Mike Russell gets his message right when he labels everything as “strange.” It’s definitely the best way of describing this collection of short stories…
“Discover the mystery of the two-headed rose and many more Strange Secrets in this new collection of extraordinary stories by Mike Russell. ‘It can’t be real.’ ‘But it is.’ Strange Secrets invites you to discover the magical and the marvellous. Startlingly inventive and constantly entertaining, these unique, vital and vividly realised stories will take you to places you have never been before.”
Genre: Surreal fiction (is that a genre?!)
Year of Publication: 2018
Publisher: Strange Books
Page Count: 156
Spoiler-Free Review: Yes
The premise of Strange Secrets is that we are presented with a series of eight short stories, each of which doesn’t directly relate to one another but ties in with the common theme of strangeness. We never know quite what is real and what is not, and Mike Russell takes us on a journey through situations where we are left questioning everything.
For me, the strength of Russell’s writing is shown most clearly in Missing Persons Part I and II; the story that stands in the centre of the collection. This story follows Tina, a young girl who becomes increasingly invested in the mystery of the multicoloured wardrobes that keep appearing around her town. Wherever she looks, people are having wardrobes delivered and then immediately taken back to a mysterious depot that is hiding something deeply sinister. Typical to the collection, the story begins relatively calmly and escalates, however even more so than in the other stories in the collection I found myself completely drawn in straight away. The trance-like state that Tina’s mother is introduced to us in as she watches a continuous stream of wardrobes opening on TV is so bizarre, and leads us to wonder why it is that she is so transfixed. In many ways, it was actually quite unsettling, as this behaviour is treated as though it is completely standard with no explanation of the mundane and peculiar which contrast each other. For me, this story was by far the most complex, and potentially the one that I felt I could understand Russell’s underlying metaphors in the most. I keep finding myself thinking about this story a few weeks after reading it: everything was so surreal and Russell somehow managed to use wardrobes (of all things!) to push a lot of boundaries in his storytelling.
The Forest was another stand-out story from the collection, following a couple as they go for a wander in a nearby forest but find themselves trapped in two alternate versions where they can hear but not see one another. In some ways, this tale was the most whimsical of the collection, maintaining a fairytale-esque feel in its forest setting with the unexplainable events and sinister undertones. Although it is difficult to fully invest yourself in characters when there is such a short word count, I did find that I kept wanting to know what would happen to these two, and by this point (being the last story) I was fully expecting something completely out of the ordinary, which was what I got! Russell’s imagery was vivid, and the change of setting definitely brought this out.
Although I really enjoyed several of the stories, there were a few that went completely over my head, which unfortunately meant that my experience with the collection as a whole was slightly tainted. I think that my problem was that some of the ideas were so obscure that the ambiguous endings meant that I didn’t feel as though I’d been given a resolution. I know that this was often the point, but in some cases the stories were difficult to comprehend and so I was left wondering what they were trying to convey. The Puppeteer, Maps, and The Constantly Empty Pool were good examples of this: each had very abstract ideas that I struggled to understand and therefore to find gripping. Possibly the lack of enjoyment of this is because this area of fiction is slightly outside of what I would usually pick up. I appreciated the imaginative flair but possibly I’m a fan of more clear-cut storylines.
As a whole, I do think this is a good collection of stories. Although I didn’t necessarily “get” some of them and don’t particularly err towards this genre, I definitely think that the uniqueness of these stories sets Russell apart and demonstrates the boundaries that can be pushed and challenged in so few words. I definitely found this collection difficult to review as every single story just screamed two words to me over and over: strange, unsettling. They really do sum up the whole reading experience, so if you’re looking for a read that makes you question everything, this is the one!
My rating: 3/5 stars
Thank you to StrangeBooks for providing me with an e-copy of this collection in exchange for an honest review!
Are you a fan of surreal stories, or do you generally opt for less-ambiguous tales? This was my first venture into short stories for a long time – do you read them much?
Have a beautiful day,