Book Review: A Sliver of Darkness by C. J. Tudor
How vanishingly thin is the line between mystery and horror, as C. J. Tudor so expertly proves in this absorbing collection of ten short stories. Written to fill a gap in her publication schedule—after she realized that she hated the novel she was working on at the time—A Sliver of Darkness is a neat sampler of weird and thrilling fiction, with the supernatural rubbing shoulders with more straightforward crime.
Perhaps the most straightforward story here is “Runaway Blues,” the tale of a young couple in the 1970s who buck contemporary trends to frequent a jazz club instead:
The Blue Flamingo was the name of the club, if you’re asking. Which you’re not. But that’s kind of how storytelling works, isn’t it? Like a one-sided conversation. I ramble on, you listen. And if I lose your interest, well, you can just turn the page or close the book.
You won’t though. You’ll want to hear this story. And I need to tell it. Because I’ve not told anyone else, not in over fifty years. And that’s a long time to nurse a horror.
As told by the male half of that couple decades after the events he details happened, the story is a tale of criminal passions that spill over into violence, as a talented jazz man attempts to deal with his broken heart, dragging his young listeners almost reluctantly into his orbit. The twist in the tale is reminiscent of works by Stephen King or, even more closely, by Roald Dahl when writing for adults.
The rest of the collection ventures further from real-world crime. Several other stories merely dabble with the supernatural, as in “Gloria”—named after the memorable debt collector from Ms. Tudor’s second novel, The Hiding Place—or in “The Lion At The Gate,” with its arguably unreliable young narrator. Others plunge wholeheartedly into the terrors lurking behind the normal trappings of civilization, whether it be via an exploration of the abandoned apartment building of “The Block” or a grudgingly won examination of the idyllic vacation featured in “Dust.”
Perhaps my favorite stories here were the ones that fully embraced apocalyptic futures, and how our flawed protagonists attempted to solve the mysteries that beset them. “Final Course” tells the story of a father and child invited to a remote but well-provisioned estate after the world is beset with darkness, with terrifying umbral creatures hunting under the cover of perpetual gloom. Harry, their host, is the father’s old friend from university, and has invited several other of their uni mates to a getaway celebration. But when one of them disappears, our protagonist will have to figure out the secrets of the estate, as well as a way to protect himself and his daughter from the horrors they uncover.
“End of the Liner,” the opening story, also features an unwitting sleuth. Leila has lived on an ocean liner for the last fifty years in the wake of climate collapse, and is shocked at the news her closest friend has for her over breakfast one morning, regarding the discovery of a dead body:
“Suicide?” she queried.
“Well, that’s it,” Mirabelle whispered. “Rumor is, no. Murder.”
Leila’s eyes widened. “Murder?”
Mirabelle nodded enthusiastically. “Stabbed.”
Stabbed. No wonder the dining room was buzzing. A murder on board. In fifty years, there had only been one other murder, when a passenger had strangled his wife after an argument. Of course, that was the only one officially documented. There were rumors that there had been more. It wasn’t exactly difficult to dispose of a body on a ship. So, to leave one to be discovered in a swimming pool was strange.
Each of the ten stories comes with a brief but lively introduction by Ms. Tudor, discussing the inspiration behind the tale it leads into. The introductions are a fascinating window into the thought processes of a working author, and greatly enrich the reading experience. If you’re a fan of her work, this book is a can’t-miss. If you’re new to her oeuvre, as I was before reading this collection, then this is a terrific gateway to her other novels. I certainly want to read more!