Friday, October 1, 2021

A Trick of the Shadow, by R. Ostermeier

Broodcomb Press, 2020
193 pp

paperback (#163/200)

Thanks to some of my like-minded goodreads friends, I discovered Broodcomb Press last month, and after seeing the rave ratings for R. Ostermeier's A Trick of the Shadow,  I picked up a copy.  As soon as I'd finished that one, I went back and picked up three more books and just this morning added a fourth.  I'm not generally a bulk buyer like that, but after reading this book and the author's Upmorchard, I knew I had to have more.  All of the stories in A Trick of the Shadow take place at a location known only as "The Peninsula," which in the first tale, "The Tantony Pig," is described as "a place that put the notion of ordinariness in doubt."  As I read through the rest of the tales in this volume, that particular description became somewhat of an understatement, as what goes on in this place often defies any attempt at rational explanation.  As the dustjacket blurb notes, this collection of stories 
"draws predominantly on the region's folklore and history, yet also includes first-hand accounts of contemporary disquiet."

In short, it's my kind of book.  

 " A Tantony Pig" dives right into weirdsville with a story that Ostermeier notes was inspired by Machen's short story "The Ritual,"  which the author says was "filtered through watching the version in Julian Butler and Mark Goodall's Holy Terrors."  [As an aside,  I immediately looked for and found a copy of Holy Terrors on ebay and am eagerly awaiting its arrival in just four days if all goes well.]  The narrator of this story had been to the Peninsula earlier while "researching the links between psychogeography and conversion disorders in closed communities;" he's back now after his supervisor, a certain Professor Barlik became concerned for his student's mental health.  [As another aside, Barlik ("Barley")  will feature prominently in Ostermeier's next book, Upmorchard, but more on that in my next post.]  Barlik tells him of a "coven of boys" in the small coastal village of Annesdock who at "certain times of the year" play a game at dusk "for occult reasons" and then "disperse," vanishing "into the mist" if anyone comes near.  As the narrator will later say, this village "spooked" him, having experienced "an event ordinary and known" which turned sinister when the shadows lengthened."  Debt to Machen acknowledged, "A Tantony Pig" is the perfect appetite whetter for the rest of the stories in this collection.  It also spooked me to no end.  In "Finery" a "seller-of-woven things"  who is also a fortune-teller and a clothes maker has a following of women who buy her dresses.  Instead of choosing a dress, "the dress found you."  How this is so I will not say.  " Object" is another excursion into creepytown as a young man is given an opportunity to review "amateur or touring theatre" for the local newspaper.  One particular play, A Circus Mirror,"  performed by an out-of-town troupe at the local theatre, stays on his mind well after the performance, and comes back to haunt him after he receives a strange gift as a thank you.   "The Bearing" has much more of a folk-horror feel, centering on a ritual to celebrate the founding of the village of Tinton.  There are two stories about that: the first, the official version in which the owners of the tin mines in the area brought in the money to build the cottages to house the workers that came looking for work, and second, the local folklore which tells of the first cottages having been built after "seven coffins were dragged during the night over the moor by seven mysterious black goats." At dawn the goats laid down between the "two sunken tors," six dying and the seventh killed for its meat.   At present the ritual is carried out by selected townspeople rather than goats.  And that's all I will say about this story, except that this one chilled me to the bone.  

from Pinterest

I've skipped around here as far as the actual table of contents goes, because there are three particular eerie stories that are linked to one particular location near Cubton, the Mosk House, so named because of the scientist who had once lived there, a Doctor Ernst Moskovitch, whose "work with minds and the reputedly brutal operations he used to perform: operations denounced as occult." Each occurs during a different time period; the first of these is "The Chair." When a family (Paul, Mari and eleven year-old daughter Ingrit) buys this house that had "once belonged to a scientist," Paul discovers that a chair, "a creature of metal, leather, with brass lengths like gilt bones strengthening the arms," he had seen when they'd first viewed the house is still there.  He is fascinated by the chair, which as he discovers serves as the mechanism for opening a secret room, small enough that only a child might access it, furnished only with a bed, with walls filled with strange writings.  Trying to figure out what the room was used for becomes sort of an obsession with Paul, and Ingrit is more than happy to help him.  In "The Intruder" Wolfgang Eck wants to do something about all of the extra fat he's put on, and opts for the "less dangerous version" of bariatric surgery, the gastric band. Before he can do so, however, he must attend a series of ten counseling sessions which explored other options such as nutrition and "healthy eating."   At some point he overhears a conversation about "the organic method," but is told that it's still in "trial phase so access is limited." Eventually he is accepted for the surgery, but given what happens afterward, he probably should have opted for the healthy eating.   The last story set in Mosk House is the novella-length "Bird-hags," which the author warns "might not be for you."  Looking back in time, as a child Owain Ockmarsh suffered through terrible night terrors, and was fortunate enough to obtain a temporary place at Mosk House where he was under the care of Doctor Moskovitch himself.  If he was found "suitable," Owain would have an operation that would permanently cure him of his sleep disorder; first though, his sleep would be monitored and recorded; hypnosis would allow his dreams to "breathe."  And again, not another word on this one except that while it was truly beyond disturbing, it was most definitely for me. 

Considering I had absolutely no idea that either this book or this publisher even existed, I feel incredibly lucky to have discovered both.  A Trick of the Shadow is for me the new standard of "weird," meaning that with this book the bar has certainly been raised in terms of any modern weird fiction I will read in the future.   I would read a story and then just sit and think about it for a very long time; I had to switch from reading this in late-night quiet to brightest day because all of the thinking was keeping me awake.  It just wouldn't let go.   The influences of other writers can certainly be felt in this volume,  but this is truly an original collection that once read, will never be forgotten.  An amazing effort, and a book I more than highly recommend.   I loved it. 


  1. Replies
    1. Definitely! As in curl up with a blanket in the dark with only a book light to read by.

  2. This was a tremendous read, and your review of it is fantastic. The sense of accumulating dread in these stories is magnificent. Like you, I now want to buy everything this press has published. Wow...

    1. Thanks! Upmorchard is also great. I just got another Broodcomb book in the mail yesterday -- The Night of Turns by Edita Bikker. There was also included in my package a mysterious postcard from Broodcomb of a book called Ovinnik, by someone named Lenford K. Smith. Weirdly enough, I went to Broodcomb and there is no mention of the book at all.

  3. Currently discovering this author with the collection "Therapeutic Tales" and was also blown away, I also want to check out all their other collections! I would recommend Attila Veres which to me gives off similar vibes

  4. I love the Broodcomb books. Somehow I missed out on grabbing a copy of the latest, Nocebo, but I noticed there will be a paperback copy out soon. And thanks for the recommendation; Attila Veres' The Black Maybe was my favorite single-author collection of 2022. I have a post here about that book -- sooooo good!


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