continued through Midnight and Moonshine (written with Angela Slatter and still one of my favourite books, ever).
If you’re new to Hannett’s writing and you want to sample some of the stories in Songs For Dark Seasons, you can read the painfully jagged and devastating “The Canary” in The Dark–a twisting tale where wings and other bird-features sprout in unexpected ways and places in a mining town. Or, you might want to read “Little Digs“, also published in The Dark–where a girl named Bets digs deep to get what she needs from her Mamma.
One of my favourite stories in this collection is the simultaneously wistful and wrenching “Surfacing” about Dot and her Ted, the darkness and the pond. It’s a story that captures both the promise and glimmer of two young people in love, and the difficult times that can come with old age even as the memories of brighter days, and more hopeful times, remain:
“…this new puddle on their front lawn…this is not their pond….This one is all wrong, all Ted’s. — It’s deep green, impenetrable, black where much meets grass. She shudders, seeing the night sky trapped in its surface; thousands of stars glinting between ghosted branches of elms, larches, pine.”
Another one of my favourite stories in this collection is the final one, “By Touch and By Glance” (an original for the collection), where the lives in a small community intertwine and entangle the inhabitants in weave of love and lust and jealousy. Bones fashioned into pins carry magic in this tale, and there’s a visceral transformation scene towards the end that is both wrenching and breathtaking. There is magic in this story, as there is everywhere in Hannett’s fiction. Magic that never comes easy, that is messy and difficult and powerful, and that doesn’t always make anyone’s life any easier.
Family is another thread that connects these stories. And like the magic, the family bonds are often as complicated as they are powerful. There is love, sometimes, but it’s not the easy, rose-tinted, happily-ever-after kind of love. No. Hannett writes dark fantasy steeped in horror and strangeness, and in these stories, good and evil bleed into each other and people do what they can, what they must, to get by.
This visceral quality of Hannett’s fiction, the unflinching way she digs into relationships and family bonds, and the many reasons people do what they do, and become what they are, is one of the reasons I love her stories so much. This is no shiny-smooth fantasy realm. Instead, there is grit and sweat and blood, guts and sinew too, in all these tales.
And the prose! My goodness, the prose… I’ll leave you with a quote from “By Touch and By Glance”, just because it’s so beautiful:
“The forest’s in its dreariest brown outfit, the river’s traded diamond sparkle for mud, the sky’s forgotten where its blue cloak is, so’s put on a grey hood instead.”
Songs For Dark Seasons is a heady, surreal, and sublime collection of short stories, rich in both strangeness and beauty. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a must-read.