Fiction Reviews

The Best of our Past, the Worst of our Future

(2023) Christi Nogle, Flame Tree Press, £20 / Can$34.95 / US$26.95, hrdbk, 213pp, ISBN 978-1-787-58518-8


Some readers might know Christi Nogle better for her novel Beulah which won the 2022 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. That was about Georgie, an eighteen year old with a gift, or affliction, of being able to see ghosts and who moves to Beulah, Idaho, for a fresh start with her family. But there are ghosts everywhere as she soon finds out.

The Best of Our Past, the Worst of Our Future on the other hand is a collection of eighteen short stories, sixteen of which have been previously published, while two – “Mirrorhouse”, and “The Porches of Our Ears” – are original to this collection. Of the sixteen that were previously published, they appeared in places familiar to writers and readers of horror short fiction, such as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, The Dread Machine and The Wicked Library. Hats off to Nogle for getting a double-whammy for several of her stories by also having them reprinted in Tales to Terrify and Pseudopod.

As you would expect the collection is a mixed bag in terms of subject matter and even genre, with Nogle treating the reader to supernatural horror, psychological horror, ghost stories and even science fiction, but if anything they all share a skewed look at whatever world the story inhabits, and a rich seam of characterisation and voice, with a heavy seasoning of the gothic and the weird harking back to previous female writers in the field such as Shirley Jackson and moving right up beside more contemporary ones such as Lucy A. Synder and Mariana Enriquez. Is it just me, or are the most different, and original, and disturbing stories in recent years coming from female writers, particularly those who don’t write in English like: Enriquez, Karin Tidbeck, Samanta Schweblin, and Trang Thahn Tran. While Nogle is American and writes in English, she certainly belongs in the original and disturbing categories.

Right from the off, in a story called “Unschooled” we are in unfamiliar territory as a young woman goes on the run. She is pregnant, but not with a baby, but with pups. Her family have kept her hidden for years, because they are different, although they can pass as human, but she can’t and now she is alone, but perhaps not for much longer. A strong start to a great collection.

Some of the stories here are very short, such as “You Will Make Me Strong Again” set on an island where the survivor of a plane crash encounters another survivor, or does she, as events take a darker road.

In “Swarm of Pan” a woman is changing, and needs to escape, but is she really running back to herself?

A woman enters her sister’s dream in “I Entered Veda’s Dream”, and is unsure why she is there. Is she dreaming about being in a dream, or has she been implanted into her sister’s dream as part of a medical procedure, or is this an occult ceremony gone wrong? Whatever the reason, she can’t get out of the dream, or make her sister wake up.

The final very short story is “Packet C” where a family find an old make-your-own-medical doll kit in Woolworths, but have they the right instructions, and the right packages to make the organs, and even the right doll, and what are they actually making?

The longer stories concern women on the edge, women abandoned, women imprisoned by place and circumstances, but two stories that really stand out. The first is “Move-in Weekend” where a young woman is preparing to say goodbye to her old life as she moves away to college, interacting with her frail father, and her friends. Throughout the story we are treated to her observations and the horrible images and thoughts that flash through her head, as we gradually realise who she is and what she has done.

Similar layers are peeled back in the second, “Resilience”, where the survivor of a family massacre is finding it hard to engage with her new therapist. Meanwhile at home, in secret, she starts to eat any sort of disgusting food she can find. As her memories come back, the truth about her and those terrible events of long ago are revealed.

While both these two stories use a mixture of thoughts and memories to reveal a horrible truth, many of the other stories begin from simply asking that age-old question “what if?”, and start with a weird hypothesis before venturing into even weirder territory in some of the most original short fiction you will read.

But it is not just the ideas that make this collection stand out, it is the strength of Nogle’s writing from her characterisation, to descriptive powers and the mounting feelings of unease and dread she spins. With some stories, I managed – only just – not to flick to the end to find out what happened, and if it wasn’t too bad for some of the characters. Or was it? Well, there’s only one way to find out…!  Recommended.

Ian Hunter


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