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Thirteen Chairs h/c

Thirteen Chairs h/c back

Dave Shelton

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Page 45 Review by Stephen

'"Welcome," says the pale man. "You are welcome."'

Put yourself in young Jack's shoes:

There are thirteen chairs set round a circular wooden table, one of them waiting for you.

In each other chair sits a stranger. There's a big, bearded man with a bellowing voice; there's a small girl with thick glasses who speaks in a swift monotone as if empty inside; and then there's the pale man with well-behaved hair whose presence is commanding and whose posture is excellent.

In turn they tell stories by candlelight. None of their stories end well.

Will yours?

You know what they say about curiosity, and Jack is a curious boy. Come to think of it, each of these strangers in their own way is curious, as are their stories. Some sound like fables, others like confessions but they all are claimed to be true. Each involves death and most come laden with the weight of poetic justice, although one of the culprits is prose. Who knew that writing could kill you?

We stock very little prose at Page 45. For us, it is all about comics. Sure, we stock a full range of Neil Gaiman, but then he is ever so slightly renowned in our graphic world for things like THE SANDMAN and DEATH. There's the heart-breaking A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness and Jim Kay which you must never, oh never, read in public. But it's packed full of the most jaw-dropping, Sienkiewicz-via-Steve-Bissette illustrations and - aside from the stories' chapter breaks - this isn't. What this has in common, however, is its horror yet humanity and its literary craft. I stole a little bit of it for my introduction. Here's the pale man, the gathering's compère:

'He is a small man, soberly dressed in a dark suit that is neatly tailored and primly buttoned; a crisp white shirt with a wing collar; a plain dark tie. His hair is short and well-behaved. His posture is excellent.'

Try this, too:

'"Come on in then," she says, raising an arm and beckoning with long fingers, tickling at the air. "No skulking in the dark. Over here where we can see you." Her voice is a soft and lovely thing, round and warm and with a sweet tang of teasing laughter.'

Dave Shelton is the author of the delightful all-ages comedy we also broke our no-prose policy to stock, A BOY AND A BEAR IN A BOAT, which we still seem to be selling at least one copy of every single week - usually to adults for adults. My Auntie Squee adores it. This is all-ages too, but emphatically not comedy. I was worried throughout, and so was Jack, and there is an ice-cold, chilling secret lying within which will reveal itself as soon as you're ready to see it. The finale's pay-off is sublime.

In the meantime you'll enjoy multiple stories from diverse voices, each as distinct from each other as this is from A BOY AND A BEAR IN A BOAT. I was beseeched by its publisher to announce my favourite but I quite simply can't. It could be the phantom in and of the deluge which I picture in my mind's eye drawn by Will Eisner or coloured by Bettie Breitweiser. It could be Mr. Fowler's childhood recollection of shirking work in his uncle's tavern, spellbound by a ship all at sea and the cost to its crew of two brothers at war. Or maybe it's matter-of-factual Amelia:

'"I am not loud or funny or cheeky or popular. I am quite clever and quiet and not cool, and the other children make fun of my glasses, which are held together by sellotape at the moment because Dad fixed them with not very good glue in a hurry after Ellie sat on them, and so they broke again really easily when Sam kicked a football in my face, which was an accident again."'

So no, actually, this isn't without laughs.

'"If Callum wants to try to make me cry he should call me something to do with being little, like 'titch' or 'stick insect' or something, because that would make more sense (even though it still wouldn't make me cry because I don't care about that sort of thing because I have a Positive Self Image because Dad told me I should)."'

She's worried that Callum will "want to do revenge" on her because she got bored of him throwing her school bag in the air because it contained her school lunch and that contained tomatoes which could go squishy (they did) and so she punched him in the tummy and that made him sick all over his silly trainers.

'"I try to keep an eye on them, but I drop some tomato on my biscuits (Dad gave me biscuits today because it is a Wednesday and Wednesday are biscuit days, and Mondays and Fridays are too, and Tuesdays are Healthy Choice days), and so I have to pay attention to that and get the seeds and juice off the top biscuit as fast as possible to stop it from being too tomatoey to eat (the bottom one is absolutely fine). I'm just deciding that the top biscuit is not OK to eat because it will be too tomatoey but that from now on I'll ask Dad to wrap the biscuits in cellophane as well for extra safety, when I realise that I can't see Mrs Fleet at all any more."'

It reads breathlessly, like an infant's school essay, doesn't it?

I might have to concede, however, that my biggest soft spot is for big, bearded Piotr who repeats a story with a very grisly end told to him by his grandmother. ("My grandmother swears by her moustache that is true. So must be so.") This is what I mean by completely different voices:

'"So they take him to house, give him soup and bread and they tell him legend of silver ghost and red tree. Only they argue and can't agree how story go. There is red tree and there is silver ghost, and some children and menfolk go missing in woods, and some cattle and plants die. This much they all agree. But rest? Oh boy! One say silver ghost live in red tree. One say, no, you fool, red tree grow fruit to protect from silver ghost. Another one say, you both wrong, silver ghost guard red tree. This all go on very long time and woodcutter bored. Also, soup is no good."'

I've just realised I've picked out the two comically delivered monologues. I can assure you the rest will make you very uneasy.

So masterfully told are all these tales that only towards the end of each does it dawn on you where it is heading and whence it came: how expertly its outcome has been presaged. Within every one lies this moment of minor satori and that's very clever, Mr. Fowler's particularly so. All of which can be said for the book as a whole, but I see I must say no more.

So pull up a chair - any one from this spot-varnish cover, each as individualistic is its occupant - and prepare to be deeply unsettled by cats and by clocks and by things which are Not Quite Right.

The candles are burning low now.

But you may have just enough time.

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