I hadn’t read any Angela Slatter before this, but I certainly will again. Volume XI in the reliable Spectral Press chapbook series, “Home and Hearth” is one of those short stories that sticks.
We meet Caroline, a single mother welcoming home her teenaged son Simon. He’s been in custody for the duration of a deeply unpleasant trial, and despite him not facing sentence, Caroline finds it difficult to put the tough times behind them. She wants to want him back and be a good mother, but the ghost of Simon’s actions – and indeed her own – will not be silenced.
Overall, I found this quite a wrenching piece. It’s exquisitely told, with keen attention to detail, especially regarding the sinister awkwardness of Simon’s return to “home and hearth”. The characters are convincing and Caroline’s sense of shame – amplified when forced out in public to buy groceries – also makes us squirm beneath the pity and curious distaste of others. We’re under the microscope with her, but at the same time, aren’t quite sure what dark secrets she might also harbour. These are deftly woven in through back story, and when presented alongside moments of familiar domesticity, it could be happening to any of us.
Caroline’s torn sense of right and wrong carries this tale, along with the sense of innocence lost. Of course any parent wants to protect their child, but what if such maternal instinct may have terrible consequences for others? Caroline has to reconcile loyalty, love, guilt and responsibility as the plot glides effortlessly to a gut-punch conclusion.
Many horror stories conclude with either triumph or a gleeful descent into bleak. But like many of my favourites, this doesn’t fit into either camp. It’s poignant, brutal and concrete – the way it needed to be – and I couldn’t help but be satisfied despite the heartache.
I enjoyed “Home and Hearth” enough to read it twice, and found that it rewarded the extra time with a new experience of grim hindsight. This chapbook certainly does the Spectral brand and chapbook series proud, delivering the kind of quality that makes me renew a subscription without hesitation.