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After reading Gareth L. Powell’s The Last Reef, I didn’t think I’d find another story collection that even came close. I’m happy to say I’m wrong, and Jonathan Oliver’s The Language of Beasts has proven it.
The Language of Beasts is a collection of 17 stories, some reprints and others original, and is just out in hardback. The cover is seductive, as is the writing inside and whilst I intended to read a couple of stories at a time, I found myself binging the entire volume.
Throughout the collection, there are recurring themes of loss, grief, depression and mental health, and in the case of ‘Don’t You Like the Birdman?’, childhood abuse. I would have liked to have seen some kind of prior warning for this particular story even though it’s delicately handled. There are strong ecclesiastical elements in a few of the stories and two of the stories, ‘Raise the Beam High’ and ‘Reel People’ are linked as well as working as standalone pieces, which was very enjoyable.
The characters throughout are very real and I think this is why the collection works so well — at no point am I snapped out of my suspension of disbelief and there are strong anchoring points with those characters. We can all identify with at least one characteristic, so it’s very grounded.
Stories such as ‘White Horse’ slip smoothly between dreamscape and reality with vivid imagery and ‘The Day or the Hour’ (a lesser favourite) has some grotesque descriptions, the choice of words to convey the horror, just wonderful.
My favourite by far is ‘Star Crossed’, a Lovecraftian Romeo and Juliet and it’s such a clever twist on known tropes and characters it really came alive for me. And the eponymous ‘The Language of Beasts’ is almost cinematic in the way it unfolds and leads to its horrifying conclusion:
Those dark, glistening jewels – stomach, kidneys, liver – whispered as they fell. I only caught a few words, but what they conveyed… well, it was profound.
Publication Title: The Language of Beasts Author: Jonathan Oliver Publisher: Black Shuck Books Publication Date: 1st October 2020 Synopsis:
In a slaughterhouse a group of men find they can tell fortunes from entrails; an invisible shark haunts a children’s book author; redemptive magic is discovered in the ancient chalk horse of the Oxfordshire hills; a woman vicar is possessed by the soul of a reactionary priest – in these seventeen stories of the weird, uncanny and fantastical, British Fantasy Award winner Jonathan Oliver takes the reader into imagined lives and worlds. Horrifying, weird and darkly humorous, The Language of Beasts is the first collection of stories from this critically acclaimed editor.