The Measure of Sorrow by J. Ashley-Smith
Publisher: Meerkat Press
Special thanks to Meerkat Press for sending a copy for review.
Shirley Jackson Award-winning author J. Ashley-Smith’s first collection, The Measure of Sorrow, draws together ten new and previously acclaimed stories of dark speculative fiction. In these pages a black reef holds the secret to an interminable coastal limbo; a father struggles to relate to his estranged children in a post-bushfire wilderness; an artist records her last days in conversation with her unborn child; a brother and sister are abandoned to the manifestations of their uncle’s insanity; a suburban neighbourhood succumbs to an indescribable malaise; teenage ravers fall in with an eldritch crowd; a sensitive New Age guy commits a terminal act of passive-aggression; a plane crash opens the door to the Garden of Eden; the new boy in the village falls victim to a fatal ruse; and a husband’s unexpressed grief is embodied in the shadows of a crumbling country barn. Intelligent and emotionally complex, the stories in The Measure of Sorrow elude easy classification, lifting the veil on the wonder and horror of a world just out of true (Goodreads).
The unknown lurks in the dark and lures people in until they’re left with a haze of clouds blocking their clarity. Vulnerable and confused, it strikes and leaves them deeply distraught with unresolved questions swirling in an endless spiral downwards to nowhere. Harrowing yet beautiful, at its core, each short story is connected through the idea of the human condition in the most absurd circumstances that detach from reality.
The author has an exceptional way of manipulating language to engage readers that cannot be described with words; it can only be felt through reading and genuinely feeling what he has to say. The writing is truly captivating and eerie, keeping readers on their toes at all times, and making them wait for the storm to strike. No matter how short each story was, they stood out in their own way as each one was beautifully written with its own distinctive realm of absurdity.
The first story, “The Further Shore,” is undoubtedly my favourite. It perfectly balances the otherworldly and mysterious tone while grounding it through a character’s confusion and clockwork existence in a place that looks like Earth but feels off. Readers follow a man with a very mundane life in his beach home. He wakes up, collects seashells, eats, sleeps, and repeats this routine every single day. Every so often, his two roommates disappear and are replaced with new roommates out of nowhere. This is normal to this character until they disappear and no one arrives to replace them. He’s stuck in a limbo and biding time through a monotonous routine based on pure survival. I really enjoyed this story as I thought the concept of limbo and exploration of a person’s thoughts about the environment was intriguing.
Another one of my favourites is “Our Last Meal” where a young man’s girlfriend breaks up with him, and he spirals into madness. The man begins to obsessively give what little he has to offer to the creatures of the forest his girlfriend’s cabin lies in and lets rodents infest the cabin and, eerily enough, allows leeches to drain his blood. This story is about the side effects of constantly pleasing people. When you please others and never care about your own well-being, it will push you beyond your limits and ultimately cause you to lose yourself in the process. The story is definitely overly dramatic, but it uses this element to its advantage to elevate the story by making it captivating and unique. This stood out to me.
Although I honestly did not understand a few of the stories, I liked how they all had a sense of ambiguity that allowed readers to freely interpret them. With enthralling writing that compels readers to keep turning page after page, I highly recommend this book to everyone and especially those who enjoy eccentric and eerie stories that will keep you up at night!
Reviewed by Mika K.